I’ve been to the “Crescent City” more times than I can count, having worked for the Jazz & Heritage Festival for many years in the past (read my story Two Steppin’ & Pussy Poppin‘). Finally, on this last trip, I had time to explore more than music and food.
I’ve always had bayou fantasies – juju, alligators and Spanish moss – so I took a swamp tour.
(Photo of an enormous rattlesnake really close to the boat on our swamp tour. Photo by Lisa Alpine.)
About 20% of New Orleans’ is still undeveloped wetlands, and there are many ways to meet the Louisiana Bayou. I arranged a Honey Island Swamp Tour with Cajun Encounters. The price of the two-hour tour ($56) included pick-up near my AirBnB and in less than an hour, I was transported from the hubbub of the French Quarter to the quiet bayou backwaters.
The Honey Island Swamp, located in the eastern portion of St. Tammany parish in Louisiana, is considered to be the most pristine swampland remaining in the United States.
Captain Tom was our tour guide. He shook hands with each of us as we stepped aboard a custom-made 22-passenger flat-bottom boat. The smaller sized, quiet boat can fit through narrow passages in the swamp foliage so that we could get closer to wildlife.
Capt. Tom had the classic shock of thick black Cajun hair and a gentle French patois accent. His twinkling blue eyes, soft southern drawl, and ruddy outdoor looks had the ladies looking sideways at him as they found places to sit.
The bayou water was a chocolate syrup shade of brown. We cruised forward and within a minute, Capt. Tom caught our attention with an “Up there to the left, ya’ll,” as he pointed to where a garfish had just broken the water’s glassy surface. Garfish are ugly and prehistoric looking with their bony appearance, but their sweet white meat makes them a desirable catch. We were excited by the sight of a garfish and Capt. Tom was excited by visions of it laid out as dinner that night.
His enthusiasm rubbed off. Soon even the most subdued, bored-looking tourist was hanging over the boat whenever Capt. Tom pointed to something flying overhead or sleeping on a log. Which was about every five seconds. My head was craning left and right keeping up with the plethora of wildlife sightings.
As Capt. Tom spun yarns about his life on the bayou, he also pulled up nets to show us blue crabs, and poked sticks at the openings of gator dens. Then he pulled out a bag of marshmallows and tossed them into the water. American alligators, the only kind in Louisiana, love marshmallows and swam right up to the side of the boat to scarf them.
The larger, more dignified gators (8 to 12 feet long) continued to bask on fallen logs, but the little guys (2 to 3 feet long) who chased the marshmallows were cute. And there were lots of them.
One quiet backwater cove was a perfect painting tableaux of cypress knees (the tree’s complex root system) crowding the banks, web-like Spanish moss hanging to the water’s edge, and a half dozen gators sunning themselves on the muddy crescent beach. The gators kept one eye on us, remaining perfectly still, jaws gaping open. Captain Tom informed us that gators dissipate heat through their mouths.
The iridescent blue glint of a kingfisher skimming over the water led my eye to a delicate orange spider lily blossom punctuating the shades of verdant green vegetation. A massive blue heron winged across the water, alerting us to his presence with a croak-honk call. Cautious snapping turtles slid off logs, roots and branches when we passed, sinking quickly out of sight.
The only sign of man in this section of bayou were quaint dilapidated backwoods fishing shacks draped with fishing nets, gator trap lines hung over the water, and an occasional oil and gas well sunk into the swamp.
Capt. Tom shared his potpourri of knowledge with us about the riches of his beloved swamp. He comes from a long line of trappers and knows the waterways like the lines on the palm of his hand. His vignettes were peppered with cooking recipes using the ingredients provided by the environment. A patch of blackberries overhanging the water’s edge inspired a recitation for blackberry dumplings. He encouraged us to reach out and pick a handful to eat right then. They were ripe and juicy.
Tom has worked as a guide for over two decades. His knowledge of the region has been enhanced by a growing environmental concern. Cajun Encounters’ goal is having people experience a trip with a Cajun friend who recounts stories of the culture and environment of the natural Bayou.
Due to the continuing leveeing of the Mississippi River, 21 square miles of wetlands vanish every year. This precious ecosystem is quietly disappearing. “We have the unique opportunity to tell the story of how the Estuary used to be, what has changed and what needs to be done to protect it,” Captain Tom says. All the boat captains are trained to educate tourists on the current state of the estuary and the need to save it, while meeting their expectations of entertainment and gator sightings.
Honey Island Swamp is one of the least-altered river swamps in the United States. Considered by many to be one of the most pristine swampland habitats in the United States, the Honey Island Swamp covers an area that is over 20 miles (30 km) long and nearly 7 miles (10 km) across, with 34,896 of its 70,000 acres (280 km²) government sanctioned as permanently protected wildlife area. It provides shelter for over 700 species of wildlife including shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, redfish, bald eagles, osprey, brown pelicans, Louisiana black bear, dolphins, minks, white-tailed deer, snapping turtles, diamondbacks and the American alligator. This swamp is also the home of the legendary Honey Island Swamp monster, which has from time to time been known as the “Tainted Keitre”.
I learn not only about the natural history, environmental issues, and legendary monsters on this thorough tour, but also the history of its human inhabitants. The Cajuns are descendants of French colonists who, more than 350 years ago, settled in what are now the Canadian maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They called their home “l’Acadie” and they were known as Acadiens. “Cajun” is a corruption of the anglicized word, “Acadian”.
They were cruelly expelled from Canada when the British took over that territory in the 18th century. Thousands of Cajuns settled among the swamps of South Louisiana during the past two hundred years. They were hunters and fishermen, boat builders, farmers, and breeders of quarter horses. Their boisterous food and music reflect their attitude of “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (Let the good times roll) and has always been a part of their basic philosophy.
Lacking formal education, they lived close to the land, intermarried, and retained their customs, religion and provincial form of the French language. Today, nearly one million people of Cajun or mixed Cajun blood live in Louisiana.
Once isolated and ridiculed as a kind of marshland bumpkin speaking a “fractured French,” Cajuns have come to be respected for their folklore and wisdom. Cajun restaurants and Cajun music have acquired a national prestige. All over South Louisiana, the fiddlers and accordianists are playing uplifting tunes. Cajun chefs, painters, quilt-makers and folklorists are emerging from the swamp. One clear example is Paul Prudhomme, who was raised in a rural bayou cabin along with 10 other children. He has become famous for introducing the glories of crawfish etouffee and blackened redfish to sophisticated gourmands around the world.
As we absorbed this historic information, the southern lilt of Capt. Tom’s voice changed and he enthusiastically advised us to eat the “good fixins’” – the extras cooked in the crawfish boil: elephant garlic, potatoes, and celery (but watch out, because it absorbs the hot peppers). As we pulled up to the dock , he exclaimed, “Bring it on!” This meant that it was dinner time. Tom’s kids were there, diving off the moored fishing boats, waiting for him to show them what he had pulled out of the nets. They too had black hair and laughing eyes.
He helped each of us off the boat with a shake of the hand. I was back on the bus heading for New Orleans before I realized I forgot to ask him for his alligator meatball spaghetti recipe.
Cajun Encounters offers Honey Island Swamp Tours and Plantation Tours.
Fishing tours are also available on the bayous and inlets of the Mississippi. There are at least 10 fishing charter companies in the Big Easy and a dozen or more swamp tours, all with a slightly different focus (there is even a Bike to the Bayou tour).
For a list of other tour companies and a calendar of events which will list Cajun festivals in the bayou region, contact the New Orleans Visitors Bureau.
Good New Orleans Reads and Flicks:
Treme —an HBO drama that takes places after Hurricane Katrina as the residents of New Orleans try to rebuild their lives,
Beasts of the Southern Wild — a fantastical movie set in the bayou during the hurricane.
A Confederacy of Dunces — a picaresque novel crammed with Southern characters by American novelist John Kennedy Toole.
Activities around New Orleans:
Read my story about picking James Brown up at the airport when I worked for the New Orleans Jazz Festival (I confused him with his mother).