Our guide that evening was a retired UPS driver from Pennsylvania – who is now a bird-watcher, certified naturalist, swamp enthusiast, and Houma resident. He pointed out sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds and prothonotary warblers, commonly known as swamp canaries. He schooled us on the invasive plant species in the swamp and the noticeable effects of climate change on the future of Louisiana’s biodiversity. I’ve been on a few swamp tours in southern Louisiana, but none as illuminating — usually I end up with someone from the swamp, not someone who knows about the swamp.
Embarking on our canoe trip that evening we rowed underneath the drab twin I-55 overpasses. Almost immediately after passing the bridges I felt a sense of serenity, and while I could hear the sounds of cars flying just behind me, all I could focus on was the intense beauty of the swamp before me. We noticed the surface of the water dotted with duckweed and lily pads, all pushing to the sides as we paddled through. We would stop occasionally to learn about the ancient cypress trees that survived the logging industry and how during the 1884 World’s Fair the Japanese introduced the invasive water hyacinths that have taken over the swamp. It was hard to believe that all of this was a mere 40 minute drive from my house.
After canoeing around the broad bayou between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain, we headed to some narrower channels that extend like fingers off of the wider part of the swamp. Navigating these limited passages in a two-person canoe wasn’t the easiest – often I found myself cursing while trying to remove the boat from between cypress knees or atop mud islands. As we continued, the cypresses start to taper off and make way for tall grass, the landscape changing from what looks like a forest into a prairie. We docked on a muddy bank and got out to stretch our legs and have a beer. Surrounded by a field of two-foot-tall bright green arrowhead plants, we watched as the sun set into the swamp, the sky trading shades of blue for pink, orange, and purple.
As the moon rose in the sky you could hear the calls of barred owls and a chorus of cricket frogs. Oars in hand, we launched the canoes back into the water for our paddle back to civilization. Without the visual distractions I had in daylight, I found that my senses were much more attuned to the navigation of the constricted bayou passes; all the obstacles I ran into during the sunlit hours weren’t a problem once I was focused on just paddling by moonlight.
When we emerged from those skinny waterways and back to the main bayou where we started, the moon was no longer hidden above the trees. The light from the full moon was more intense than I expected, and we had no trouble seeing up ahead. We took these last moments on our trip to hunt for gators with our flashlights, searching for their mirror-like eyes staring back at us. We stopped counting after ten – it was a little eerie knowing that we were surrounded by these beasts lurking in the shadows.
We returned to the launch site around 9:30, four hours after we had left, feeling humbled, hungry, wet, and sleepy. The magic of the evening faded as we loaded back into the car, got onto I-10 and let the refinery flames of Norco light the way back home.
For more information on this particular swamp tour, please click here.