Captain Cyrus Blanchard is a knowlegable, opinionated fellow who took about 60 of us in his catamaran boat for a tour of the wetlands around Lafitte.
On the bayou
It was through him that I learned the difference between a swamp and a bayou. "Most people think a swamp and a bayou are the same thing," he said. (I did.) "They aren't. A swamp is a swamp, and a bayou is a natural waterway through the swamp."
Cajun communities were established when the French were kicked out of Acadia -- what we now call Nova Scotia -- in the late 1700s. The king of Spain generously donated swampland that he owned (but felt was unusable) to these suddenly stateless Acadians. The technology in those days was not sufficient to build roads through the swamps so the bayous, like the canals of Venice, became the "streets and boulevards" of the region. The Acadian communities flourished, using the resources at hand. They became shrimpers, crabbers, and managed to use the small parcels of dry land that they found to grow vegetables and raise hogs. Enterprising Cajuns harvested the Spanish moss from the trees in the swamps, processing it for sale as pillow and furniture stuffing. The Volkswagen company even today uses processed Spanish moss from this region as insulation for the doors of its automobiles.
The Cajuns (the name derives from "Acadians") have maintained their proud French heritage and traditions, with a Louisiana twist. Until as late as the 1980s there were pockets of Cajuns in southern Louisiana who knew and spoke no English at all.
It was also from Cyrus that I learned about "jug fishing," an ingenious system that entails tying a string to a live perch, tying the other end to the neck of an empty plastic jug, and placing the jugs at intervals along the waterways to catch catfish.
"How do you know when you've got one?" I asked.
A private dock along the bayou
"When you see the jug moving along at about five miles per hour," Cyrus answered.
"What's the average size of the catfish here?" someone else in our group inquired.
"About 51 pounds," said Cyrus, "and the largest one on record from this area was near 160 pounds." That last had me thinking of the icky, ugly two-pounders caught in the scummy ponds around central North Carolina, but when you consider the rich sediment --the eons of rot-- in the swamplands, it makes sense that the region would produce monsters.
We also learned about the delicate ecosystems of the wetlands, and about the erosion that destroys hundreds of acres daily, mostly caused by the wake of the barges and boats plying the waters in the basin.
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