Monday, April 28, 2008

You Can't Predict All That You'll See On a Cajun Swamp Tour

Ed and I arrived early for our scheduled Swamp Tour excited that we’d actually get out on the lake we had visited a day earlier. This morning we’d get more than a roadside view. Bryan Champagne’s boat would take us and seven other people beneath the canopy of trees, near a sanctuary for waterfowl, and into the shallow waters populated by alligators.

Bryan is intimate with the plant and animal life in Lake Martin Swamp. Though Bryan will tell you that you can never predict what you’ll see on a swamp tour, he clearly knew his way around the channels. He could spot wildlife that I would have easily missed had he not cut his engine and called attention to the creatures. Bryan runs several tours each day for folks visiting this part of Cajun Country in Louisiana. In many ways, he exceeded our expectations.

Bryan greeted us with a laugh on this crisp cool morning. He and I both were entertained by Ed who struggled to pull a green fleece jacket over his head while walking from the car to the boat. Ed seemed trapped by the tight fit and puzzled by the sleeves riding up midway to his elbows. He had grabbed my LL Bean fleece from the coach closet, not his own.

Gradually, others with reservations for the Monday 10 AM tour began to arrive. Ed and I shared tales of our road trip with a couple of admitted RV enthusiasts. Bryan gave a robust greeting to the husband and wife from Quebec, “Bonjour, comment c’est va?” Then, he turned his attention to the woman whose elderly Mom and Dad waited on the level gravel lot above the shoreline. Her Dad sat on a motorized cart. With confidence and strength, Bryan helped guide

the cart down the slope to the water’s edge. While Ed and another man steadied the boat and stabilized the chair, Bryan hoisted the man gently into a prime viewing seat aboard the boat. Now, the rest of us could board.

Unlike the others on the tour, Ed and I had previously met our guide. He had just finished his last Sunday afternoon tour when we came along. We were drawn to his pick-up truck parked in the lot of Lake Martin. An alligator was painted on the tailgate with the phone number of Champagne’s Authentic Cajun Swamp Tours. I had a pen and paper in hand ready to copy the number when Bryan offered a handshake.

Bryan runs his swamp tours as a full time job. He started over 10-years ago when the oil and gas business in Louisiana slumped and he was scratching for a living. He told us he was “born and raised on the water.” And, even if he hadn’t told us “I love the water”, we would have figured it out just by talking to Bryan and taking his tour.

He showed us his flat-bottom boat, a 24-foot aluminum Crawfish Skiff with 12 seats. It’s designed to run in the shallow swamp waters. It’s stable and safe. Bryan prefers this design over the popular air boats which he says are loud and scare the wildlife.

According to Bryan, there’s seven miles of water at Lake Martin, some 275 acres, stocked with largemouth bass. Perch and blue gill live in this rain-fed lake too. Bryan worries that because the lake is full of water all year long, no new trees can grow. He explained that for new growth to begin there needs to be dry spells. “One storm of hurricane force winds could wipe out all these huge cypress trees,” Bryan frets. “There are no new trees coming up to replace ones we see today.” Some of the towering trees he estimated could be a hundreds of years old. These tall trees create a perfect habitat for nesting birds high above the reach of natural predators and with easy access to the water. Bryan will skirt this Nature Conservancy when giving a tour of the swamp.

As Bryan maneuvered the boat onto the lake, he joined his passengers’ conversation about Cajun food. “Now, here’s how you make etouffe. Mix crawfish with a bell pepper, onion, oil and flour, then add a can of cream of mushroom soup,” Bryan encouraged us to forget the cookbook recipes and opt for his simple mixture with a Campbell’s favorite.

With that settled, Bryan eased into his true area of expertise – the swamp tour. He showed us a rectangular house perched on poles above the water. He referred to this unlikely house accessible only by boat as “the dog house” where a man can go when his wife gets angry or he simply want to be on the water fishing. Overhead, he pointed to the Spanish moss, an “air plant”, used today by florists to create interesting arrangements and once used for stuffing chairs. Bryan claims the latter use resulted in the “first recall”. Apparently, bugs at home in the moss were unwelcome in people’s homes. Eventually, horsehair replaced the moss. Before we entered the channels between the bald cypress trees and tupelo gum trees, Bryan pointed out a nearby boat. The sportsmen on board had no rods with bobbers; they relied on eyesight as they aimed a bow and arrow hunting for fish.

Dragon fly wings shimmered rainbow colors in the sunlight
breaking through the cypress trees. The boat gently bumped against a tree in the narrow passage of cypress growing out of the shallows where the water measured only two feet deep. Plants – duckweed and water hyacinths -covered the water surface and parted as the boat drifted slowly. Bryan warned us to keep our hands inside the boat so as not to get pinched between the boat and trees. He had us lean in when we passed the picky marsh grass.

Though we could see through the clear water during most of our tour, we passed through one area where charcoal black water churned thick like boiling pudding. Bryan navigated a 2 -3 inch deep ditch to take us to a place where the surface plants sheltered four little baby alligators. “They’re about two years old. They grow very slowly in length.” Bryan believes that temperature affects the gender of the alligators’ eggs. The hotter the weather, the more males; cooler weather produces more females. A six foot long female holding her snout above the water floated nearby. Bryan suggested that she might be 20 – 30 years old. She has many years to go. Some alligators will live to be 100 years old.

Folks in the bayou hunt alligator cutting some of them short of a long life span. According to Bryan, hunters are rationed to one alligator from a given 168 acres of property. The meat is eaten and the hide can bring a good price paid by the foot to be used for purses and other fashionable goods.

On our tour, we learned that alligators move slowly on land but can swim up to 35 mph in the water. They can be lured simply with a piece of chicken tied to a rope and dropped in the water over the side of a boat. Males are likely to eat the baby alligators so Bryan said “the females run the babies away.”

A bayou, Bryan explained, is a flooded forest with fresh water flowing through. Unlike a swamp, the bayou does not dry out. At Lake Martin, the Army Corp of Engineers manages the environment, water, and wildlife.

We saw plenty of wildlife flying or perched watchfully over nests: white egrets, great blue herons, and rosette spoonbills. We could hear the bellow of bullfrogs. Bryan bragged that one night he caught 76 bullfrogs, some he grabbed with his bare hands. We watched an otter sun himself on a log. And, in a grand finale, we followed the bubbles to see a giant alligator rise then shyly duck under the floating mat of vegetation. Bryan looked like a satisfied man as he captained his boat back to shore. In a two-hour tour, he had shown us what we’d come to see even though, you never know what you’ll see on a swamp tour.

April 13 & 14, 2008

Champagne’s Swamp Tours are available by reservation. Call: 337-230-4068.

Lake Martin is located south of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

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