Postcard From The Swamp

Going on a swamp tour in Louisiana has long been desired by me and the Mama-woman, but the weather just wouldn't corporate.  We weren't waiting for perfect weather, but on our last trip to New Orleans it rained the whole time, the time before that was freezing dog-butt cold and the time before that it was 105 degrees in the shade with 90% humidity. Each time we cancelled the tour tickets we had reserved in advance. This time the weather gods smiled on us as we woke up to a weather forecast of mid-70's for the high temperature, low humidity and partly cloudy skies.

Plugging in the address of Cajun Encounters into our GPS, we had no problems getting from our New Orleans hotel to their rather remote location in Slidell. Driving down increasingly more rural roadways, from interstate to a 4-lane to a 2-lane blacktop to a gravel road, we arrived in due time and parked in their gravel lot next to a river. Tickets are $25 per person, but we had $3 off coupons for each of us so we used the savings on cold drinks from their on-site store. It was tough, but we managed to resist buying any dried alligators, alligator heads, alligator teeth, t-shirts with alligator pictures on them, baseball caps with alligators on them, alligator key-chains, or any of the dozens of other alligator-themed souvenirs. We were a few minutes early so we sat outside in the shade of a covered table located next to a large concrete alligator enjoying our cold drinks and the refreshing slight breeze that smelled surprisingly clean rather than "swampy" like I expected.

Honey Island swamp
After a few minutes, with more people showing up and milling around, a guy in a Cajun Encounters shirt (with an alligator picture on it) called for the 9:30 tour folks to gather 'round him. After sending the under 16 years of age kids back inside to get life jackets, he directed us down a wooden-decked walkway to the boat dock. 10 adults and 4 kids joined the Mama-woman, Youngest-daughter and myself as we climbed aboard a 22-person open-air flat-bottom boat. Everyone found places to sit on the benches which all faced outward so there was no grumbling as there were no "bad seats." With 17 passengers rather than the maximum of 22, everyone was sitting a bit close to their neighbor, but there was enough space to be comfortable.

Our guide came aboard and told us his name was John. A pretty good sized man around 30 years old I would guess, and right personable. He smiled a lot and was very engaging. He seemed to actually be interested in his passengers rather than just doing a spiel and took a few seconds with each to find out where we were from. He informed us he was an actual Cajun, born and raised next to the Honey Island Swamp we would be seeing, but he was a true rarity, a college educated Cajun! He claimed to have played in this swamp from the time he could row a piroque (a small, flat-bottomed boat) and made money on the side hunting alligators. I didn't really believe him then, but before the tour was over I did!

Gator up close!
As we proceeded down the river, we would pass little openings in the trees and John would ask us if we wanted to go in. Some we did, some we didn't and before long, we were all totally and completely lost - all of us except John, thank goodness. Alligators seemed to be everywhere. It was early in the season and not all that hot so they weren't very aggressive. The whole time we floated up and down water channels, John kept up a friendly chatter of facts and swamp stories and legends, pointing out flowers, animals, kinds of trees and plants and telling us about them.

For example, we came to a small stand of Tupelo trees and he told us about the honey bees that make their hives in these trees each spring and how as a boy he would bring a smoker and take some of the honey back home for spreading on biscuits. The pollen the bees use is from the tree's flowers that bloom for 2 - 3 weeks starting in late April and that's how it got its name - Tupelo Honey. It is also known as "Swamp Honey" and is so fine that it is considered the honey that all other types of honey are measured against. He then segued to discussing the song Tupelo Honey by Van Morrison, pausing every now and then to point out another plant or animal. The man was a veritable swamp encyclopedia!

At one point we were slowly gliding under some low-hanging tree limbs, low hanging enough that we had to duck our heads. I was sitting in the front of the boat and this one particularly low-hanging limb had been on my side so I had ducked under it just as John quickly pushed the boat away from it. I figured he was just being nice to the rest of the folks, guiding the boat so they wouldn't have to duck down so far, but that wasn't what he was doing. I got concerned when he asked if anybody was really afraid of snakes. I didn't say anything, but I should have been raising both arms and jumping up and down shouting "Me! Me! I'm irrationally scared of them and I admit it!" He pointed to the limb which had just gone over my head and I about pooped my pants I kid you not! A bad snake was right there and it must have passed less than a foot over my head! He laughed and said it wasn't poisonous, but it wasn't dead and I consider any non-dead snake to be a bad snake.

Look close and you can see that devil snake!
As we sat there looking at that devil snake, he told the story how a few months ago he wanted to impress a tour group so as they passed under a tree with the same kind of snake as this, he reached up and grabbed it. He played with it for a while as the tourists shrieked, but when he went to put it back in the tree, the thing struck out and bit him on the neck! It sank its fangs into his flesh and wouldn't let go until he finally grabbed the head between his fingers and forced its jaws open. He said it hurt like hell and bled a bit, but knowing it wasn't poisonous, he went ahead and finished the tour. He cleaned up when he got back to the store and didn't think much more about it except to promise himself he would never do that again. Several days later, his neck was red and swollen and he was sick as a dog - the bite had gotten infected and the infection had spread through his body. After several days in the hospital and a lot of pain and drugs, the infection was cleared and his life was saved. I took the story as proof of my convictions that the only good snake is a dead snake. You're going along just fine, everything in your life is good then one day you get a little bite from a snake and bam, you're on death's doorstep!

About 3 hours after we left, we headed back to the dock. Taking the main channel rather than all the little side bayou's, we passed several Cajun homes and swamp villages, homes built on islands of ground in the middle of the swamp. The waterways are their roads and the only way in or out is by boat. We came up on a man and 2 young boys who had a hand-made wire mesh container contraption which was partially underwater and hooked up to a pulley. John seemed to know them so he steered us over close and asked them what they had for supper. The man grinned and said, "Mudbugs!" as he winched up the container to show us the hundreds of red crawfish they had. We drifted on down and John wistfully said, "That's gonna be some good eating there" like he really wished the man had invited him to come on back and stay a while.
I liked the orange bath tub in the side yard. Nice touch!
We arrived back at the dock safe and sound with all limbs and fingers accounted for; no snake bites and no alligator chomps suffered. As each member climbed out of the boat, we exchanged thank you's and pleasantry's with John and the adult men slipped some bills into his hand as they shook it. The money almost magically disappeared into his jeans pocket before shaking the next guy's hand.

We made our way back down the wooden sidewalk to the store where the kids dropped off their life jackets. With a few handshakes and mumbled "Nice to meet ya" departure overtures between the folks of our group, people with a fleeting bond, people who would most likely never see each other again and probably wouldn't recognize each other if we did, we made our separate ways to our respective vehicles and back to our separate lives.

Our tour had been fun, interesting, and informative; our guide knowledgeable and engaging. It was well worth the cost and I didn't feel ripped off at all, something that seems to be ever more rare. I tell you what though, it would have been a much different thing if that dang snake had dropped in my lap!
One of the many Herons in the swamp. I believe this to
be a Great Blue.
A Great White Egret. Beautiful bird

Deep in the Honey Island Swamp. Spanish moss and
Cypress trees abound.

I particularly liked the handicapped parking sign in front of
this home.