In Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp, a Cajun guide takes tourists on a wetlands cruise that’s part ecological wonder, part circus. Keep your hands inside the boat, and don't forget the marshmallows.
In a Louisiana swamp the size of Baghdad, you wouldn’t think you’d bump into so many tour boats. True, most of them don’t roam the full 250 square miles of the Honey Island Swamp of eastern Louisiana. They confine themselves to about 10 square miles of canal and bayou, ferrying tourists from all over the world into the heart of darkness to see wild lands, menacing animals, big-footed swamp monsters, and Cajuns in their natural habitat. That’s what the tour companies advertise and that is what tourists buy, belief suspended, for a two-hour trip that is part ecological wonder and part circus.
I was one of those tourists on an early March descent into the swamp. We’d found a Pearl River Eco Tours brochure with coupon in our rental house in Waveland, Mississippi, and decided to drive a few miles across the state line for an afternoon on the water. After all, if you want to get into the swamp at this time of the year, walking is out. Boats are the way to go.
The Center for Eco and Cultural Tourism at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette touts swamp tours as among Louisiana’s most popular tourist attractions “because of their unique ability to put visitors in touch with otherwise largely inaccessible environments,” they say. “Being in a swamp is a one-of-a-kind experience because the only way to see and hear the sights and sounds of the bayou is to be in one. Most swamp tours are given by local Cajun people who have grown up in the area and know the bayous like few people can.”
Our tour guide, Captain John, is himself a local who grew up in these waters and moonlights as a jazz piano player. We boarded his boat with eager fellow tourists: we from Iowa, another group from Colorado, a few repeat customers from Louisiana, and a smattering of visitors from Canada and England. Pearl River Eco Tours operates from a spot about 45 miles east of New Orleans, so they can capture visitors who want vacation experiences beyond urban offerings. The company is one of several operating in this area of the Honey Island Swamp. Captain John repeatedly assured us he’d steer clear of certain canals or bayous until boats from the other companies cleared out. “It is just like Disneyland out there. Nobody wants that,” he assured us.
What he knew we did want, if thousands of tourists before us were any indication, was to see alligators. We were maybe a hundred yards from the dock when Captain John idled the Yamaha outboard engine to tell us about a few resident gators, how they differ from warm climate-loving crocs, and how we wouldn’t see the big boys until the weather warmed up for the season. Captain John was explaining how two male alligators will fight to the death over territory when, there on the shore, on downed a tree limb, basked a three-foot gator. Captain John swung the boat around to give us a better view of the little guy. To aid the gator in looking like something other than a moss-colored rock, Captain John tossed marshmallows in its direction. It responded with a snap of jaws and a wuff of water. Many of us took blurry photos. Someone asked if gators had become habituated to waiting at this spot for their sugar fix. Captain John said that this was their natural hangout and that sugar was good for their digestion.
While Captain John steered us along the Pearl River he pointed out turtles grouped on tree logs, stands of bald cypress, red maple trees and more gators. He pointed out plants he said had long been known by Native Americans as health aids. He told self-effacing Cajun jokes. Then he drove us by a settlement along the river that was accessible by road on one side, but only by water on the other. People build small water-tolerant structures, affix a porch, and basically squat, living rent and tax free for as long as they desire. Some of the families have children, who dutifully go to school each day once they can navigate to the bus. Our boat, and boats from another tour company, formed a flotilla past this little settlement of people who just want to be alone. We motored about 20 yards away from a man who sat on his porch trying to talk on a cell phone. Someone asked how these folks react to being on the shoulder of a tour boat highway. Captain John said the company makes it up to them at Christmas by raising money to buy gifts for the children.
Deeper into the swamp we traveled. Captain John took our boat to dead calm and explained that for safety, our hands should never go past the boat’s railing. We should watch over our heads for snakes basking on tree limbs—like that water moccasin about four feet above the people from England! That snake was one of several we encountered in the stretch of bayou we entered. Captain John explained how to tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes by the shape of their heads. No one asked about habituation.
We glided slowly and almost soundlessly. We took some quiet moments to appreciate this beautiful and environmentally sensitive preserved wetlands.
This area is sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of Louisiana, both for its beauty and for the destination it presents to tourists. Louisiana contains about 40 percent of the wetlands in the U.S., which Captain John pointed out are critical to the survival of migrating waterfowl and everything that depends on their success. Coastal erosion is something he didn’t talk about, but scientists and others widely discuss the possible reasons for loss of land and the reason the Mississippi River isn’t depositing much new sediment here. Visitors to sites like this, in the care of tour companies like this, bring both dollars to communities and awareness about environmental threats to the area, from oil spills to hurricanes.
Another challenge to this area isn’t from man or climate, but from the wild pigs that have made themselves at home in 45 states. According to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, “Wild pigs (also known as wild hogs or feral pigs) are not native to the Americas. Brought by early Spanish explorers, they have now spread across the United States. Wild pigs are highly adaptable and capable of fending for themselves, making them capable of existing in a variety of habitats.”
The Wild Pig Info website details myriad ways of hunting, trapping and fending off these creatures. This list doesn’t include corralling them with a group of sightseeing tour boats and pelting them with marshmallows. But that’s what our group did, as our craft and several from another sightseeing company played bumper boat at the dead end of a finger of bayou. There a small group of sows and their deer-fawn colored piglets squealed and hopped on logs to get closer to the bobbing white globs of sweetness. Someone asked if habituating wildlife to humans by feeding them junk food only to trap or shoot them later was the right thing to do. Captain John’s reply echoed what most in the area would say. “Who cares? They’re pigs!”
I’ve heard that sentiment before, only substitute coyotes or prairie dogs or wolves or any other inconvenient creature. It reminded me of how it was once common practice at national parks around the country to allow bears to eat from garbage cans. Ever opportunistic, bears would become habituated to humans and their garbage and be handy any time a tourist wanted to take a photograph. It is not fair to compare wildlife such as a bear whose habitat is increasingly limited, to an out of control mammal that can call just about anyplace home.
Yet seeing those piglets tilt their heads from side to side, begging from humans for marshmallows like so many Labrador puppies gave me pause. Indeed, our group was quiet as Captain John pivoted the boat around, puttering in the wake of boats from the other tour company. He told some more self-effacing Cajun jokes and pointed out more snakes. He punched it when we got back into open water, buzzing the privacy-loving Cajun settlement.
He pointed out where an elusive Bigfoot-like creature was said to dwell among the cypress of the swamp. Existing in dubious plaster footprint casts and imagination, the 7-foot tall Honey Island Swamp Monster left a much smaller footprint than most of us in this heart of darkness theme park. If it means preserving these wetlands, I’d gladly buy another ticket for the daily performance. But this time I might put my hands outside the rail.
Julianne Couch is the author of “Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy” and “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey.”