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Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp
FOR ME, VIEWING ALWAYS STARTS AT THE END OF CIVILIZATION. In many places, one must retreat from the neon signs and golden arches and exit the concrete jungle to find the wilderness. In general, if I have even one download bar on my cell phone, I haven’t wandered enough. Most places in the United States are trying to integrate the wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces” – nice plots of lawn and picnic benches that should convey a sense of nature and openness. In the Deep South, it’s the other way around. Here, small towns carry a sense of civilization into the vast, untamed forests. Even the largest suburbs seem to have trouble keeping up with the desert creeping along the coast.
Slidell is a New Orleans suburb located under the canopy of loblolly trees on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area full of rivers and bayous, where small gravel roads lead to empty areas deep in swamps where you wouldn’t think areas would or could be. It’s such a flat land that’s so low (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “terra firma” doesn’t really apply. And unlike many places in the country, here one can simultaneously be deep in the desert and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House.
Slidell is bordered to the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from its headwaters in the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds area in central Mississippi and flows into the Rigolets and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. The Pearl is home to Swamp Honey Island, one of the most beautiful and smallest swamps in the United States. It gets its name from stories of wild bees made by killer bees that have escaped from their beekeepers.
We have not made a hotel reservation. There is nothing on the itinerary. We have no other intention than to drive the lonely roads and explore the forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly up Hwy 190, trying to take it all in. I soon realized that graves were not the only objects that were swept away by the Katrina flood waters. A big one landed on the road, which is a kilometer from the place where the water freezes. I went out to take some pictures and was attacked by an army of what looked like giant flying insects. These little monsters come in mating pairs, and it amazes me that they’ll take time out of their reproductive process to sink their teeth (or traps, or pokers, or whatever) into my forearms. . My only option was to run until I got close enough to take a couple pictures, then walk back to the car. It was amazing how fast the out-of-shape thirty-year-old could run when being chased by several two-headed devil bugs.
A few miles and several more beach boats later, we pulled into a lagoon in front of a swamp museum on the banks of the Pearl. A wooden path leads out to the bank where we meet two swamp tour leaders, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and both leaders had finished their tours for the day. The swamp tourism business was good before Katrina, they told me. Honey Island Swamp Guides are now lucky to have a full boat per day, and it would have been a waste of gas and time to bring only the after-hours tour. As we were turning back to our car, another boat floated by and he said he would take us on board.
Ah, swamp. Something I have seen in many movies but never experienced for myself. It is surprisingly quiet for an area that is rich with wildlife. The program is right across from the boat launch on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland- unless a specific ride event is available directly from here. The old ramshackle shipyards lined the bank across from the launch, and I expected to pass a fisherman playing ‘O Susanna’ on his banjo before falling down a waterfall into the world. of swashbuckling pirates. But this is the real deal. It was clear that Katrina was here. Rows of floating boat houses left on the beach. Pass from the launch of a medium-sized ship that rests on top of a very small outhouse. A smaller boat floated alongside the main one, seemingly unaffected by the storm.
THE RIVER OF DEATH
“I’ll turn on a little AC,” said Captain Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tourism. “Okay,” I thought. “I’m dying out here!” Turns out it just means he’s going to drive the boat really fast. It’s good though. After speeding along the main road for a mile or so, Captain Neil stopped to turn into a narrow channel that led to a slough called Dead River. A slough is a shallow backwater pond system similar to a main bayou waterway. Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these sloughs.
“Watch out for the big grass as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed to the thick patches of tall, thick grass that washed the sides of the boat as we passed. “That’ll cut your fingers pretty good.”
Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first went out alone in a pirogue at age 10 and had his first motorized flat boat at age 12. “I know some people here that are pretty weird. Everyone who lives in the swamp operates from something – either the law or the things in their head.”
This took my interest. I asked him later to explain.
“The swamp is a place to lose yourself – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. If you are running away from life, the swamp will accept your request easily and accept whatever has passed and hide it in its water and under the canopy of trees.
We were about a mile into the Dead River labyrinth before I realized I hadn’t been bitten by any bugs since we left the car. Not even a mosquito, which surprised me, because we were on an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, apart from our child’s repeated attempts to jump off the boat, this was the most peaceful boat ride I have ever been on. The swamp is an eerily beautiful place. Knobby knees of bald cypresses seem to float on the wet ground. The still, murky water combines with the elusive animals and moss-draped tupelos to make a bold, yet elegant statement. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a body of water that features temporary or permanent inundation of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water.” Neil describes it as an “underwater forest.”
Neil turned off the engine as the slough opened into an oxbow lake or billabong, stopped when a wide meander of the river was cut off. I noticed a small green tree frog standing on the handrail next to my activity. Although the swamp is dense with wildlife, it takes a trained eye to see most of it. When I saw that frog, I started noticing them everywhere. The swamp is like a 3-D Where’s Waldo book. The best way to spot an animal is to think of an animal and scan the banks until you find it.
We don’t have a lot of critters in Utah. I sleep on forest floors and dive into lakes and rivers without a second thought. My Texas-born wife almost went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me go out into the Provo River for a swim. In Utah there is a noticeable lack of animals that can be injured/disabled/killed compared to the Deep South. The most dangerous creature to hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake- and it will even give you fair warning before it strikes.
What I am most concerned about in this area is the wildlife that you cannot see – the tourists that are under the water. Neil said that swimming in the swamp is less dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have alligators, snakes and bull fish that are occasionally in the river. However, like most animals in their human habitat, animals are more afraid of humans than humans.”
Well, I guess it’s an occasional bull shark mixed in with presidents and snakes. I am so sure!
SWAMP RATS AND GATORS
In a bit of political ineptitude, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives transportation with an NRA bumper sticker. His love for adventure and travel led to a passion for this fragile environment, and he has been leading swamp tours for over ten years. A few days after Hurricane Katrina almost took the life out of the mud by tearing off its cover and filling it with salt water, Neil tried to survey the damage with reporter Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Tribune.
“This is unbelievable,” he told Montgomery. “For the life of me, I’ll never notice you. You’re gone. All of you.”
“It was my first time back in the swamp after the storm,” Neil told me on the phone two years later on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you I’m in tears.” A couple of hours on the boat with Captain Neil showed his enthusiasm for this place.
Back in the open water, we saw our first gator. Once we see one, we start seeing them everywhere. As we pass, the deserts will swim to the boat landing, and Neil will throw them. He even got a pet named Big Al.
In the swamp, you see many things out of the corner of your eye. A frog or a snake here, a fig or a bush there. Stories abound about an indestructible creature called “The Thing.” Of the many reported sightings, no clear photograph has been taken of the animal. But there are many believers. The Swamp Island Bee is more than a legend to fisherman and swamp dwellers. Over the years many researchers have made plaster casts of the monster’s footprints. Neil has one of these casts. He prefers not to discuss it during the trip, “because I would like to have some confidence.” Your official position? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster and therefore, it exists. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create it.”
We did not witness the creation of this story that day. But then again maybe we are only taken to “tourist friendly” areas of the swamp where the animal is unlikely to skulk. Looking at the satellite image of the swamp I was amazed at how little we saw. The next time I’m down that way I plan to convince Neil to introduce me to the more private grottoes of this mysterious and wonderful place.
Neil told me that he takes people on extensive private tours, but requires clients to sign a “sign your life away” waiver.
“Because when you get far from the center, no one can predict what can happen.”
Sign me up, Neil!
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