December 1, 2010

Honey Island Swamp, West Pearl River near Slidell, Louisiana

We were staying just outside of New Orleans in the town of Slidell, so that we could do a swamp tour. These swamp tours are one of the only ways to really get back into the bayous and backwaters to see what the flood forest ecosystems are about. So, we did one with Cajun Encounters at "Honey Island Swamp" along the West Pearl River.

When we arrived for our 2:30pm tour, the parking lot was full and there were dozens of people mulling around the building. When I checked in, they told me they had 111 people scheduled. I was aghast, as I expected it was going to be some kitschy touristy thing that was crowded with boats, and just not what I was hoping for. But, to their credit, it was a really interesting and fun tour.

Getting ready to shove off while Hilina enjoys a cracker
Our guide was a locally-raised trained wildlife biologist and was very knowledgable. He was also very good about staying away from the other boats and taking us into some really tight and interesting spots.

The river levels are way down after an unusually dry autumn, so some of the channels were too shallow. But, nonetheless, we did see some interesting backwaters and wildlife along the way. While it had been unseasonably warm for weeks, a cold front blew through the day before, dropping nighttime temperatures to near freezing and the day to the upper 50's. So we did not expect to see any turtles or alligators.

But, you know what? We got lucky and found this 3.5 foot alligator still hanging out. Our guide told us the alligators were mostly starting to hibernate now, but luckily there was one out and about.

One unexpected and really interesting portion of the trip was to visit an "Indian Village". It gives you a glimpse of what used to be hundreds of villages across Louisiana until modern times. It is completely inaccessible by car. You can only reach it by boat. Many of the people are fishermen and head down the river to The Gulf to shrimp, crab, or fish. Some use these homes as weekend camps while others live here year-round. 

This man, a friend of the tour leader, has dozens of crab traps.
Despite the traditional setting of this crabber, the modern conveniences of cell phones and satelite dish TV still rule.  However, many in Acadiana used to live in these types of communities until the 1940's brought oil/gas development. That then meant canals, roads, powerlines, and immigration. Today, not many of these villages remain.

A Katrina damaged home

As you might have expected, Katrina did a number on this community. The 20-foot storm surge rolled up the river and over-topped nearly every home in this stretch. Many were destoyed and only their pilings remain. Some where rebuilt (you can tell with the fresh wood), but perhaps half the homes are in some state of destruction or decay.

Another fix-er-upper
Someone's shrimp boat parked in front of their house

Two Anhingas soaring overhead

As we heading into some of the backwaters, you get this primeval feeling in your bones.

Oh, look who is coming to visit...

Like most of Louisiana, this area was clear-cut in the 1920's for the cypress wood. But, we did pass a few pretty large survivers who were spared. Somehow they also survived Katrina, perhaps only losing a few of their limbs. It helps to have a strong trunk, but flexible branches.

Sunset on the final turn on the way back to base

If any of you are in New Orleans in the future, I highly recommend you take one of these Honey Island Tours. They are a pretty good way to spend 2 hours of your day learning about this amazing ecosystem.

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