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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.

Like most people in solitary professions, Robicheaux is hard to get talking, then hard to stop. When we tell him about the string of lakes we’re headed for, he tells us that the second of them, Round Lake, was once home to what he swears must have been the biggest alligator in Louisiana history. A 21-footer! He hasn’t seen that gator in years, so he figures trappers probably hauled her off. We shouldn’t worry about the other gators we’re bound to encounter, he says. They’re friendly. Not like the ones in Florida that are always eating people. Robicheaux’s theory is that Florida gators are meaner than Louisiana gators because the Sunshine State also has crocodiles. Everybody knows crocs are mean by nature, so when the species mingle, the gators learn bad habits. Peer pressure. All we’ve got to worry about with Louisiana gators, Robicheaux says, is steering clear of the babies, cause the mamas can get overprotective.

And how will we spot the babies?

You don’t spot them, you hear them, he says.

And what do they sound like? I ask.

Carlos Robicheaux cups his huge hands around his mouth and makes a small, birdlike sound that I will hear, or imagine I hear, every 5 minutes or so for the rest of our trip.

The swamp does those kinds of things. For example: According to the GPS, we have reached Round Lake.

According to the map, the lake is at least 200 yards of open water wide.

According to the storm of vines and branches and spider webs that surrounds us, making each paddle stroke a trudge and progress a joke, either the map or the GPS is busted.

It’s late afternoon, and we’re miles past-and sorely missing-the airy cypress grove where we met Robicheaux. We have not stopped for lunch or even to relieve ourselves all day, not because we would not like to, but rather because we have not seen any dry land in the last 7 hours.

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