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September 2005

The Trip: Swamp-Whacking

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

For the next several hours, as we paddle in the shadows of the concrete pylons supporting I-10, getting lost seems impossible. We eventually hang a left onto an oil canal that’s as broad as a B-47, straight as a bus, and buzzing with motorboats–hardly Heart-of-Darkness stuff.

Thankfully, after a couple of miles, my GPS indicates it’s time to portage over the east bank and into the bayou beyond.

We drag our kayaks up the bank and get our first glimpse of the real Atchafalaya: the diffuse light and black water and monkish cypress knees and botanical congestion that will be home for the next two days and nights. It is beautiful, but also intimidating enough that we decide to camp here, straddling the divide between open and closed water, rather than push on into the unknown. We brought hammocks, so in a pinch we could string them up and sleep over the water. But I figure we’d look like mammoth burritos to any alligators cruising by, so I’m keen to do my sleeping on solid ground.

Night is dark as dirt, and aside from a clumsy armadillo that topples a water jug at 3 a.m., we receive no visitors.

In fact, we see only one other person total until, several hours into the next day, we encounter Carlos Robicheaux. Carlos, whose fingers are roughly the circumference of Pepsi cans, is waggling two handfuls of desperate crawfish in my face. He says their claws pinch hard enough to hurt real bad, but not hard enough to draw blood. I tell him I doubt a hacksaw, let alone a dinky little crawfish claw, could penetrate his Kevlar-grade callouses. He nods, turns away to drop the creatures back into his boat’s catch bin, then says, a little mournfully, “My wife don’t let me rub her back no more.”

Robicheaux, a second-generation crawfisherman, figures he’s spent 45 of his 48 years in the Atchafalaya. For us, he’s a welcome break from the morning’s activities. Vance and I have been paddling steadily south for several hours, following somewhat kempt crawfish trapline paths when we can, otherwise forcing our kayaks through dismal thickets of vines and logs and who-knows-what-else. We found Robicheaux in a refreshingly open grove of fat-bottomed cypress trees, hauling a trap full of crimson crustaceans into his boat.

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