It all began innocently enough when Stacey Scarce, director of natural science for the Acadiana Nature Station, called me and said, “Let’s paddle across the basin!” Her idea was to create a paddle route through the Atchafalaya Basin that would connect two of the leading environmental figures involved with this great wetland. We would begin near the home of photographer Greg Guirard in Catahoula and find our way through the cuts, sloughs, canals and bayous of the Atchafalaya to finish at Bayou Sorrel near the home of Basinkeeper Dean Wilson. Stacey’s hope was to bring attention to the Basinkeeper program as well as giving us a first-hand look at the basin for ourselves. The participants included Stacey, Martin Arceneaux, musician Drew Landry, Becky and me with our dog, Boone, and our friends from Salida, Colo., Jon and Rickie McManus.
Early in the morning of our first day, the water pulsed through the canal, dirty and brown, sweeping us downstream away from the launch at Catahoula. Confusion started early as we swung into a cut to see if it was our first turn-off. We were immediately met by three hunters in an old, well-used aluminum boat. “Where ya’ll goin’ in those things?” the hunters wanted to know. Our reply came (a little sheepishly). “Bayou Sorrel.” “What?! Ya’ll better be careful!” they replied. “The river’s high and there’s some whitewater down there at the Zig Zag. You’re not gettin’ back up here if you go down in those canoes.” With their warnings ringing in our ears, we navigated the Zig Zag (it’s not really whitewater) and into our first long canal of the trip.
Heavy currents are a fact in the Atchafalaya Basin. Since the levees were built in the 1930s, the water flow has been intensified within the confines of these protective earthen structures. Dredging of many of the natural canals has also made the currents stronger. In times of higher water, (for our trip, the Atchafalaya was at 15 feet) the current will run away from the Atchafalaya river. What this meant for us was that we would be paddling mainly upstream until we reached the Atchafalaya River and then downstream to the east levee at Bayou Sorrel. These currents have become a serious issue in the basin.
“What do you feel are some of the changes that have occurred?” Drew asked a hunter we met during our lunch break. “Well, the biggest thing is that so many of the bayous and sloughs we used to hunt are all silted up now,” he replied. “We can’t even get to so many of the areas that we used to hunt anymore. This place has really changed.” His voice trailed off with the resignation of a man who sees a problem but feels powerless to make any changes. We were left to sit and imagine what this place must have been like less than a lifetime ago.
The current intensified as we approached the Atchafalaya River, paddling up Bayou L’embarrass and Long Lake. Finally, we reached the Atchafalaya, heading south with the flow of the water. After a day of paddling upstream, we laid back and enjoyed the river moving us along until we reached our campsite on Splice Island. The island is fixed between the Atchafalaya and the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel. We paddled past numerous signs such as “Posted Big S Hunting Club” and “No Trespassing — Private Property” before we started finding the “State Lands” signs we were looking for. As the sun dropped over the Atchafalaya, we got our fire going strong to ward off the arctic cold front that had gripped Acadiana over the last several days. Our group settled in to their spots on the log and enjoyed the folksy sound of Drew playing his guitar and singing songs about Greg Guirard, the politics of the common man and Angola state prison.
There was a tension among the group the next morning as we prepared to cross the big water of the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel. Before we left for the trip, we were warned by state officials, “Make sure you get a sheriff’s boat to meet you at the river before you cross. The currents are extremely dangerous and the wash from a tug can be lethal.” As if that wasn’t enough, one official told us, “I had trouble crossing with my 150-horsepower motorboat last week.” We had assurances that we could make it across from other acquaintances, so the decision was made that we could handle the currents in our small crafts. Being from Colorado, and having never visited the South, everything seemed very foreign to Rickie. She has run many 100-mile ultra-marathons in her life, but from her expression, I could tell this crossing had her worried. Looking out from an eddy alongside Splice Island, everything looked tame enough. No tugs, no whirlpools. “Let’s go!” We started paddling hard upstream, angling the bow of the boat towards the east shore. After what seemed like a really long time, we were all safely in an eddy on the other side. Rickie’s smile told it all. We were across.
After a quick portage around a steel dam, our group found itself in a pipeline canal just off Bloody Bayou. A few miles up the canal, we saw a motorboat approaching. It was Dean Wilson, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. He had come out to check on us and see how were faring. We gathered around his boat as Drew asked him questions. “What do you think are the biggest problems facing the Basin right now?” asked Drew. “Right now, I would say that siltation is the biggest problem. Every year we are losing waterways to siltation. And the problem is very solvable,” said Dean. “Where do we go from here?” Dean replied, “We can build sediment traps in areas where water flows from the Atchafalaya into the smaller waterways that feed the sloughs and swamps. By trapping most of this sediment, I feel we will greatly reduce the pace at which the waterways are silting up.”
This pipeline was our home for the night. We spent the evening telling stories, listening to music and eating great food. All too soon, we were loading our canoes for the final day of paddling. A 70-percent chance of rain and impending cold front gave us a little extra urgency to get on the water. While the route on the west side of the basin was simple enough to follow on a map, the east side route was a labyrinth of turns in waterways that many times were too small to see on the map. Dean had helped us with some GPS coordinates that we combined with our map to find our way to Bayou Sorrel. As we made our way towards the east levee, Jon from Salida asked, “Why haven’t these oilfield companies hauled all of this old equipment out of here?” That was a question we didn’t have an answer to. We passed old platforms, small valve trees surrounded by old decrepit inflatable oil spill booms, a half sunken barge near an abandoned well and many other signs of drilling from another era. This left a slightly sour note on the beauty we had witnessed over the last three days as we pushed on through the cold rain towards Bayou Sorrel. Finally, with the landing in sight, there were smiles all around as we paddled the last few yards to our take out.
What we found in our three days in the swamp is that the Atchafalaya Basin is truly a land of paradoxes. Songbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, cormorants, herons and countless other birds graced the trees and shorelines during our trip. Yet these birds are threatened by the cypress logging sins of our generation and previous generations. Private landowners claim areas that boats can float through while commercial fishermen and recreational users claim that these are navigable waterways. The sediments that can help to rebuild our receding coastline are silting the waterways our fathers and grandfathers fished, hunted and paddled. The domestic oil production that our country so desperately needs has created a graveyard of old, unused equipment rusting in the water. But what stands above all of these paradoxes is the immensity of this wilderness. The Atchafalaya is still a wild and beautiful place and the story is still being written on how man will interact with this paradise into the future. We finished the trip feeling a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie as well as an awe for the immensity and beauty this wilderness. We can’t wait to go back!
The board hopes to recover all fees paid, plus one-half, along with what could amount to hundreds of thousands in additional penalties.
Oh, the irony... or something like that.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
St. Patty's Day crafts
The former star of Saturday Night Live throws in his 2 cents on the Big Oil lawsuit.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday, March 10, 2014:
New menu items ready for the Lenten season
The Cane Fire Film Series screens “MaidenTrip” on Monday, March 10, at the AcA.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
The vibe of the tribe done modern
The Louisiana Workforce Commission said Friday that initial claims rose to 2,125 from the previous week's total of 1,964. There were 2,887 initial claims during the comparable week in 2013.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
She’s the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, but she’s been a gifted artist in her own right for three decades, and she’s coming to Lafayette.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.