Swamp Creatures

Exploring the history and architecture of New Orleans had been a lot of fun, but the one thing that I was the most eager to do on our trip to the Big Easy was kayak into a cypress swamp. Although my initial idea was to rent kayaks and go out on our own, I ended up finding us a guide with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours, and miraculously, everyone in our group agreed to shell out $200 a person for an extended tour.

On the day of the paddle we met our guide, Nick, and a handful of other tourists at the boat launch where Nick set up our equipment. The safety briefing was quick because everyone in the group had prior kayaking experience, and to my surprise, we weren’t required to wear the provided life vests if we were comfortable swimmers. Soon we were all in the water, paddling against a strong wind across a wide open bayou. We passed underneath a noisy bridge, but after that we had left civilization behind and entered the enchanting wilderness of Manchac Swamp.

Nick stopped every so often to give us information about the flora and fauna of the swamp, and we even caught glimpses of a few small American alligators. This was apparently unusual for late December, but New Orleans was experiencing unseasonably warm weather, which kept the gators from dormancy.

The real adventure began, however, when Nick led us into a narrow waterway lined with towering bald cypress trees. Now we found ourselves in a maze of plants, dodging cypress knees and logs that lurked just underneath the water’s surface. A barred owl gazed down at us from high atop a tree as Nick gave us a talk about the cypresses, and how much of the forest was destroyed during hurricane Ida.

He also pointed out another threat to the fragile ecosystem, invasive water hyacinth that seemed to cover much of the swamp’s open water. This plant can really disrupt a wetland that it’s been introduced to by multiplying rapidly, and using too much of the water’s oxygen as it decomposes. A lack of oxygen makes the water uninhabitable for many fish. An invasive plant like this can throw off the balance of an entire ecosystem, and Nick recounted times that he’d had to hack his way through water hyacinth to get his kayak through it.

Perhaps the most fun part of the day was when we had to paddle through a narrow passage between tall stands of sawgrass. The view was nothing but grass coming at my face, and I had to let Vince take over all of the paddling because it was easier for him to make sharp turns alone.

After we emerged from the sawgrass labyrinth, we came across a campsite where the afternoon sun beamed gloriously from between the trees, sending shadows dancing across the surface of the water, which was covered in native duckweed. It was here that Nick began to look for a good spot to beach ourselves for lunch, and we ate as sunbeams glittered around us in a golden haze.

By the time we got back to the boat launch, we’d paddled six miles through some of the most beautiful swampland I’ve ever seen, and we all agreed that it had been worth the extra money to get to go on a longer, more adventurous tour.

That evening we went back into the French Quarter to eat gumbo and wander the city a bit more, but I was already looking forward to the next day because we would be returning to the swamp for an airboat ride, and I was excited to hopefully see piles of gators.

I ended up getting my wish and then some. By some stroke of luck, our airboat captain sat our group of five at the front of the boat, which was great for me because our boat had stadium seating, so being in the front row meant I’d get a lower angle for photographing gators.

We zipped across an open bayou, speeding straight over clumps of water hyacinth as though they weren’t even there, then our captain turned the engine down to a putter and steered us into a narrower passage fringed with trees that were dripping in Spanish moss. This was when the captain told us to start keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, and within no time, we’d spotted a large gator sunning itself on a clump of grass.

From then on, people were pointing out gators left and right. Sometimes you’d barely catch sight of one before someone found another. We even saw a huge gator eating a baby gator, and our captain explained that the young gator had probably already been dead before it was made into a meal. Alligators are opportunistic hunters, so they would rather eat something that is already dead than go after something that is still alive, and unlike crocodiles, they don’t tend to eat anything that is too big to swallow whole.

As we came to an area that was teeming with small alligators, the captain explained to us that gators have a much worse reputation than they deserve. He said they aren’t naturally aggressive towards people and anyone who says they are is either lying or misinformed. This led Vince to ask, “Does that mean we can touch one?” just as a gator swam beside the boat, inches from where I was sitting.

I gave Vince a wry expression, not at all expecting the captain to come back with, “You can do whatever you want, but if you’re going to touch it, make sure you commit to it.”

This led to a line up of Vince, Travis, Meagan, Bonnie, and I laying down on the boat deck, and reaching into the water to gently brush the tops of the gator’s heads as they swam by. For some reason no one else on board the airboat seemed eager to join in on the action, so we just shrugged and named the gator we’d been petting Lisa.

Later on the tour, our captain would tell us a story of a time he was filming a large gator with a GoPro for a Make-a-Wish project. The GoPro lens reflected the sun into the animal’s eye, and it lashed out and latched onto his arm, severely injuring him. If anyone thought he was exaggerating, they were proven wrong when he produced a video of himself, elbow deep in an alligator’s clenched jaw. I couldn’t help but think that I would have maybe put the GoPro on a selfie stick, only to remember that I had been bare-handed touching Lisa mere minutes before.

After the gator zone, the captain drove us out to an open marsh where he had us pull up Google Maps to show how much more land the map shows than there actually is. Louisiana loses over 7,000 square feet of land every 100 minutes, and this land loss causes major problems like decreased protection from storms like hurricanes, and major blows to the fishing and oil industries, both of which people in the area rely on for income. He also mentioned the threats of the invasive water hyacinth and the nutria, which is a beaver-like rodent native to South America. The nutrias reproduce rapidly, and can strip an area clean of all of it edible plants, which wreaks havoc on other animals that rely on the plants for food.

As he spoke, a very pretty lone gator hovered near the boat, as if it was listening intently to the list of threats to its ecosystem.

It was with the contrast between the amazing beauty of our surroundings, and our knowledge that this land is quickly disappearing that our captain steered us back through the swamp. The Spanish Moss waved goodbye to us from the treetops, wafting gently in the breeze. Our excursions into the wetlands had been my favorite part of our trip to New Orleans by far, and I was sad that we were leaving the swamp for the last time.

That afternoon we went into the French Quarter for the last time too. We wandered the streets for awhile before settling into an empty bar where we got into a lengthy conversation with the bartender as he made us the best daiquiris I’ve ever had in my life. Then we grabbed dinner at the Vampire Cafe, which was delightfully thematic, and finally we out to Frenchmen Street which had transformed into one big party now that it was the weekend. We listened to live jazz in a few different clubs, before heading out and dancing to a band that was playing on a street corner. Onlookers, crowded the street, making it nearly impossible for unlucky drivers to get their cars anywhere. We danced the night away in a fitting ending to an amazing four days in New Orleans.

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