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The stumps of Cypress trees stood as sentinels in the bayou to remind all who entered of the 200-year-long logging industry that helped the European powers make ships. When Europe cut ties, the resulting loss of trade and investment meant that the local economy could expand and provide modest housing for the new residents.
Our new local friend Mark introduced us to the Atchafalaya Swamp. He filled us in on the area’s history as he guided his boat around the graveyard of stumps and out into the vast preserve.
He would occasionally pause the buzz of his motor to treat us to his colorful commentary as Blue Herons flew overhead. We were lucky to get the view we did, as the water was quickly down ten feet from the normal levels, thanks to a DNR-controlled drain. It is usually 12 feet deep.
This considerable drop enabled us to see many gators sunning themselves on the newly exposed sandy beaches, the stump forest of yesteryear, and easy-to-recognize “gator slides.”
That is the initial impression I had of the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge which protects 15,000 acres of alluvial hardwood forest and bald cypress-tupelo swamp in Louisiana’s “Cajun Country.”Bayous, oxbow lakes, wetlands, and bottomland hardwood forests make for excellent hunting, fishing, boating, bird watching, paddling, or simply taking in the sights.
The Atchafalaya Swamp is free to visit, but the best way to see it is from the water because there are very few roads in the area. You can book guided tours of the marsh from several places, but they are the most fantastic way to get a feel for the site.
HOW TO PRONOUNCE ATCHAFALAYA
So, I often have people tell me that I have a “Wisconsin” accent – but never seem to hear it myself. I am a “y’all” and “you betcha” kind of gal – not a “yuh guys” like Wisconsin or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is known for.
I find that it is important to learn how locals pronounce words that they care about – even if I don’t get upset when someone says I am from “WEST-con-son”… I still try to take care to learn how to say things.
I always thought it was LA-fay-et instead of LAF-ay-et in Louisianna – but learned during my visit.
The original people of the area gave it the name Atchafalaya, which means “long river” in their language (uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh, like a sneeze). Chitimacha, Attakapas, Houma, Coushatta, Alabama, Avoyel, and Tensas are just a few indigenous peoples who make their homes in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Whew! I was even pronouncing Lafayette wrong until my visit there!
HISTORY OF THE AREA
The Atchafalaya River Basin began to take shape in 900 AD, when the mighty Mississippi River diverted to its present route along Bayou Lafourche, leaving its original easternmost channel unused for nearly a millennium. Over time, natural levees grew along the river, collecting the annual overflow and creating a lake in the middle of a heavily wooded area.
The main trees were Cypresses in the Atchafalaya Swamp for generations. One thing that early Basin settlers had in common was their reliance on the region’s plentiful hardwood forests, cypress swamps, bayous, and marshes for food and, eventually commerce.
The mainstays of Basin society included logging, farming, and cattle raising. Virgin cypress trees in the Basin could grow over a hundred feet tall; some were likely over a thousand years old. The high demand for “the wood eternal” in the construction industry in the late 19th century led many wealthy men to travel to south Louisiana in search of this abundant resource.
Companies specializing in harvesting cypress trees in the state were responsible for establishing the first significant forest-products sector in Florida through cutting-edge technology, substantial financial investments, and creative business strategies.
Local boat builders used wood in Louisiana’s bayou country for logging for ships, including oyster luggers, shrimp trawlers, deck barges, pirogues, and bateau. In the 1700s, logging for homes in the south’s humid climate became widespread, and cypress wood grew in value. As early as 1900, cypress logging had become Louisiana’s most lucrative industry, reaching its zenith in the 1910s.
ATCHAFALAYA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE PRESERVATION
The existence of the Atchafalaya River depends on the success of a program to protect and restore the river’s natural resources. Hydrological changes have been made to the Atchafalaya River for decades due to its extensive use in shipping and industries.
Previously connected sections of the floodplain in the rear swamp have become isolated. Since high banks hem in the river and its lesser tributaries, the water cannot flood the rear swamp.
The water does not have enough time and space to be filtered by the wetlands because of the faster, straighter flows. To protect and preserve the quality and diversity of habitat for native fish and wildlife species, the Refuge ensures that there is no logging of representative habitats like bottomland hardwood forests, cypress-tupelo swamps, bayous, and wetlands.
The Army Civil Corps of Engineers oversees the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, and other protected areas.
A Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge guides refuge management (2011-2026). Among the many things it does is lay out the goals, objectives, and strategies for maintaining and bettering Refuge conditions—things like the habitat types and actions needed to achieve desired shapes—as well as the preferred options for managing the Refuge and its effects on the human environment.
The plan aims to increase resident wildlife populations, diversify habitats for migratory and resident species, and create possibilities for wildlife-dependent leisure, environmental education, and interpretation.
The National Wildlife Refuge is essential because the Refuge is home to a wide variety of native fish and wildlife, including the Louisiana black bear, ducks, and neotropical songbirds.
The effects on local ecosystems can be catastrophic when alien species outcompete native ones. Since removing plants whenever the chance and resources are available is the current method for managing these species, there is a pressing need for more preventative measures to reduce the rate at which these species can spread.
The management of these species should involve the removal of the plants whenever there is a suitable opportunity and sufficient resources available.
When a significant body of water is overrun with aquatic weeds, dropping the water level on the weeds can be the most efficient method of killing them. For instance, on several occasions, the Refuge has dropped water to kill an invasive plant called a swamp lily. Lowering water levels helps enhance the habitat for fish spawning because it concentrates a large number of plants in one location, making it simpler to eliminate them with herbicides.
The water management projects planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources substantially focus on protecting the Basin’s valuable crawfish and finfish resources from deteriorating water quality. Projects like these aim to improve flood resilience by enhancing the delivery and transport of low-sediment water over the floodplain during the flood pulse.
The Refuge engages in various resource management activities, such as sustainable forest treatments, to establish a diversity of habitats for lowland forest songbirds within the forest. The Louisiana black bear and other wildlife rely on various plant foods, including the nuts and fruits produced by some trees and bushes treated with silvicultural techniques.
Any plant or animal that has spread to a new area and threatens local ecosystems, economies, or human and animal health is considered an invasive species. Their uninvited presence can cause severe damage to ecosystems and result in significant financial losses.
The Chinese tallow tree is especially troublesome since it displaces local plants and benefits no wildlife. In their destructive savagery, feral hogs often disrupt the habitats of other animals. Management operations that involve removing invasive species and reintroducing native species to an area have also shown success.
The Refuge regularly floods this bottomland forest during the winter to function as a feeding and sheltering place for migratory ducks. The Bay Denny Natural Area is protected as a “passively managed” area, where natural processes can occur with minimal disturbance and wildlife has sanctuary from human contact.
The local wood duck population also benefits from this work, as it protects the area where they lay their eggs and raise their young.
There was a time in history when extinction seemed imminent for alligators. It was placed on the list of endangered species in 1967 due to an unsustainable population decline brought on by years of overfishing and collecting hides.
These fascinating animals have been wandering the earth for up to 200 million years, and Louisiana is home to nearly 2,000,000 alligators! A healthy population of gators has been restored in just twenty years because of improved management procedures; as a result of the annual Atchafalaya alligator hunts to prevent the animals from being overpopulated and starving to death.
KINDS OF ANIMALS THAT LIVE THERE
There is a staggering array of life in the Basin. The most incredible wintering colony of American woodcock in North America, along with at least 300 other species of birds. More than fifty thousand birds, including egrets, ibis, and herons, make their nests in the Floodway each year.
The Atchafalaya Basin contains the highest number of bald eagle nests per unit area than any other region in the south-central United States. There are around 65 different types of reptiles and amphibians, one of which is the American alligator.
Because over 90 distinct species of fish, crayfish, crabs, and shrimp are available, the seafood industry is booming, leading to increased economic activity. Each spring, the Refuge’s bottomland hardwood woods, and marshes come alive with the vibrant colors and melodious songs of migratory birds from the Neotropics. The best birding reportedly is in April and May, so plan your trip accordingly.
One of the reasons that the Atchafalaya Swamp is so well-known as a habitat is that it is home to such a diverse collection of animal and plant species. Large numbers of wetland animals can flourish because of this variety.
Thousands (ok, millions) of American alligators, white-tailed deer, bobcats, coyotes, beavers, nutria, muskrats, foxes, and opossums are just some mammals that call the canals home. The Atchafalaya marsh is also home to many exotic aquatic plants that are not native to the area, including Salvinia minima, water lettuce, water-milfoil, Brazilian elodea, and alligator weed.
Wooded wetlands of the Basin provide vital nesting habitats for lots of birds. There are a variety of birds that soar overhead, including eagles, Mississippi kites, swallow-tailed kites, and ospreys.
Raccoons, mink, bobcats, river otters, and beavers are just a few of the furry critters that call the perfect swamp home. It really is an incredible ecosystem.
Refuge workers have encountered many amphibians and reptiles, including frogs/toads, snakes, turtles, lizards, skinks, and salamanders.
It is easy to see why there have been several sightings of alligators, with over two million in the area! Add in at least four poisonous snakes that exist in that area for even more fun and reasons to take care when going on a swap adventure.
Alligators are apex predators and can live for decades; the oldest verified alligator was 69 years old when it died in an Arkansas zoo in 2007. These reptiles are native to the southeastern United States, where they inhabit freshwater swamps, marshes, rivers, and lakes.
Alligators are ambush predators and tend to lie in wait for their prey before attacking. So, just how fast can these fearsome creatures move when they’re on the hunt?
The Top Speed of an Alligator
While alligators can move quite quickly over short distances, they aren’t built for sustained speed. When running, alligators can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. However, they can only sustain this speed for a minute or so before tiring out. When swimming, meanwhile, alligators can reach speeds of around 10 miles per hour.
How Do Alligators Move So Fast?
Alligators are powerful animals, thanks in part to their muscular tails. Approximately one-third of an alligator’s length is tail, and this appendage provides the animal with most of its thrust when swimming.
When running on land, alligators use a “belly run” gait, moving their legs underneath them in a cat-like fashion while keeping their bellies close to the ground. This gait helps them reach high speeds despite their relatively short legs.
Add that all up and you want to make sure you stay in the boat – and keep your hands out of the water!
Fishing for recreational purposes is widespread over the entirety of the Basin. The channel catfish, bluegill, sunfish, crappie, as well as largemouth bass, are all deserving of your time and energy if you like to toss a line. We passed a diehard bunch of anglers during our tour by the remnants of the old bridge.
ATCHAFALAYA BASIN BRIDGE
We passed under this impressive structure that was allowing for the rapid transit of thousands of busy cars and I can only say that the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is an impressive feat of engineering.
Huge concrete columns that our group of 8 people had no chance to reach around, even if we linked hands support the highway and are spaced far enough apart to easily allow boats through, like the one we were on.
The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge connects Lafayette and Baton Rouge on I-10, which consists of parallel spans spanning East and West over southern Louisiana. The bridge was first driven over in 1973 after construction began in 1971. It sits atop a desolate section of the wetland and shadows remnants of a former wooden bridge.
Before reaching the sandy layer that can support the weight of the concrete pillars that keep the swamp highway above water, there is a depth of 95 feet of swamp muck. The span across the Atchafalaya Basin is 18.2 miles long.
There are only two exits, one destined for Whiskey Bay and the other for Butte La Rose. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge’s optimal performance was crucial to maintaining Louisiana’s most important transportation corridor. Interstate 10 in Louisiana crosses the Atchafalaya Basin between Lafayette and Baton Rouge on two parallel bridges.
Before the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge was built, getting from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, could take more than two hours, and getting to New Orleans, Louisiana, could take more than three hours. Vehicles can cross the 400-acre wetland and river on the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, which also directs water to the less-prone-to-flood Gulf of Mexico.
The public is welcome to visit and enjoy the outdoors in the region’s national wildlife refuges in southeast Louisiana. Hunting, fishing, viewing wildlife, taking photographs, learning about the environment, and other outdoor activities are only some reasons why the area is so popular.
TAKE A SWAMP TOUR
Knowing a great guide can make all the difference when you want to take a swamp tour. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Don’t get a guide that feeds gators.
Not only is a fed animal a dead animal (because they get used to being given food instead of hunting for it) but it also teaches gators to approach boats. A gator can leap up to five feet out of the water! That means it can easily jump into most swamp boats.
Don’t get a guide that “gator baits”
These are the guides that get a gator close to your boat by taking a stick and wrapping something like a T-shirt around it and then swishing it around in the water to make a gator thing that there is food thrashing around. Again, that same gator can easily jump into your boat.
You don’t need to bring alligators close to a boat when there are 2 million of them in the area – trust me, you will see plenty of them.
We had Mark from L who was very knowledgeable and entertaining.
If you are ever in the area and looking for a swamp tour that is fun, informative, and in a beautiful setting, I suggest you reach out to him. He is with Cajun Customized Excursions and can be reached at 337-303-8060