The water snake swam past our boat and someone asked, ‘Are they poisonous?’
‘No,’ said our Captain, Bishop Keller, ‘You can eat ’em.’
It took a moment for people to get his dry Louisiana sense of humor and realize he was joking. Our swamp tour was turning out to have wit as well as wildlife, and a chance to see creatures like snakes and gators up close. In the case of the gators it would be very close indeed.
Cajun Encounters operate out of Slidell, Louisiana, an easy 50-minute drive from downtown New Orleans most of it on I-10. Turn off the interstate, though, and you enter the world of the Louisiana swamps. Cajun Encounters is on the edge of the Honey Island Swamp in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, with their small tour boats moored near their offices on the Old Pearl River. The Management Area covers 35,000 acres of swamps and bayous, streams and forests, with a few isolated communities making a living from fishing.
Captain Bishop greets us with a safety message, and reminds us that we’re dealing with nature so there are no guarantees. ‘It’s very unpredictable, and can be very uncooperative. And now I’m going to switch on the AC,’ he says, as he opens up the engine and we roar away, the wind at least cooling us down a little on this sunny and steamy Louisiana day.
We pass two young guys fishing from a boat. ‘Probably for catfish,’ Captain Bishop adds. A little further along is the tiny community of Indian Village, though apart from a turtle sitting on a log the only sign of wildlife is a barking beagle outside one of the houses.
‘The family that lives there are commercial crab fishermen,’ Captain Bishop explains, ‘mostly fishing for blue crabs. We’re now on the West Pearl River, and the eye of Katrina came right up here. We had 17-feet storm surges.’
As we get further into the swamps and creeks, twisting and turning and losing all sense of direction – except for the Captain, of course – we do start to see some wildlife. It starts small, though, with clusters of pink snail eggs.
‘These are the eggs of apple snails,’ Captain Bishop tells us, leaning over to grab a twig off a branch and handing it round for inspection. ‘They’re an invasive species, a real nuisance. The snails are as big as your fist and all over southern Louisiana.’
We see two black-bellied whistling ducks, another invasive species, and then hear the honking of a goose: ‘The Cajun Alarm.’
On another houseboat the captain points out a fairly ordinary-looking black dog.
‘That’s a Catahoula Cur, or Catahoula Leopard Dog, the state dog of Louisiana. It was the first American breed of dog.’
We see egrets, white herons and a great blue heron.
‘That’s the largest heron we get. He’ll eat fish, frogs, small snakes.’
So far the wildlife has been pretty tame, but we’re soon seeing plenty of what people want to see on a swamp tour – gators. The Captain points at something that’s 30-40 yards away, and it takes the rest of us a while to see what he’s seeing – two bumps in the water that indicate the snout of a gator hiding under the surface. A head comes into view and glides towards us. The gators know that boats mean food.
Captain Bishop puts a piece of marshmallow on the end of a stick and coaxes the gator to reach out and snap at it, right alongside the boat. He then puts a piece of meat on the end, and the gator watches and waits, swims back and forth as the Captain moves the stick, and finally leaps out of the water to grab at the meat with a snap of its jaws.
‘We feed ’em hot dogs,’ Captain Bishop explains. ‘We used to feed ’em chicken but then we were told that was unsanitary, but apparently hot dogs are fine. I don’t make the rules, I just obey ’em.’
As we sail through the waters, under the trees, we see maybe 10-15 gators in all. Some come to be fed, some just stare, and some disappear beneath the surface.
Captain Bishop is an amiable and laconic guide, who gets most animated when he’s telling us about a movie that was filmed right here, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some of the houses we’ve sailed past appear in the movie, he says.
‘But that movie made me angry. They do stuff we never do. They were boiling shrimp, crawfish and other stuff, all at the same time, when they don’t even appear in the same season!’
Typical Hollywood, in other words. But our boat trip into the Honey Island Swamp was definitely the real deal.
See the website for Cajun Encounters.
All photos (c) Donna Dailey.