Monday, April 19, 2010

Sleeping in the Swamp: Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin

If you travel by canoe through the river swamps of Louisiana, you may very well grow uneasy as the sun is going down.  You look around for a site—a place to sleep, a place to cook.  There is no terra firma. . . . You study the dusk for some dark cap of uncovered ground.  Seeing one at last, you occupy it, limited though it may be. . . . You have established yourself in much the same manner that the French established New Orleans.  So what does it matter if your leg spends the night in the water.
--John McPhee, The Control of Nature

For more than eighteen miles, the columns holding up Interstate 10 in Louisiana rise out of a swamp.  Not just any swamp, mind you, but the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp—the largest swamp in the United States, covering a third of the total land mass of Louisiana.  The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, as this portion of I-10 is known, is reputed to be the tenth longest bridge in the world.  Our goal was Butte La Rose, from which we would travel down back roads to find the houseboat where we were to stay, moored in the swamp, for four days.

At the Butte La Rose exit, we pulled up to the Atchafalaya Tourist Center for directions.  The woman at the information desk drew out a horseshoe route.  She marked an X where we should follow the road to the right, past the car wash in Butte La Rose.  From there, we were to proceed over the pontoon bridge and turn right onto Henderson Levee Road.  She gave us coupons for free hush puppies at a local restaurant and lit up when suggesting we shouldn’t miss the Saturday morning dancing in Breaux Bridge:  from behind the counter, she wasn’t able to see we owned two pairs of left feet.

Butte La Rose loomed large on our road map, but not so large on the ground.  We went straight past the car wash, turned around, and missed it once again.  We turned around once more and stopped where a lone man stood staring at his front lawn.  “You’re way far off,” he said, pointing us back the way we’d first come.  He nodded toward a ditch and said, “Waiting for it to dry so I can dig.”  It seemed certain he would keep a close eye on it throughout the day.

Not long after we left him, we found our turn and the pontoon bridge and headed down the levee road.  The sun shone on the flat, low panorama, the only rise the levee alongside us.  At the sign for Houseboat Adventures, we turned right and drove atop the levee, where we seemed suspended in midair.  Only when we edged forward did the road appear again, leading down to the dock.

Our friends in New Orleans had seen to it we were well supplied:  a battery-powered lantern bright enough to read by, two comfortable pillows, an ice chest, Ziploc bags in various sizes, and, best of all, a container of home-brewed concentrated decaf.  They took us to Rouse’s Supermarket to stock up on provisions—I did my best to keep from piling into our cart all manner of mouth-watering Louisiana specialties I’d never seen before.  We were to be grateful daily for our friends’ eminently practical suggestions and for their patience while we searched through Rouse’s vast aisles. 

At dockside, our host and his son loaded a handcart with all our worldly goods and deposited us on the houseboat, along with a laundry basket full of clean sheets and towels.  We sat on the front porch of “Le Bon Temp Bateau” as our host hooked us to his boat and towed us into the swamp.   He secured the houseboat to two trees and showed us how to run the generator and start the little boat that would be our means of transportation for four days.  He gave brief descriptions of routes to take, running his finger across a faded map on the bedroom wall, mimicked the calls of male and female barred owls for us, and went on his way.  Whatever he thought of two northerners putting themselves in this position, he kept to himself.

Like our weather in New Orleans, the days were sunny and temperate, the nights comfortably cool.  We were a few weeks ahead of the mosquitoes, the moon was waxing to full, and, as we were there midweek, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  We settled in and took our first boat trip out.  Around a stand of trees, a left turn at the pipeline channel, and we were immediately rewarded with the sight of a dozen little blue herons fishing in a shallow cove.  Back at the houseboat, we carried tumblers of gin & tonic to our front porch, grilled a simple meal, and watched the sun go down on the swamp.

Our host’s mimic of the barred owls was so good, we recognized the female mating cry (“like a strangled monkey”) right away.  We caught a glimpse of her in the dusky light as she lifted off a branch toward a male’s answering call.  Thanks to the loan of the lantern, we had no need to run the noisy generator.  (The houseboat’s plumbing was powered by battery, and, while it needed recharging daily, we could do that while we were out in the swamp.)  We sat in the cool quiet, reading by lantern-light or watching the moon rise from the porch, until we turned in for the night.

We would have been happy enough with our boat trips and whiling away evenings on our porch, but there was a world around us about which we knew nothing, and we had friends here, as in New Orleans, who were generous and knowledgeable guides.  For our second day, they proposed a lunch of boiled crawfish and “the best onion rings you’ll ever eat” and, for the following day, a trip to Avery Island and dinner in Breaux Bridge at Café des Amis (about all of which more will be said in subsequent posts).

The next morning, after a sunny start, an exquisite mist enveloped the swamp.  We watched as the mist slowly slid out again, the water shimmered, and ghostly swamp trees regained their shapes.

After lunch, we had our first look at our friends’ camp.  The camp, a lovingly renovated house in a beautiful woodland setting, sits on the bank of the Atchafalaya River, which we could view comfortably from the vantage point of a huge screen porch.

The Atchafalaya River is no minor creek.  It long ago captured the Red River, and the Army Corps of Engineers is in a constant battle to prevent it from swallowing the Mississippi whole.  As McPhee writes:
Among navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it just lies there quiet and smooth.  It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting—waiting to outwit the Corps of Engineers—and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall.  
We were back dockside by early evening.  The low sun bathed the swamp in gleaming late-day light.  With the pipeline channel and the levee as our axes of orientation, we ventured down a side-channel, part of a series of canals that, if followed further, might have taken us to the pontoon bridge at Butte La Rose.  Along the way, we spotted little blue herons and egrets in the swamp's watery margins.  Back at the houseboat, we were content on our porch swings, watching the sun go down and making another simple meal, this time with storied boudin sausages as our centerpiece—though only after full instructions so they wouldn't fall apart on the grill.

That night, we got a call from our friends (even out in the swamp, it seems, cell phones work):  “How would you like to stay at the camp tomorrow and we’ll stay on the houseboat?”  We quizzed them:  did they really want to swap their beautiful camp for our simple houseboat?  They assured us they did, and, as this solved the problem of how we greenhorns would find our way back to the houseboat after an evening out, we readily agreed.  We proposed they come to our place for cocktails before our outing so we could show them where things were and how they worked.

The next afternoon, after a day of land-based activities, we gathered up our friends and rode out to what we now felt was our piece of the swamp.  As we passed through the pipeline channel, one of our friends pointed to a tree.  We marveled at her ability to spot a barred owl in the camouflage of bark.  It perched, sleepy-eyed, flying off only when it chose.  We arrived at the houseboat, gave a quick tour, sat out on the porch, and listened to the swamp.  As we had, our friends found it hard to leave.

After a splendid evening out, we left our friends at the dock.  As we drove away, we remarked that, while the sky was clear, the moon had not yet shown its face.  We were glad we had cell phone contact, just in case, but no emergency call came.  We fed their dog Sammy, turned in, and, as instructed, made a point to rise in time to watch dawn come to the river.  As the light turned pink, we saw great flocks of ibis cross the river from their nighttime resting place to wherever they intended to spend the day.  At daylight, a Carolina wren made itself known in the woods, and here and there a cardinal flitted into view.  We called our friends to touch base.  Only then did we learn that, without the moon to aid them, even they’d had trouble finding the houseboat in the dark.

We decided to have breakfast out before returning to the boat.  We headed back to Breaux Bridge, but Café des Amis wasn’t open for breakfast that day, so we went on down the street.  Unless you’ve a hankering to while away an hour on a beautiful morning waiting for the treat of perfectly cooked Tater Tots straight from the freezer to your plate, it’s a place that can be missed.  No matter, the folks there were friendly.  We cleaned our plates and went on our way.

The next day was our last; we had time for one more turn in our boat.  More comfortable now in our orientation, we ventured further, our goal to get to the cypress forest.  We traveled along the levee edge as far as we had time for, turned into the trees, and floated amongst them.  In rhythm with ripples on the water, Spanish moss wavered in the breeze.  Deep shafts of sunlight threw the trees into high relief.  A turtle ahead of us scrambled to dive from its post on a stump; a great egret took flight in the distance.  We came back into open water reluctantly, with wistful glances at the dreamscape we’d left behind.

Back on I-10, we thought about the watery connections among the swamp, the Atchafalaya River, and New Orleans.  McPhee wrote:  “The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans.”  As a result, the swamp, “this most apparently natural of natural worlds, this swamp of the anhinga, swamp of the nocturnal bear—lies between walls, like a zoo.  It is utterly dependent on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose decisions at Old River can cut it dry or fill it with water and silt.”

No matter what your thoughts about the Corps’ work, McPhee offers a clear-eyed view:
The Army engineers did not pick this fight. When it started, they were still in France. The guide levees, ring levees, spillways, and floodways that dangle and swing from Old River are here because people, against odds, willed them to be here.  Or, as the historian Albert Cowdrey expresses it in the introduction to “Land’s End,” the Corps’ official narrative of its efforts in southern Louisiana, “Society required artifice to survive in a region where nature might reasonably have asked a few more eons to finish a work of creation that was incomplete.”

This is the second of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana. To read the first post, about New Orleans, click here.  To read the third post, about Louisiana rookeries in spring, click here.  To read the last post, about (more) good eats and good music, click here.


  1. Eerie, mysterious and quite wonderful. That is the world conjured by your words and pictures.

  2. Hi R.A.

    With Live Oaks all around what new meanings to Raining Acorns you must now have!

    It must have been thirty years ago, while visiting in-laws in Baton Rogue, that the Mississippi had a great flood. It was all over the news with images not only of the floods upstream, but the accounts of how all of the levees were directing the waters downstream towards Louisiana and the Gulf. Since New Orleans sits below the river, there was quite the worry in Jackson Square.

    Baton Rogue itself, if I recall correctly, sits high and dry on the crest of an old and natural riverbank levee. To the west on I 90 was the bridge which crossed the dry depression called "Old and Lost Rivers", the path the old Miss took out towards West Texas in a previous meander.

    Towards the head of the Atchafalaya Basin on a bend of the Mississippi sits a town called Morganza, and here is where a 'Fuse Dam" is situated. A simple dynamite blast here could divert the river from one channel to another saving New Orleans and flooding Houston or vice versa.

    The exceptionally high floods of that year beat the Army Corps to the punch and had broken through the dam. The TV showed a constant stream of railroad cars all loaded with stones and dirt and sand, old cars and building rubble and other rip rap backing up to the hole in the dam and going into that ragin' Cajun gash that was the fuse fizzling. They didn't just dump their load and return for more, the whole train up to the engine was simple pushed over the edge and into the river. One after another they came. In the end the dam held and New Orleans was saved for another day and dance with Katrina.

    There was a good deal of talk about how the Atchafalaya had silted up so much that in the future it might not function like the great safety sponge it once was. On a subsequent trip to a fishing camp down one of the levees I was indeed struck at how muddy the water was. I used a fly rod (which uses a very thick line to cast the very small fly) and was told that no leader was necessary. The fish apparently couldn't see the line. I didn't catch a single fish, but watched as schools came by sucking air. Mullet, said my host.

    I also carried a bird book with me on that trip and at the Henderson Bayou entrance to Avery Island was a wooden decked eatery, with a large inner room the walls of which were decorated with mounted water birds. It was quite the natural history museum and one could see up close and personal the posed bodies of the birds of the area. So I made the circuit looking each one up in my bird book.

    Most were straightforward, but then I came to one which must have been an alien. Gooselike, but with prominent grasping toenails, it was mounted on a tree branch. I asked about it and one by one all of the locals simple shook their heads and looked into their cold beers. Finally an old gent volunteered that it was a "Wood Duck". Are you sure, I asked, showing him the picture of the Wood Duck I knew? Yep, he was sure and went on to tell how the Louisiana wood ducks eat oysters and got bigger than their Yankee cousins, more like geese. Taste good, too he said, particularly with Boudin and sausage.

    Thanks for your wonderful memoir. It does bring back the memories.


  3. RA - You're on a roll - I can't wait for your next post!

    This is such a lovely account of a trip that would not ordinarily appeal to me - you weave a spell with your words and those hauntingly beautiful photos of the swamp. Now I'm tempted.

    And what a charming addition to your post from bb!

    April 20, 2010 2:59 PM

  4. Thanks for giving me such a wonderful feel for the swamps in Louisiana without having to leave the comfort and safety of my Lazboy and London room. I am not sure if I could cope with the prospect of four nights in a swamp in the middle of nowhere.Being a not much travelled Brit I am used to having the prospect of help or saftey not too far away on this relatively crowded Isle. I'm not sure a mobile would suffice. But clearly making the break brought great rewards.Thanks for sharing them and all the pics. I have only one real hankering re travel and that is to see the wonderous variety of place and nature that is the US.Thanks, RA, for providing a beautifully crafted travelogue that adds to my life.

  5. What an adventure! I really enjoyed being transported to LA by your words, as I am, like hamsterfree, more of an accidental tourist, who also prefers the safety of terra firma! The houseboat adventure sounds like a wonderful way to see that part of Louisiana.

    The photos, as always, added to the memoir immensely. I can't wait to see where you venture next~

  6. i LURKED in LOUISIANA for a period of time in 1995/96. it was a hazy time in my life but i DO remember the outskirts of HOUMA and being there for a while and at one point feeling INTENSE HUNGER and being given something that resembled FOOD by a teenager (teenager is the scariest word in the English language, by the way) and... i lose track of my POINT which is BOAT TRAVEL is far better than BIRKENSTOCK TRAVEL hands down.

  7. This was a Huckleberry Finn adventure complete with a non-threatening "Injun Joe" character to demonstrate the Barred Owl's calls.

    Your cypress photos bring the swamp right onto the desktop and I can almost smell the musty fragrance wafting in.

    My favorite of all the wonderful bird pics is that of the Carolina Wren singing its heart out for you.

    Looking forward to your next Louisiana posts and more tales and pictures of a fascinating part of America.

  8. Great tale of our wonderful week! I'm looking forward to more chapters!

  9. Sue--some of the cypress shots are simply exquisite. While you were here relaxing in our wonderful South Louisiana, I had no idea you were working so hard. Can't wait to see you again next spring. Maybe a trip to the Gulf of Mexico where you see the likes of black-necked stilts and American Avocets wading in the muddy surf would thrill your creative side enough to post again.

  10. A belated thank you to all for writing.

    Welcome, JeNNY, and to you and BB: thanks so much for passing on your own LA & swamp adventures--worth a post of their own.

    Hamsterfree: Always a pleasure to get the perspective from across the pond.

    Welcome to K & M: Thanks so much for making our trip such an excellent adventure, and may the good times continue to roll!

    To cybersr, WOS and Carol-Ann: Thank you, as always, for your comments--so glad you enjoyed your virtual trip to the swamp!

  11. Hi,
    loved the description of the swamp. Am thinking of doing the same in late June. When do the mosquitos come?


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