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The Trip: Swamp-Whacking

Pioneer a brand-new trail in Louisiana's Atchafalaya swamp, where the gators are friendly. Really.

When you are about to spend several days in a very large swamp, there are certain things you would rather not hear the local swamp expert say. For example: “I don’t know anything about this area. I’ve never been in there, and I don’t know anyone who has.”

James Proctor tells me this in an offhanded, shoulder-shrugging way. We’re sitting near a boat ramp under the elevated I-10 highway, 30 miles west of Baton Rouge, and he’s showing me an aerial map of the swampland that lies immediately to our south. GPS coordinates dot the map here and there, forming a string of digital breadcrumbs that leads 12 meandering scale miles down the map to a series of three narrow lakes.

“I gotta tell you,” Proctor continues, “you may end up with some sort of disastrous event.”

Proctor is executive director of Atchafalaya Paddle Trails, an outfit created to promote and expand canoe and kayak tourism in the Atchafalaya Basin, America’s largest river swamp. He’s paddled this million-acre wilderness for years, seeking trips that blend accessibility with the area’s murky beauty. His website, www.bayoutrails.org, gives detail on only 14 such routes, which is why he tries to enlist volunteers like my friend Vance and me to do some scouting. He figures we’ll need 3 days to make it to the lakes and back.

After a briefing on what to do in various hypothetical situations–”If a snake bites you, scream”–Proctor helps us load our banana-yellow kayaks full of gear. Just before we push off, I tell him I’m having trouble figuring out how to use the preprogrammed GPS unit he’s lent me, and that I might end up resorting to old-fashioned map-and-compass navigation.

“For God’s sake, don’t rely on the map!” he says. “You’ll be eating whatever you can catch by the time they find you!”

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