In Louisiana, the area south of I- 10 and west of New Orleans is a “whole ‘nudder t’ing.
Over the years we’ve made periodic pilgrimages and would be hard-pressed to come up with a part of this great country that we are more fond of.
Through hardship and isolation, a society singular to this region has developed with its own food, music and unique language. We love spending time in amongst it all.
The main factor in the formation of this distinictive culture came from the Acadians — French colonists who were run out of Canada during the The Seven Years’ War in Europe.
As the hostilities spilled over into North America, the British subjects of Nova Scotia decided that the French settlers were no longer welcome.
In what became known as TheGreat Upheaval or Le Grand Dérangement, these French people were sent off under horrific conditions.
Through the 1750s they were crowded into boats and shipped off to the American colonies, back to Europe, down to Haiti or as far away as the Falkland Islands. Each arrival meant more disappointment as they were either rejected or allowed to remain as indentured servants or slaves.
By the 1760s many Acadians found refuge in the Louisiana Territory — but not until about half of them had died in the Upheaval.
The swampy coastal area of Louisiana was almost uninhabited back then, home only to a few clans of the Attakapas Tribe known for their nasty propensity to eat their enemies.
The tough, wayward refugees settled into this perilous landscape. Carving out an existence meant embracing the water as a partner — the swamps, rivers, bayous and sea are intertwined into daily life in Acadiana.
The name Acadian was soon commonly pronounced “Cajun” and a unique culture was born.
During our previous visits we hadn’t had the chance to wade out into these waters but this time we were going in. Not literally of course, since we didn’t want to be an alligator appetizer, we figured we’d use a boat.
The Atchafalaya Swamp, largest in the USA, runs right through the heart of Cajun country between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Twenty miles wide and one hundred fifty miles long, this was the place to start our wetland romp.
At the western end of the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge on Interstate 10, an eighteen mile causeway above the cyprus trees and gators, we met Ernest Couret with his little sixteen foot swamp boat.
After the How y’all are? greetings we climbed aboard and headed out into the dense, wet wilderness.
Within minutes we were deep enough into the swamp to be completely secluded from any signs of modern life. Winding through the tunnels of heavily hanging Spanish moss, Ernest pointed out the flora and fauna along the way: eagles, osprey, egrets, beaver, gators, turtles, ducks, blue heron, comerant, cyprus, mangroves, willows and on this spring day, all sorts of wild flowers.
One critter we’d never seen before was sighted frequently along the bayous. Giant rodents called nutria were hanging out side by each with the beavers on the logs and dry patches. We’d always figured that the R.O.U.S. (Rodents Of Unusual Size) featured in the movie “The Princess Bride” were make believe, but they are real and they are thick back in them there marshes.
The Atchafalaya Swamp is a combination of wetlands and river delta where the Atchafalaya River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
A thousand years ago the Mississippi River flowed through the Atchafalaya as its channel naturally moved about the delta.
Periodic flooding was lifeblood to this ecosystem, bringing much needed silt and sediment for the plant life in addition to replenishing the water. After the great flood of 1927, Old Muddy’s course was permanently set behind man-made levees and the Atchafalaya began
When the oil industry arrived in the 1930s, the economy got a needed
boost but scars were left in the process. Canals for transporting equipment and products were dug throughout the basin, causing massive erosion and further weakening the wetlands.
Once finished with their business, the remnants were simply left behind as the drilling moved offshore into deeper and deeper water.
As harsh and hostile as swamps may look, they are easily harmed and slow to recover. Recently some progress toward saving the marshes has been made through controlled flooding and conservation efforts but all of this may be lost in one fell swoop.
Suddenly the most grave threat the region has ever faced is floating in a giant black slick out in the gulf.
The southern shores of this spendid sanctuary are already suffering but the interior is likely doomed should a hurricane come its way.
The wetlands could be inundated with oil for many miles inland if wind and storm surge carry the greasy goop deep into the swamp. The devastation will be unimaginable.
As we mentioned before, the Cajun culture is completely intertwined with the water. Their livelihood depends on the shrimp, crawfish, crabs, oysters and numerous other fish that live and breed in these wetlands. Nesting and feeding grounds for numerous waterfowl will also be lost — possibly wiping out entire species.
In an area with a long, harsh history, this chapter could be the worst.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com