The Atchafalaya, Louisiana’s best-loved swamp
Like most outdoors adventures in Louisiana, wetlands explorations are best done when temperatures are perfect and barometer readings are tolerable. That means spring or fall. The tiebreaker for the Great Atchafalaya Swamp is that fall’s dropping water levels reveal many mysterious bayous and channels whose individuality is lost in the high waters of spring.
“Atchafalaya,” from the Choctaw hacha falaia, actually means long river, and indeed it flows 130-odd miles due south from the Mississippi River’s old river lock to the Gulf of Mexico, fanning out to form America’s largest remaining overflow hardwood swamp. Known as the Atchafalaya Heritage Area, its 838,000 acres border or cover portions of 13 parishes, a giant estuary for fish and crawfish, nesting grounds for migrating waterfowl and year rounders (such as American bald eagles), plus watery woodlands that shelter otter, beaver, mink, black bear and, of course, alligators. The significance of a thing can generally be measured in the amount of controversy it spawns. The Atchafalaya Basin has its share, and surprisingly, its conflicts are modern rather than historic. Seems intrepid French and English settlers avoided trouble by clustering around separate communities and then by migrating in different directions when the Great Flood of 1927 chased them out of the swamp (the English from Bayou Chene heading east to Bayou Sorrell, or west to the highlands Bayou Teche; the French east to Bayou Pigeon and Belle River, or west to Henderson and Bayou Benoit). Today things are more complicated.
Modern-day disputes arise, believe it or not, over differing theories on how best to “save” the place. For a time it seemed there wasn’t much to save, after the basin’s ancient red cypress were clear-cut at the turn of the century, but the 20th century provided second-growth cypress to give the basin new life, sheltering an armada of sport fishermen, 22-million-pound crawfish harvests and a unique wetland environment for wildlife. The problem is that every single other benefit of the basin is threatened by situation created by the Atchafalaya’s other two great benefits – the oil that lies beneath it and use of the Basin as a safety valve for Mississippi and Red River flood waters – and all heads must be wise (and cool) if we are to enjoy any one benefit without sabotaging another. When east-west channels are dug to oil rig sites, the ridges of dug-out sand piled along those channels block the north-south bayous that provide nutrient-rich waters vital for crawfish and other aquatic life. Fishers and crawfishers complain that the requirements of drilling and channeling permits to repair the land are not enforced. The flood-control issue is more complex. The Atchafalaya was first leveed soon after the flood of ’27, which had put, as songwriter Randy Newman records, “6 feet of water in the streets of Evangeline,” and by 1938 the new parish priest in Bayou Chene, the Rev. (later Monsignor) R.J. Gobeil, arrived to find buildings already silted up to the height of their support piers.
By 1963, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (whose one and only mission, in fairness, was to eliminate flood waters) was proposing a massive dredging of the river’s main channel, enough to whisk away 1.5 billion cubic feet per second of water in the event of a biblical flood. Outdoors writer, TV personality and “Miller Lite All-Star” Grits Gresham of Natchitoches spoke for the Wildlife & Fisheries Commission and others when he predicted that such a channel would deprive fish and wildlife of their essential cycle of flooding and de-watering, but of course the channel was enlarged and the lakes and bayous were filled with spoil-sands from the dredging. Not until 1972 was ecology-law professor and nature writer Oliver Houck, speaking for the National Wildlife Federation, able to report that in the wake of the new National Environmental Policy Act, the Corps would be working with the NWF to evaluate impacts of flood-control measures. Today, although fish and crawfish interests complain that the Old River Control Structure still sends too much silt into the Atchafalaya, the spirit of cooperation is undeniably improved, and in 1986 the Corps was given $250 million by Congress for funding environmental easements, water-management programs, recreational assets and public access.
Before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a loose confederacy of special events called “Experience Atchafalaya Days” – coordinated by a division of the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism – filled the 31 “days” of October, bringing wildly various activities scattered in and about this incredibly large river-basin swamp. Even though “Experience Atchafalaya Days” has been canceled as of the magazine’s press time, some of the individual events may still happen, so go to www.eadays.com (you may have to do a little detective work to find the calendar, though) to click on for locations and fees (if applicable) of its related events: as powerboat races, crafts demonstrations, lectures, farmers markets, hunter-safety courses and, in the parks and museums of nearby towns, exhibits and living-history demonstrations helpful to understanding life in the Atchafalaya then and now. The Division of Archeology’s popular annual Louisiana Archaeology Week – check crt.state.la.us/archaeology for an updated schedule – should coincide with Atchafalaya Days this year, and activities scheduled for the Atchafalaya area will include talks on region-specific archaeology, artifact-identification sessions and tours of Indian mounds.
There will also be excursions for birdwatchers, boat tours and hikes, plus business as usual by commercial boat-tour operators who offer their services year-round. For those who’d rather launch their own expeditions, a volunteer organization called Paddle Trails provides downloadable maps at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paddle Trails is nonprofit and will provide a member, for a nominal fee, to guide your group; call director James Proctor at (337) 739-2410 to discuss the guide service or to file your route (just so someone knows).
The Atchafalaya has a way of attracting great photographers and inspiring the rest of us try our hand at it too. No matter what motivates your visit, be it photography, fishing, birdwatching or multitasking, the basin’s corps of regular photographers can provide sound advice on special spots to visit.
The dean is Clyde Lockwood of the Lockwood Gallery in Baton Rouge. Lockwood is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker since 1971; his classic Atchafalaya, America’s Largest River Basin Swamp in 1981 introduced the name and images of the great swamp to thousands everywhere. You’ll find his prints, greeting cards and other titles (such as Exploring Louisiana, C.C. Lockwood’s Louisiana Nature Guide and the new Marsh Mission at cclockwood.com, and you can visit the “Marsh Mission” joint exhibit of Lockwood photography and Rhea Gary paintings opening Oct. 8 at the LSU Art Museum (marshmission.com).
For a full day or overnight in fall months, “Cactus Clyde’s” favorite spot is Little Bayou Sorrel in the southeastern region of the basin (putting in at Adams Lake Landing or Doiron’s Landing along Hwy. 70) and its connection via Bayou Chevreuil to Wax Lake (famous for its fishing, sunsets and big stands of baldcypress). Birdwatching is great here too, all year, and sharp eyes, he says, will spot beaver, otter and small Indian shell middens.
The western region of the Atchafalaya is the domain of gifted photographer, author, actor, location man, scriptwriter, “sinker” cypress salvager and crawfisher Greg Guirard, son of the late historian and folklorist Leona “Miss Tutti” Guirard of St. Martinville. Photographing by day and writing by night in his leveeside home, he has shared his idyllic existence in such volumes as Atchafalaya Autumn, Seasons of Light in the Atchafalaya Basin and Cajun Families of the Atchafalaya. His Faulkneresque Land of Dead Giants for young fiction readers has been presented as a stage production and now seems destined to be a feature film (shooting possibly to begin during the “Atchafalaya Days” of 2006). You can browse the books at email@example.com.
He recommends Buffalo Cove/Lake Grevemberg excursions from Sandy Cove Landing near Jeanerette, but his very best advice is to explore the Lake Dautrive/Lake Fausse Pointe region, just outside the Atchafalaya’s western protection levee, accessible from Fausse Pointe State Park (good camping and cabins).
When Bill Rodman of Chicago moved to Baton Rouge 15 years ago as a TV news photographer, he wound up marrying Flo Ulmer of Zachary and adopting the Atchafalaya. He now operates an independent production company called the Baton Rouge Production Shoppe, and his nationally distributed Atchafalaya Revisited is available at LPB.org. When his productions aren’t leading him in other directions (such as the Antarctic for filming LSU’s scientific ballooning projects) he tries to visit the swamp at least once a week. One favorite spot is Bayou Sorrell as it winds west from Bayou Sorrell Landing (southwest of Plaquemine via Highway 73), and for acclimating newcomers he recommends explorations of Henderson Lake with its easy-access boating (with canoe and flat boat rentals near the town of Henderson and all its good restaurants).
Charles Caillouit is technical director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and a consultant on high-definition film projects for clients such as NASA, so he heads to Wyoming to launch film festivals and to Florida for space shuttle launches, but for launching his boat, he heads to the Atchafalaya. He likes putting into Flat Lake at Russo’s Landing near Morgan City and finding groves of “cypress big enough to give you that old-growth feel,” or taking a boat ride from the Bayou Benoit Landing on the west side to glide between the alligators and wading birds to spots folks here call “cypress graveyards.” Some of the stumps there still bear notches cut for holding “standing boards” above the water line for lumbermen sawing down the 800-year-old giants.
Gene Seneca (our Bayou Maringouin and Grosse Tete guide a few “Traveler” articles ago) lives on Bayou Grosse Tete near the east Atchafalaya Protection Levee, and he’s in the basin “every day,” by which he means every day. His family helped settle the now-vanished community of Bayou Chene, deep in the swamp, where his father was born in 1931. “It’s a special place,” says Seneca, “and I go back there a lot to attend to my grandmother’s grave, but I do most of my fishing and photography on the east side, closer to home.” He recommends putting in at the Bayou Sorrell ramp and taking Grand River north alongside the levee, keeping a lookout for eagles and visiting the high-stilted home of his friend “Mayor” Lee Kimble (by default; he’s likely the last year-round resident of the swamp), then heading upstream till the river widens into the Upper Grand River Flat. “Sac-au-lait and bream all year round,” he says proudly, “and all the alligators and herons and spoonbills you ever want to see.”
It was actually Seneca and some buddies who started Atchafalaya Days a few years back, very casually, just to enjoy the October weather and to use free boat rides and craft demonstrations to entice visitors into the Basin. “Who would have thought it would take off like this,” he marvels, “with all the towns and parishes and agencies getting involved this way!” A former member of the Levee Board, charter member of the Grosse Tete Taskforce and longtime volunteer on the projects of the Atchafalaya Basin Program, he’s also given years of service to the Atchafalaya Heritage Area advisory committees and its board of commissioners.
ALL THOSE AGENCIES!
There are about as many groups and government agencies associated with the basin’s well-being as there are wildlife species living within it. Citizens’ groups include commercial-interest organizations such as the Acadiana Fishermen’s Co-op and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association (which persistently butts heads with the Corps on issues such as water and silt control), and wildlife-and-wilderness watchdog groups such as Ducks Unlimited (with projects such as its water-quality and vegetation-enhancement work at the Attakapas Island Area), the Sierra Club (a supporter and shaper of the basin’s “State Master Plan” and major fundraiser for land acquisition) and the National Wildlife Federation. Then come federal agencies like the Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife (which have partnered with Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries to create and manage the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge near Krotz Springs). Then there’s the Atchafalaya Heritage Area, which promotes public use of the basin, the Office of State Parks and the Governor’s “America’s Wetland” program whose goal is saving coastal Louisiana.
Finally there’s the the Atchafalaya Basin Program headed by Sandra Thompson Decoteau, within the Department of Natural Resources, chosen by the state to create the current 15-year master plan for basin management and to partner with the Corps of Engineers for land acquisition, water-flow planning and public-use facilities.
As a youngster in Morgan City, Decoteau had picnicked and played around the edges of the great swamp, but she couldn’t have imagined herself at the state Capitol 20 years later. Decoteau started during the McKeithen administration in 1971, when the Governor’s Commission on the Atchafalaya Basin was formed as part of the office of Secretary of State Wade O. Martin, who had promptly handed the reins to his 25-year-old assistant, Sandra Thompson. Undaunted by her minuscule budget, she recruited volunteers from such natural enemies as oilmen, farmers, fishermen and environmental activists, molded them into a cohesive action committee and began what she soon decided would be her life’s work. Soon the basin’s first trails program and wildlife and public recreation areas came into existence, but with no federal matching funds and inadequate state money, a period of dormancy followed, and at the request of Gov. Buddy Roemer the guardian of the Atchafalaya took a sabbatical from the swamp in 1976 to design and head Louisiana’s great umbrella agency of all things cultural and historic: the Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. The Atchafalaya movement was born again in the early ’80s when Gov. Dave Treen brashly requested $280 million in federal assistance, but it was years before the money materialized, and it was 1999 before she got the call from Gov. Mike Foster to head his new Atchafalaya Basin Program within the Office of Natural Resources, now known by Atchafalaya-lovers simply as “the program.” In January 1997 she called a meeting that was attended by old and new volunteers, plus representatives of the appropriate state and federal agencies, and just that quickly the effort was up and running again. Now, 34 years since she first undertook the care of the Atchafalaya and seven years into the present 15-year plan, Decoteau is still minding the swamp.