Tuesday, April 23, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 22

Bayou Baby!

                “Ya seen one gator, ya seen ‘em all!” So said a visitor to NOLA I overheard one day.
    Hm. Okay, well, I’m from South Florida where, while I was growing up, it was a pretty common thing to get out in the Everglades. I’ve always loved our heritage here—heading out to Shark Valley where you’ll walk a path where there are snakes and birds and massive alligators and a wonderful tower where you can look out over our “river of grass.” I love visiting our Miccosukee villages and Big Cypress and the Seminole villages.
                Yes, an alligator is an alligator is an alligator. (Hey, down here, by the way, we have crocs, too, the only crocs in the Continental United States, other than the kind you put on
your feet.)
                But I promise you, swamp and airboat tours are different in different places. And in NOLA, you have several choices of getting out and enjoying nature!
                First of all, definitions can be confusing and lines can wobble. The tours are really of what are considered “wetlands.” Wetlands have bayous; bodies of water like creeks or small rivers that are tributaries of bigger rivers or bodies of water, swamps; seasonally flooded bottom lands with more trees than marshes; tracts of low wet lands with few to no trees but cattails, grasses, etc.
                When you’re visiting one, you’re probably close to another, and so, when you’re on a “swamp” tour, you’ll often see bayous and marshes as well as swamps. What’s spectacular to them all is the wildlife you’ll get to see.
                Heading north of the city, you can visit Manchac Swamp. Naturally, you’ll have to check with tour guides on how to get out there—and how you want to see it.
                Manchac, you see, is horribly haunted. Manchac is where you’ll find “the blood-red hanging tree.” It’s where, in 1915,  the Great West Indies Storm went through—creating a tidal wave of about 20 feet that killed over 300 people. Naturally, there was a voodoo curse, there’s a cemetery, a lost settlement, and—the rougarou. What’s a rougarou? Take a tour and they’ll tell you. No, nevermind, I’ll spill. The name comes from the French loup-garou. You can actually see the word written many ways now—Roux-ga-Roux, Rugaru, and more. But,
you’ve probably guessed it. Originally, we’re talking French werewolf here. Wolves are not at common in the swamp area, but a host of other animals are, so the rougarou may take on a variety of forms. The legend—as it was in Europe—has become pure Louisiana here. Being bitten by a rougarou is not an instant death-warrant; there are good endings and bad endings to encounters with rougarous. If you take a tour, your director can tell you what you must—and must not do!—should you encounter a rougarou.
                In the mid-eighteen hundreds, there were about 1200 people living in the area growing mainly cabbages and black-eye peas. They all knew one another, and when the train went through from NOLA to Jackson Mississippi in 1856, the vegetables grown here became prized all over the nation. People
knew one another and cared about one another. One famous resident was Aunt Julia Brown—she lived in the small settlement of Frenier. Creole and something of a voodoo priestess, Aunt Julia was to take her last breath the day before the devastating hurricane rolled in and she so loved her land and people that she prophesized that they would all die with her. The storm didn’t kill them all, but it did take approximately 300 people the next day. There are great tales of heroism here. A train engineer who knew the local residents determined to get some of them out. While the train had been ordered to cease running, he took the engine and a few box cars, trying to get in and get people out. He had twenty-two souls aboard before he could go no further. The storm swept in, the boxcar flooded—but! The next day, the water went down and he and those he saved walked back to survive. It’s a story of heroism that’s real—history is always better than anything we can make up!
                I have to say that you can head out, have an amazing Cajun meal at a “campsite” there, and then take a night tour and hear these stories told in the right atmosphere and by
guides who know them backwards and forward. And there are more ghost stories, of course. And nature. Put them together and-- spooky. At night, you see the red eyes of alligators as they peer at you from the water. Seriously—I’m not sure if movie magic has ever created a creature like a gator with glowing eyes at night. But, while the stories are heart breaking and can make you believe in ghosts, the nature in the tours in amazing.
                There are a number of places to call or see about swamp tours, and I don’t want to be prejudice toward one or against any. Key in Louisiana Bayou Tours and you’ll find a number of different companies. Make sure you read up on what each one offers.  Tours out of NOLA tend to be good—people really love their history and their place and most often, your tour guides are from the area and sometimes, their families have been there for decades—or even centuries. (Even if your guide happens to have come from somewhere else originally; they’ve been bitten by the love of the area!)
                Now, if you’re not heading in the direction of Manchac Swamp, you might want to go south across the Mississippi River to the Jean Lafitte/Barataria preserve. This is where the famous and infamous pirate hid his booty. It was his home turf, so to say, and it’s deep in Cajun country. Naturally, there are wonderful stories to discover this side, too. There’s an old Native American burial mound here that is estimated to be about two-thousand years old. You can see what a Cajun fishing village is like and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Miss Vicki. Miss Vicki is huge and old—she’s the undisputed Alligator Queen of Bayou Barataria.
                You can also take an airboat tour in this area. Zipping over the wetlands is exciting—and it’s also great when your captain slows or stops to relate a story or point out wildlife that is lurking. Many of the guides are natives to the area and have great and amazing tales to tell.
                The Barataria Preserve is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park service.  As always, remember with a national park that tours are set up so that people learn, look, and enjoy—and leave what it is as it is!  

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