When the four members of our rock band in the UK decided to embark on an excursion to the home of the blues in the deep south, USA; we had little idea we’d wind up spending half our time in a remote swamp… and enjoy it!
Two days of hard drinking in Bourbon Street, New Orleans had chipped away at our constitution and proved to be more than a little tiring, so following a swift discussion and review of our plans, we agreed to head up state to check out the Acadian influences around Baton Rouge and Lafayette; sample the Creole food and listen to some traditional Zydeco music. While we were in the vicinity we also figured a quick sortie into the Atchafalaya swamp basin might be a great way to kill half a day or more.
Covering some 3000 square miles of south Louisiana, the swamp basin lies along the course of the Atchafalaya River, which serves as a major tributary to both the Red River and the mighty Mississippi. Although largely uninhabited, the swamps are also home to a small population of Cajun fishermen and trappers who scratch out an existence fishing for crawfish, catfish and mullet; and trapping and hunting bullfrogs, squirrels and white-tailed deer.
We left the interstate-10 at Breaux Bridge, just east of Lafayette and found ourselves in a little village by the name of Henderson. From there we took a right turn onto a levee road and just kept driving, following the twenty-foot high levee on our left until we were in the vicinity of Catahoula Cove. There weren’t many folks around to ask about swamp tours, but eventually one helpful chap pointed us in the direction we were headed and told us to just keep going until we reached Bayou Benoit and then look for a house set back from the road with a couple of boats out front on the grass.
And so we came to meet Roy Blanchard…
Roy, it would seem is a bit of a legend around these parts in the Atchafalaya swamp. We didn’t realise it at the time, but subsequent research turned him up in numerous books and I even found him mentioned on a couple of internet web-sites. He’s a kind-hearted, fifty-something, unassuming man with toned swarthy skin, wise eyes and familiar southern-states drawl with a lively Cajun twang. He lives with his wife, Annie in a well constructed, single-story house close to Lake Fausse Pointe Park, where he daily sets out his nets for catfish and mullet in the shallow waters and hunts white-tailed deer in the drier parts.
Roy was happy to take us out pretty much straight away, and give us an hour pottering around in the Cocodrie Swamp. It was late autumn, but the temperature was still well into the seventies and the skies were cloudless. With the minimum amount of fuss, he hooked up his 15ft aluminium boat and trailer to the back of his pickup truck and drove us a short distance back along the levee road to a small car park where we could easily slip the boat from its trailer and into the water.
Lofty cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss towered over us as we slowly pushed our way through the water hyacinths and duckweed, ever watchful for a glimpse of alligators and nutria while egrets and herons regarded us warily lest we should drift too close. Rotting tree stumps punctuated the swamp everywhere, many exhibiting a curious large hole penetrating from one side to the other. Roy explained how the locals, pick a suitable tree for building-timber and cut a hole right through just above the water’s surface. Through the hole goes a length of wood that provides a platform for two men to stand on while they saw the tree down.
The water was surprisingly shallow and on numerous occasions we had to rock the boat in order to dislodge ourselves from submerged obstacles, although we were told that at certain times of the year the water could be much deeper and regularly threatened to spill over the top of the levee.
Our foray into the Cocodrie Swamp was very brief but in that short space of time we learned much from Roy about the life of a Cajun trapper and of his uncompromising respect for the swamp. We also learned of his houseboat some miles away in the Lake Fausse Pointe Park and by the time we had made our way back to the pickup and driven back to Bayou Benoit we had made arrangements with Roy to return the following afternoon with the intention of penetrating deeper into the swamps around his houseboat before spending the night there.
We arrived back at Roy’s place by the levee road the next day at 3pm, laden with food for the barbecue and found him ready and waiting. We sorted out the things we needed to take, leaving the rest inside his house, and set off. The launch was a few more miles along the levee and this time the 120hp outboard was put to good use as we tore off along several miles of watercourses that linked a series of open lakes. The bone-jarring ride was exhilarating and we had to keep our heads down as we braced against the spray, barely able to hear ourselves shout above the deafening scream of the engine.
Eventually, as we crossed the largest of the lakes we left open water and there was peace again as Roy cut the engine and we moved back in among the Cypress trees, taller and older than those we had seen the previous day. We wound our way through the low hanging Spanish moss, surrounded by the sounds of the bayou and the constant bursts of motor drive from my camera as the enchanting scenery devoured roll after roll of film. The afternoon sun was getting lower and the dappled light across the water’s surface along with beads of sunlight bursting through the foliage made for some stunning swamp-scapes.
Sometime later we steered into a narrow waterway between two areas of dry land and shortly arrived at the houseboat, a simple affair not dissimilar to a caravan on floats.A plank of wood bridged the watery gap to a forest glade, cleared months before, and here Roy set to getting the barbecue fired up while we excitedly laid claim to our respective bunks inside. With time to kill while the barbecue heated up, Roy suggested we go back out, this time to lay some nets so he might have a nice bit of catfish for his supper the next day and so I might get some good shots of the swamp as the sun was setting.
I never thought I could take so many pictures of trees, but the golden light shimmering across the still water and setting the Spanish moss ablaze was truly memorable, and in the short time it took for the sun to finally dip out of sight I snapped through another half a dozen rolls of film, catching the myriad of colours in the low sky through the trees, ranging from pale sulphur through powder blue to rich lilac.
Darkness comes quick in the Atchafalaya basin and as the bullfrogs began their crepuscular chorus we made our way back to the barbie. The evening was spent eating good food, playing guitar and listening to Roy’s tales of daring swamp rescues, and of how he, on one occasion, had found himself lost deep in the swamp at night in thick fog with a dead battery in his flashlight. It was familiarity to the point of recognising individual trees that saved him in the end and he told us of how after several hours he eventually found his way back in almost zero visibility to the houseboat and a very anxious wife. On another occasion, a young boy of ten years old had become separated from his father while they were out hunting squirrels. A few locals including Roy were quickly recruited to do a sweeping search of the area but found nothing more than a few footprints. Against general opinion Roy had insisted the search be extended to beyond the dry areas where the boy had last been seen. It was firmly believed that if the child had tried to cross any of the wet swamp he would certainly have perished from a venomous snakebite or been taken by one the thousands of alligators that inhabit the region, but some 48 hours after going missing, tracks were found across the other side of an expanse of swamp and soon after, a very frightened and very grubby ten-year old was found safe and unharmed exactly where Roy had guessed.
Tales of the wilderness kept us spellbound well into the evening, until one by one we began to fade and drift away to our bunks for the night, knowing we would have an early start in the morning. John queried Roy as to what he would favour for breakfast, expecting to be told squirrel or racoon or something equally enterprising. “I quite like Cheerios,” retorted our host, swiftly putting an end to that line of enquiry.
Sunrise was at about 05:45 and I had asked Roy if he wouldn’t mind taking me out to shoot it as the
others slept. With that in mind, I was up and about by 5am and ready to go soon after. As it turned out, the guys were all just as keen so no one slept in. We made it out to the Cypress trees that fringed the lake just in time to catch the sun making its appearance above the trees in the distance, recreating the same soft colours we had seen less than twelve hours previously. As the sunrise took hold, it washed through the trees around us, catching the last wisps of early morning fog drifting across the water’s surface and illuminating pristine spider webs laden with fresh dewdrops, creating a magical and surreal landscape. Shortage of film was not a problem; lack of pockets was as roll after roll was spent and unceremoniously stuffed into my jacket. The sun climbed rapidly along its
arc and the golden tones hardened, but Roy had one last spectacle for us: Out on the open water of Lake Fausse Pointe he motored us to a lone tree, growing in about 3 feet of water. The tree wasn’t anything special but it was surrounded by a cloud of birds, feeding on the flying insects that were swarming about this single point of focus in an otherwise empty lake. I recognised the birds as martins but Roy explained the locals call them “rain birds” because of the illusion this flocking behaviour generates.
And that’s when the batteries in my camera decided to give up. By the time I’d stuffed them down my pants and warmed them up enough to get a token shot, most of the rain birds had grown nervous of our presence and had departed.
It took us next to no time to nip back to the houseboat and grab our belongings, and as the sun climbed relentlessly into another azure sky, we hurtled back through the watercourses towards the slipway where the truck was parked.
Back at Bayou Benoit, we grabbed a cold drink and sat with Roy and Annie in their living room for a while, recounting the last 48 hours and ruminating over life in general.
A close friend of theirs, Greg Guirard, had written a book called Atchafalaya Autumn, http://www.accesscom.net/gguirard/ filled with photographs of the swamp, taken over the course of several years, and as we flicked through the pages of remarkable pictures, I felt certain that I would have also captured some equally dramatic images. I readily promised to send copies back to Roy and Annie as soon as I returned to the UK, but haven’t done so yet; rather I will use it as an excuse to drop by some time in future and give them copies personally while we share a cold beer.