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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.

What we have seen: egrets the size of pterodactyls; ad-hoc deer stands hewn from hollow tree trunks; a strange snake-headed fish that I later learn is called, fittingly, a snakehead fish.

What we haven’t seen: people. Not since Carlos Robicheaux. Recently, we haven’t even seen traces of people. No crawfish traps, no moss-choked beer cans. Nothing but swamp.

Vance smacks his paddle against his kayak. I do the same. We’ve been paddle-smacking every few minutes all day. This, we figure, will let nearby dozing gators know we’re here. There are 23 trillion big floating logs in the Atchafalaya, and each one looks so much like a big floating gator that after a while your mind stops trying to identify the big floating object, and you just hold your breath and forge ahead. Paddle-smacking, we figure, is a better way to interrupt a monster’s nap than gliding over its half-submerged back.

Soon, the storm of green begins to thin. The black water reflects sun. Our kayaks speed up, then break into bright, open water. We’ve reached the lake.

Everybody, at some point in their lives, should have a lake all to themselves. After the claustrophobic confines of the earlier swamp, the sudden expansiveness of our surroundings intoxicates. We paddle Round Lake’s entire shoreline, then ease into the wide crawfishing trail that leads us to our final destination, Billy Little Lake, where we spot a dead cypress standing like a lone sentry in the distance. Turns out, as we get closer, that a real sentry is on duty: a raptor squawks furiously from an enormous nest. When we’re past the angry bird, the GPS tells me that we’ve just reached the final waypoint. We stop paddling and let the wind have its way with us for a while. We drift the length of the pretty, tranquil shore; Vance jokes that this is the perfect spot for the Atchafalaya Club Med. It’s so true that it’s more worrisome than funny.

We don’t linger; it’s time to head back. We scan the map and decide to try a different route, partly for variety’s sake and partly because the way we came offers no hope of finding dry land before nightfall.

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