The Trip: Swamp-Whacking

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

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.

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.

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.

You get into a rhythm. You find the most efficient stroke. You blank your mind and just move. Still, hours have passed since we left Billy Little, and we still haven't found land. The sun is dropping fast. We've covered so much distance today that we're now only a few hours from this morning's campsite. The last thing I want to do is paddle a few more hours.

After another bout of aquatic bushwhacking, a rickety old hunting cabin suddenly looms into view. It sits on stilts, and would be a great place to crash were it not for the creepy scattering of sunbleached deer skulls all over the deck. Besides, after our almost complete immersion into this swamp world, sleeping in a cabin would feel downright discordant. Less than a mile later, the bayou's east bank rises and dries out and becomes land that we are soon sitting on, eating on, sleeping on.

And then, James Proctor's voice is hollering through my cell phone: "You made it!" It's the following afternoon, and we've just pulled our kayaks out of the water for the last time, the thrum of interstate traffic above us once again. When Proctor arrives, he pensively finger-traces our route on the map as we recount the trip. After we tell him about the dearth of dry land in this particular sliver of swamp, I get the feeling he's not going to feature it on his Web site.

And, honestly, that's just fine with Vance and me. If we ever return to these lakes, we'd just as soon have them all to ourselves again.

PLAN IT

The Basics The Atchafalaya Paddle Trails Web site, www.bayoutrails.org, features 14 tried-and-true routes. To volunteer your scouting services, send an e-mail to executive director James Proctor (proctor@bayoutrails.org), who rents kayaks for $50 per day. Before entering the swamp, be sure you have some deet-based bug dope, a reliable GPS unit, plenty of sunscreen, and a hat. If you're forging a new trail, bring a hammock instead of a tent.