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Cajun Swamp Tours brings snappy slice of US history

Snapping turtle safely on display.
The “Cajun Man’s Swamp Tours” take place within an easy one-hour drive from New Orleans — and are one reason why, I’m sure, you’ll want to visit Louisiana.
What you encounter here in the bayous — as the southern US wetlands are known — is unlike anything you will experience elsewhere.
Our boat’s captain and guide is Billy Gaston, born and raised in the bayous. His love for these waterways is contagious. We board his swamp boat with the eyes of tourists — comprehending little of what is around us. Within an hour, however, Capt. Billy’s knowledge of the bayou and his personable, engaging manner helps us appreciate his passion for these endangered waterways.
As throughout all of Louisiana, there’s a lot of history here. These dark black channels have Indian and French names; traders and traitors hid in these waterways and swamps in the vast wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s easy to get turned around and lost out in the swamps.” None of us feel the urge to be here without Capt. Billy.

Expulsion of the Acadians
Cajun people, the name of the Acadian French who fled to Louisiana after being forced out of Canada by the English, are unique in America. Their music, their history, their love of nature, even their French — spoken today as it was in the 18th century — can only be found in this corner of the US.
Victims of the British military’s campaign against New France in Canada, the Acadians suffered greatly for resisting the British and their colonization.
Known as the “Great Expulsion”, “Great Deportation” and “Le Grand Derangement” of 1755, many of the Acadians forced out of Canada escaped to the bayous of Louisiana, which was then under French rule.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th-century American poet, memorialized the historic event in his poem “Evangeline”. The poem helped make the story of the expulsion well-known in America.
Capt. Billy’s ancestors are part of this history. “My family is from southwestern France and we left for Nova Scotia due to religious persecution,” he said. “We settled there until the British came and forced us to leave. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are how people used to make a living here.”
Capt. Billy’s family was given a land grant here in Louisiana from the Spanish in the 1800s; then tragedy struck when a 30-foot tidal wave covered his great-great-grandfather’s property in Bayou Delarge. “All my ancestors were killed except for my great-grandfather, which is how I’m here today.”
During his narration, he steers us through the moss-draped cypress trees, flowering water lilies, myrtles, and wild iris, while pointing out exotic birds which we had not noticed until he trained our eyes on them. The bald cypress and Tupelo gum trees, he explains, were used to carve out duck decoys, build homes and canoes or “pirogue” boats, as the Cajun call them.
Capt. Billy spent his early days fishing and hunting in the black bayous of Terrebonne Parish. These days he makes a living taking folks out on his swamp boat, teaching visitors about the fragile ecosystem of one of the most endangered wetlands on the planet.
“You ever been down the swamp? I was born and raised here. I’ve been doing this all my life, watching the sunrise, watching the sunset.”
He shows us Spanish moss which hangs on the branches of the cypress swaying in a gentle, hot breeze blowing in the river ways.
The early Native Americans named it Spanish moss; the French called it “mousse.”
It’s not really moss at all, but an epiphyte, Capt. Billy says, an air plant nourished by moisture and nutrition from the air.
“When I was a little bitty baby, I slept on my grandmother’s mattress stuffed with Spanish moss. In the hot Louisiana weather, it was cooler than other stuffing.”
“The upholstery of every Model T Ford, chairs and couches were stuffed with it. It’s as strong as horsehair.” He takes out one strand from a clump of moss and we tug at it. Strong indeed. “During the Civil War, they used it to stitch soldiers’ wounds around here.” The Cajun were poor and found ingenious ways to make do with what nature provided them.
“Keep your hands inside,” Capt. Billy warns as we cruise past alligators sleeping on the sun-warmed roots of waterlogged cypress trees.

The ‘Gator Whisperer’
“Jolie,” Capt. Billy calls out gently. “Come on, baby.” A large six-foot alligator slides off a bank and, with a sleek muscular swish of its tail, ripples through the water toward us. Who knew there were “gator whisperers” in the world?
“When you come down the bayou at night, all you see is their red eyes shining in the dark. For every gator you see by day, there’s another 25 watching you out there.”
His alligators — those who respond when he calls them because he feeds them chicken pieces — remain hidden from sight. Capt. Billy explains that they are still hunted and killed, and it took him years to train a few to respond to his own unique call.

The Bayou’s Worst Enemy
“In 40 years, I’ve only had to wrestle a gator a few times,” Capt. Billy tells us while pointing out snapping turtles sunning on a log and a bald eagle’s nest high up in a tree. “You got to have eyes in the back of your head when you wade out in the water to check your crawfish traps. The worst is the water moccasin — now that’s one deadly snake!” We all recoil at the thought of them out there.
These inter-coastal byways begin in Texas and go all the way to Florida along the Gulf of Mexico, and Capt. Billy stresses the need to protect the coastline. “Due to hurricanes and storms, the salt water levels are rising which is killing the wetlands. And due to oil companies developing down here, and the nutria (a large rodent the size of a beaver that is destroying coastal Louisiana by chomping its way through the state’s wetlands) and the wild hog population, plus other reasons, we lose a football field of land here every 30 minutes.”
Capt. Billy teaches us a lot during our two-hour tour with him out in the Cajun swamps. The fragile ecology of these wetlands is threatened by global warming, warmer waters (which change the sex ratio of alligators and turtles), oil spills, chemical pollution and rising sea waters.
When you live in a landscape where the land meets the water, where the coastline changes constantly, it is clear that you live at the mercy of a delicate balance of the forces of man and nature. Capt. Billy worries about the barrier islands off the coast of Terrebonne Parish — where he lives. “They’re our first line of defense from hurricanes and storms. Without them, half of Terrebonne Parish would vanish during a flood.”
As he returns the swamp boat to the pier, Captain Billy makes a passionate plea for the conservation of this habitat: “These wetlands are not only important to us, they’re important to the state of Louisiana and the whole nation. These wetlands are a paradise. We have hundreds of different migratory birds that nest here on land built by the sediment of the Mississippi River over thousands of years. That’s why it’s so rich and why everything is so beautiful and green and the wildlife is so abundant.
“Weather changes, coastal damage, and salt-water intrusion are killing the marsh and all the cypress trees. It brings tears to my eyes,” Captain Billy adds. “Come and see it while it’s still here.”
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