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Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp
For me, exploration always begins at the end of civilization. In most places, one has to step back from the neon signs and golden arches and step out of the concrete jungle altogether to find the wilderness. Generally, if I have a bar of reception on my cell phone, I don’t stray too far. Most populated places in America try to integrate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces”—finely manicured plots of lawns and picnic benches that convey a sense of nature and openness. In the Deep South, it’s the other way around. Here, small towns carve out a sense of civilization in the vast, untamed forest. Even the largest suburbs seem stretched to keep the creeping desert at bay.
Slidell is a suburb of New Orleans nestled under a canopy of loblolly pine on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area full of rivers and creeks, where small gravel roads lead to house-to-house neighborhoods deep in the swamp where you wouldn’t think neighborhoods would or would exist. This lowland is so low (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “terra firma” doesn’t really apply. And like most places in the country, it’s possible to be deep in the desert and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House at the same time.
Slidell is bordered on the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from its headwaters in the area of the Nanih Waya Indian Mounds in central Mississippi into regolets and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. Pearl is home to Honey Island Swamp, one of the most beautiful and least-altered riverine swamps in the United States. The name is derived from stories of the abundant wild honey produced by the learned beekeepers.
We had not made any hotel reservations. There was nothing on the itinerary. We had no plans other than to explore the forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland and drive the lonely roads. We drove slowly along Hwy 190, trying to take it all in. I soon saw that graves weren’t the only items stolen by Katrina’s floodwaters. A large tugboat was moored off the highway, miles from any open water. I got out to take some pictures and was immediately attacked by swarms of what looked like giant flying ants. These little giants came in mating pairs, and I wondered if they would take time out of their breeding ritual to sink their teeth (or fangs, or pokers, or whatever) into my forehead. My only option was to run until I was close enough to take a couple of pictures, then run back to the car. It’s amazing how fast a thirty-year-old can run when chasing hordes of two-headed devil bugs.
A few miles and several beached boats later, we arrived at the clamshell lot across from the swamp museum on the banks of the Pearl. A wooden walkway led to the bank where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was afternoon and both the captains had finished their tour for the day. Swamp tour business was good before Katrina, he told me. Honey Island Swamp Guides is now lucky to have a full boat every day and it would have been a waste of gas and time to just take us on an after-hours tour. As we turned to walk back to our car, another tour boat pulled up and offered to take us aboard.
Ah, the swamp. Something I have seen in many movies but never experienced for myself. It was surprisingly quiet for an area rich in wildlife. The setting is right outside of the boat launch scene on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland – except for a certain ride scene that may have been taken directly from here. Across from the launch was an old ramshackle boathouse and a fisherman playing ‘O Susanna’ on his banjo would step forward and descend into the pirate world before descending the waterfall. But this was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina was here. Rows of boathouse floats left on the shore. Beyond the launch a medium-sized boathouse rested on a much smaller outhouse. A small boathouse floated beside the first, untouched by the storm.
“I’m going to turn on the AC for a bit,” said Capt. Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-Tours. “Oh great,” I thought. “I’m dying here!” Turns out that means he’s just going to drive the boat really fast. It felt good though. After proceeding a mile or more along the main waterway, Captain Neal stopped to turn into a narrow channel called the Dead River. The slough is a shallow backwater lake system that parallels the main bayou waterway. Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these sloughs.
“Watch out for the giant cutgrass as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed to the thick patches of tall, broad-leaved grass that brushed the sides of the boat as we moved along. “That will cut your fingers better.”
Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first set out alone in a pirogue at age 10, and owned his first motorized flat boat at age 12. “I know some people here who are pretty weird. Everyone who lives in the swamp is running from something—either the law or a voice in their head.”
This caught my interest. I asked him in detail later.
“A swamp is a place to lose yourself—sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. If you run away from life, the swamp will readily accommodate your request and take whatever past you have and hide it in its waters and under the canopy of trees. .”
We were about a mile into the Dead River maze when I realized I hadn’t been bitten by a bug since we left the car. Not a single mosquito surprised me, as we were on an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, aside from our toddler’s repeated attempts to jump ship, it was the quietest boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is a very beautiful place. Knobby knees of bald cypress can be seen floating on the murky surface. The calm, dark waters combine with the impenetrable fauna and moss-hung tupelos to create a haunting, yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a wetland in which shallow water temporarily or permanently inundates large areas of land.” Neal defines it as an “underwater forest”.
Neil kills the engine as the slough opens into Oxbow Lake, or Billabong, created when a wide channel of the river is cut. A small green tree frog appeared on the railing next to my elbow. Although the marshes are densely populated with wildlife, most of them require a trained eye to spot. Once I saw that frog, I started noticing it everywhere. The swamp is like a 3-D Where’s Waldo book. The best way to find wildlife is to think of a type of animal and scan the bank until you see it.
We don’t have many critters in Utah. I sleep on the forest floor and dive into lakes and rivers without a second thought. My Texas-born wife almost had a heart attack the first time she saw me go swimming in the Provo River. Utah has a significant lack of animals that can hurt/mars/kill you compared to the Deep South. The most dangerous animal for hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake—and it will give you fair warning before it strikes.
What bothers me about this swamp is the wildlife you can’t see – the burrows lurking beneath the water’s murky surface. Neal says that swimming in a swamp is no more dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have crocodiles, snakes and the occasional bull shark in the river. However, like most animals in their natural habitat, the animals fear them more than humans.”
Well, I think it’s just bull sharks mixed in with the occasional alligator and snake. I feel very reassured!
Swamp rats and gators
A bit of a political anomaly, Neal is a serious environmentalist who drives a pickup with an NRA bumper sticker. His love of exploration and adventure developed into a passion for this fragile ecosystem, and he has been guiding swamp tours for over a decade. After Hurricane Katrina nearly took the life out of the marsh and ripped off its roof and flooded it with salt water, Neal went out with Tampa Tribune reporter Ben Montgomery to survey the damage.
“It’s unbelievable,” he told Montgomery. “For the life of me, I never would have guessed. It’s gone. All of it.”
“It was my first time back in the swamp since the storm,” Neal tells me over the phone two years later on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “It was heartbreaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to say I was moved to tears.” A two-hour boat ride with Captain Neil shows his enthusiasm for the place.
Back in open water, we saw our first gator. Once we saw it, we saw it everywhere. As we went by, alligators would swim to the end of the boat for marshmallows and Neil would toss them. He reached out to a pet he called Big Al.
In the swamp, you see many things out of the corner of your eye. Here frog or snake, crocodile or wild boar. Stories abound about the elusive creature affectionately called “The Thing.” Of the numerous reported sightings, not a single clear photograph of the beast has been taken. But there are many believers. The Honey Island Swamp Monster is not a myth to fishermen and swamp dwellers. Over the years many researchers have made plaster casts of the monster’s footprints. Neil owns one of these varieties. He chose not to discuss the tour, “because I want some credibility.” His official status? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster, and therefore, it exists. If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.”
We did not see this mythical creature that day. But then maybe we were just taken to a “tourist-friendly” part of the swamp where the beast is less likely to skulk. Looking at satellite images of the swamp, I’m amazed at how little we saw of it. Next time I’m down that way I plan to introduce Neil to the more secret grottoes of this mysterious and wonderful place.
Neil tells me that he takes people out on extended private tours, but he requires clients to sign a “sign your life away” waiver.
“Because when you get that far out in the middle of nowhere, no one can tell what’s going to happen.”
Sign me up, Neil!
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