“The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is a program through a partnership of the Atchafalaya Trace Commission, the office of the lieutenant governor and the National Park Service,” says Debra Credeur, executive director of the Atchafalaya Trace Commission. “There is no place like it – the blend of cultures portrayed through the music, cuisine, language, history and life experiences.”
She continues: “My goals are to preserve the cultures and natural resources that give this National Heritage Area its unique identity and also, to encourage sustainable use of the resources, including economic development.”
The Heritage Area, named in 2006, encompasses nearly 1 million acres and spans across 14 Louisiana parishes: Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Concordia, East Baton Rouge, Iberia, Iberville, Lafayette, Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, Terrebonne and West Baton Rouge.
“The basin has always contributed economically,” says Jennifer Ritter Guidry, the assistant director for programming and special projects at the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the Lafayette Parish trace commissioner. “Historically, it was a place where people actually lived, worked and survived. That has changed a little over time. There are only a few people that still live in the basin, if any. It is still a vital resource for economic development because people utilize the resources of the basin – fishing, lumber, and many other industries. It is also a place for recreation, so you can make money off of it and go and enjoy it. It is a great draw for visitors.
“Because of those things, it also has a very interesting history relative to the history of the state,” continues Guidry. “How did we develop the crawfish industry? You can pretty much trace that through the history of the basin and the people who lived and worked there, and that is just one example.”
The heritage area consists of lands that were once roamed by tribes, including the Attakapas, Chitimacha and Coushatta. Then it was controlled by the Spanish and French, and in the swamp itself, the Acadians, after they were exiled from Nova Scotia and settled in the area.
“The culture of the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is all-encompassing,” says Joy Henry Collette, a park guide at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve – Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette. “Native Americans were the first there and the first who ever used it. When the Spanish got here they looked upon the Atchafalaya Basin as a great big barrier to not be able to cross. But when the French got here, they looked at it as a place to explore. They learned how to dig out canoes from big logs, they made the first pirogues, and they traveled and explored and looked upon it to see how they could make a buck.
“The Acadians were used to being in a rural place because of Nova Scotia,” continues the vivacious Collette. “They wanted to stay rural and in a slightly uninhabitable place so that no one could bother them again. That’s why they liked this area and the Atchafalaya. They liked the thought that no one could bother them and kick them out again.”
Although Collette is originally from Pennsylvania, she considers herself a “backdoor Cajun.”
“People here say: ‘Oh, I can tell you’re not from here,’ but I’ve been living in Louisiana longer than I’ve lived in Pennsylvania,” says Collette with smiling eyes and a hearty laugh. “I left when I was 18. So when I go home, they say the same thing. They’ll look at me and say: ‘Y’all? What’s y’all? You’re fixing to do what? Get down?’ I say all those things because I consider myself a Cajun. I mean, I married one.”
But, who exactly is considered a true Louisianian – Cajun or Creole?
“Cajun means that you are of Acadian descent,” she explains. “When I started working here, I was most surprised by the distinct difference between Cajun and Creole. A lot of people think it’s interchangeable. Really, we can all be considered Creole in some way, and anyone can say they are Creole, but not everyone can be Cajun. Creole is of the colony, so if you are born here you really are Creole. Originally, Creole was a distinction between slaves from Africa or slaves born here. Then it was used as a first generation-born people who lived here. It’s all encompassing of anyone of the colony, not necessarily black or white. It’s anyone of French or Spanish heritage that is born here.”
Collette bristles over what she considers outsiders’ stereotypes of Cajuns.
“Overall, when people come here, and from what I’ve experienced with people coming here they expect to see Adam Sandler as the water boy sitting out on the bench. They’ll always ask: ‘Where can I see some Cajun people?’ I’m like: ‘Walmart! They’re people too; it’s 2013 over here, too!’ Cajuns are everywhere, they are what make this area.”
There is also a commonality among the people on this artist’s palette of different backgrounds that live within the Heritage Area.
Says Collette of her adopted heritage: “People here are generally friendly and resourceful. Take what’cha got and make somethin’ of it. Work hard; play hard. That’s the way it is here.”
“Adapt, survive and thrive,” says David Cheramie, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the Bayou Vermilion District. “Learn to do what has been done in the past in new ways, learn new things to be done in the new environment and create prosperity not only for oneself but for the community at large.”
The heritage area is the most prodigious swamp in North America, and is home not only to more than 200 species of birds – including the icon of the United States, the bald eagle – but also the American alligator, black bear, nutria and others. The Atchafalaya Welcome Center off of Interstate 10 at the Butte LaRose exit has an array of information for visitors, plus a three-to-four minute movie on the swamp life in the Atchafalaya.
“Hands down, our most common question is: ‘How do you pronounce the name of the area?’ and, ‘Where they can see alligators?” says Lauren Holmes, the supervisor of the Atchafalaya Welcome Center.
One employee told a visitor: “You say it like a sneeze! Ah-cha! Fuh-lie-uh!”
“The majority of the comments we receive are about how beautiful the swamp area is, the uniqueness of the cypress trees in the water and the genuine people of the area,” continues Holmes. “People come back from swamp tours and are absolutely amazed by the birds and alligators. It never gets old seeing people’s reactions to seeing an alligator for the first time.”
Welcome Center employees greeted each visitor with: “Hello! How are you today? Where are you visiting from?” To which some replied with: “Bonjour [Hello]! Comment ça va [How are you]? Vous parlez français [Do you speak French]?” “Oui [Yes]!” an employee responded to the visitors from Lyon, France, who were on their way to visit plantation homes in nearby Arnaudville.
One of the best ways to see the alligators is with Guy LeBlanc, a swamp tour guide at Lake Martin in St. Martin Parish, in the southern reaches of the heritage area. He has been giving swamp tours with Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours for about three years.
“I like bein’ outdoors, and acknowledgin’ the people on da boat who’ve nevah seen this before,” says LeBlanc with a thick Cajun accent. “We see the birds and the ’gators. They all want to know what they eat. The younger crowd – they’re after the gators. They’re not worried about the birds.
“We get people from Australia, Paris, Madrid, England, Belgium and a lot more than that. They have never been in swamp and they want to know the difference between the swamp, the bayou and the lake.”
LeBlanc transports his visitors on a flat-bottomed boat that can seat up to 20 people and glide across waters that are not even knee-deep through a labyrinth of cypress trees. Throughout their trip into the shallow swamp, LeBlanc points out birds like a great egret, an anhinga, a young red-tailed hawk still in its parents’ nest and whistling ducks. He brings them into the shadow of a 500-year-old cypress tree that is now the oldest in Lake Martin because the 900-year-old cypress had been struck by lightning.
He would shut off the engine, and let his fascinated students cautiously creep through the watery paths and they become immersed in the sounds of the buzzing insects, splashes of turtles jumping off their perches to hide, the intertwined singing of more than 200 birds, all the while gazing into the marsh trying to spot an alligator.
When LeBlanc broke the serene scene to rev his engine and continue the tour, a visitor asked, “Do alligators make any noise?”
“Oh, dey make a li’l hissin’ noise, and dat’s when ya know ya gettin’ too close,” he replies.
LeBlanc then revs his engine again to full throttle, throwing up the muddy water like a blender without its top on, and spotted the first alligator of the tour. He killed his engine and excitedly exclaimed, “If y’all look to y’all’s left, you will notice dat I have awoken a sleepin’ alligatah! Nah, get ready, ’cause it looks like he’s about t’yawn!”
As if LeBlanc controls the alligator by a remote, it yawns, stretches and glances at the fearfully fascinated group and continues its nap under the sun.
The teacher guides his wonder-filled visitors through a corridor that once was a bayou (or creek). He shows them an old deer stand that is a rusted barrel high up in a tree with a missing bottom, which he now calls “the Cajun basketball goal.”
After about an hour and 45 minutes of traveling the swamp, seeing the 12-foot alligators glide across the water and the roseate spoonbills flying across the sky, LeBlanc’s entourage returns to port. Giddy visitors exit the boat, excitedly talking about what they’ve just seen. A child fearfully says, “No! Don’t feed me to the alligators!” The parents laugh.
Everyone thanks LeBlanc.
Jose Cornelisse of Beverwijk, Netherlands, says she traveled on a road trip with her husband to New Orleans and embarked on LeBlanc’s tour.
“I saw this swamp tour on the Internet,” says Cornelisse with admiration glowing in her eyes. “I’ve never seen a swamp before, and I am very interested in the nature and the animals that live here, the ’gators and the trees.” She sighs. “Beautiful. Beautiful.”