Deep Into the Light-Hearted Darkness

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.

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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.

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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:CajunVillage.jpg] [source]Photo by Ronald K. Hansen

Humans also occupy the Honey Island Swamp in structures built to withstand the water and the tourboats.

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.”

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