Louisiana, Three Ways: Atchafalaya Swamp

I’m in Killer Poboys to meet with Charles Chamberlain, a Ph.D. in American history and local History Man. Ten years a historian at the Louisiana State Museum before setting up his own company, Historia, to provide outsiders with insights into the Pelican State, Chamberlain knows Louisiana. He’s just the guy, I figure, to explain why Louisiana is so different, even a little cray cray—and I don’t mean the fish.

“Louisiana couldn’t be anything but,” he declares as we share a bag of Zapp’s Voodoo Potato Chips, a favorite Louisiana foodstuff. By the time Thomas Jefferson bought the land from Napoleon in that 1803 geopolitical fire sale, he explains, this French colony was well populated with French and Spanish immigrants, refugees from Haiti, and Congolese slaves, all of whom had seeded the land with their cultures, foods, and traditions.

“If you’re looking for different,” he tells me, laying out an itinerary, “start here in New Orleans. You can see how we turn our quirkiness into art by visiting one of the recently formed New Orleans krewes that parade at the start of Carnival’s two-week celebration. Tourists wait for Mardi Gras, which is at the end; almost no one comes for the beginning, but that’s when you see something really crazy. Then follow the French settlements up to the Cane River. That’s where Creoles of color built their own world. On your way back to New Orleans, explore the Atchafalaya, America’s biggest swamp, by getting out on the water with the local Cajuns. You’ll be glad you did.”

As we emerge from Killer Poboys, blinking, into the French Quarter’s afternoon light, Chamberlain adds, “Louisiana is another country. But you better see it soon; who knows how long it’s going to last?”

The reality is that Creoles and Cajuns, cowboys and costumers, shrimpers and planters—really, all who make life and art out of this watery land—are threatened as their world is digitized, outsourced … and submerged. Literally. Low-lying Louisiana loses a football field an hour to, among other things, rising seas.

Atchafalaya Basin: Swamp Romp

I’m in a floating cabin—a wooden houseboat—sliding between cypress trees under a brooding afternoon sky that is darkening by the second, and I’m spooked. I can almost hear snakes slithering across the tree limbs and alligators sluicing through the mocha-colored water. The Atchafalaya Basin, a million acres of wetlands and mystery between New Orleans and Lafayette, is no place to be during a storm.

“The Atchafalaya system is a gigantic thing,” naturalist Jim Delahoussaye had warned me earlier that day at his house, a replica of a Cajun cottage on the levee southeast of Lafayette. “And there’s no easy access to or exit from it.”

I’d stopped by Delahoussaye’s because the water-pollution biologist, who traces his ancestry to the courtiers of Louis XVI on his father’s side and Cajun swampers on his mother’s, now studies this, the largest river swamp in the nation. Coffee steamed in the kitchen. Out a window hung a bird feeder; at least 12 of the basin’s 270 bird species pecked at seeds. Beyond, a dock led to the Atchafalaya River, the waterway from which Delahoussaye and like-minded others draw inspiration and a living.

Among them is my fellow houseboat passenger, Hamilton Hall, a long-haired furniture maker who comes regularly to the Atchafalaya to harvest “sinker” cypress, old-growth timber felled a century ago that ended up sinking while being transported through the murky water.

As I tuck into our lunch of cheese and boudin, Louisiana’s trademark sausage, I catch Hall staring at the vast swamp. The rippling water reflects the dark sky. A sense of timelessness, of deep serenity is settling around us. It is at this moment that I begin to grasp what living on the Atchafalaya must feel like.

The area has long been home to the Cajuns, descendants of French Canadians (Acadians) expelled from Canada by British forces in the 1750s, who made their way south to the more welcoming French territory of Louisiane. Their progeny kept the native language, and a version is spoken to this day. Once here, Cajuns thrived on the abundant wildlife, from catfish, crawfish, and alligators to otters, beavers, turkeys, and Louisiana black bears.

The houseboat, rented from Houseboat Adventures, is being nosed through the water by a tow piloted by the company’s owner Mitch Mequet. We have hot water, a toilet, a generator, but no motor. The very best feature, to me, is the view gliding past our front porch.

The landscape is both familiar and alien, Monet’s “Water Lilies” meets Jurassic Park. Fish jump and bubbles roil the floating vegetation. Herons and egrets flutter and take flight through stands of tapering cypresses rising from the mist like Javanese dancers, branches akimbo and draped with Spanish moss.

“If you want,” Mequet says, “I’ll get my airboat and give y’all a tour in it. It can get way back in the cypress forests. You can consider it a little lagniappe.” Lagniappe is the Cajun French word for a little something extra.

When Mequet returns, we scramble onto the airboat, the engine roars, and soon we’re skimming the water’s surface at 25 miles an hour. We enter a murky grove carpeted with duckweed. Mequet cuts the engine. Around us, cypresses soar in air the color of pewter.

“All new growth,” Hall tells us. Old-growth cypresses and tupelos were cut 80 years ago to fashion stately front doors for New Orleans and Natchez, across the border in Mississippi.

“It’s amazing what you can find in these waters,” Hall adds that evening as we sit on our porch nursing bottles of local Abita beer. “Hundred-year-old cisterns, timber from river camps. Search the levee tops after a storm and you will spot something: Spanish doubloons, daggers, wine from Prohibition days.”

Prohibition shackled whiskey-loving New Orleans but had little real effect on those living here on the Atchafalaya; its watery reaches kept much of the world at bay, encouraging the flowering of a very local culture—and the swamp music known as zydeco, which is playing full tilt when we pull up to the Whiskey River Landing dance hall the following day.

The ramshackle roadhouse perched at the edge of the basin in Henderson draws locals and visitors alike with its romping live music and crowded dance floor. Inside, loud doesn’t even begin to describe the whoops and stomps as feet puzzle through the distinctive side-stepping and twirling of zydeco dancing, which has roots in Acadian folk tradition.

Boots scrape floorboards as partners pirouette to the fast-tempo beat of Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys. Accordions, washboards, and fiddles deliver a cultural mash-up of folk, swamp, and rhythm and blues music that could happen only in this steamy Louisiana outpost.

The music is joyous, transforming a gloomy day into a burst of spirited warmth. Before I know it, I am on the floor dancing with everyone else.

Perhaps it’s their relative isolation that makes Atchafalayans so eager to share their world. I just know the beat is making everyone break into grins.

I cast back to Chamberlain’s warning that Louisiana is endangered, being diluted by the 21st century, becoming like everywhere else. The Atchafalaya, its people, and its music are actively defying his admonition. Watching the musicians beam as they play on, I know that here on the water, Louisiana—quirky and continuously surprising—is still hitting the right notes.

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The best—some say only—way to explore the Atchafalaya is on a houseboat. I rented mine in Henderson, from Houseboat Adventures.

Land-lubbers in search of lodging (with a tuneful twist) should tool west to Lafayette and the Blue Moon Saloon and Guesthouse, a Cajun-inspired hostel where the music is first-rate and the beers ice cold.

Sunday afternoons bring live music and livelier dancing to Whiskey River Landing, a venue in Breaux Bridge.

Cajun cooks transform the morning’s catch into evening meals at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant in Henderson, which has plated seafood gumbo, oysters, and crawfish étouffée since 1952.

National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Andrew Nelson (on Twitter @andrewnelson) teaches at Loyola University in New Orleans. The city is also a home base for photographer Kris Davidson. This feature first appeared in the magazine’s October 2014 issue.

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