The pleasures of Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin urge you to draw, dance, or just revel in the natural world. It's easy to forget there's a water war going on.
by Hannah Hinchman
Down an inconspicuous side road on the edge of Lafayette, Louisiana, on the western
fringe of the Atchafalaya Swamp, past Cajun roadhouses and raging mockingbirds, you find
Lake Martin. A crudely painted plywood sign showing bulbous ibis and spoonbills asks that
you not disturb the birds. There are thousands nesting here in the lower-tier tupelo and
alder shrubs and the crowns of the overarching cypress. A brief natural moat few would
care to wade separates bird and spectator: a duckweed-upholstered stew of guano and
gators, who wait log-like beneath the nests, getting fat on nestlings.
Sketchpad in hand, I've settled myself on the edge of the moat, 15 feet from a maze of
eye-level nests. Most belong to snowy egrets and little blue herons, who make a fine
nautical color combination of crisp white and slate. Many of the birds are already
brooding aquamarine eggs, but some are still in the construction phase. I zero in on one
hapless egret couple trying to lay a foundation.
A sad beginning: There are two sticks so far, hung vaguely in the crotch of a dead
shrub. The female looks at them with an air of discouragement. The male, teetering down
slanted twigs, yellow feet like clown shoes, retrieves a spindly prize from the mire,
trips and bumbles his way back up and graciously passes the stick to her. But the bird has
only her bill to manipulate this awkward baton, which rotates first one way, then the
other as she tries to make it fit. The first placement goes wrong, it dangles. And the
second. And the third. By the eighth attempt, I can't draw anymore. Teeth gritted, hands
in spastic positions, I want to say, Here, give me that thing! I'll do it!
too-perched on the edge of the Atchafalaya River Basin, more than a million acres of
swamp, muck, egrets, and alligators in south-central Louisiana. Compared to the other
cypress swamps I've visited, the Atchafalaya is enormous. Why is it still here? We've been
filling, diking, diverting, and erasing swamps for two centuries: How did we miss this
one? We didn't; we only stopped short of taking it all. This great tract, the largest
river swamp in North America, is roughly half its original size but still plenty big
enough to get mortally lost in. Though plenty of people would like to "improve"
it, the Atchafalaya is most useful in its present state, doing what swamps have always
done, absorbing and channeling high water and nurturing crawfish and crabs.
If you're used to topographic relief, you'll get none in southern Louisiana. Low-slung
and innocuous-looking, the control structures sit in the middle of a meadowy expanse,
resembling modest bridges and culverts more than the crucial floodgates they are. This is
where the Army Corps of Engineers went to work when it decided to freeze-frame the lower
Mississippi to keep it flowing as it did in 1950.
With the history of a disastrous flood
in 1927 and critical high water in later years, they knew they had to act, and in this
particular spot the Mississippi is separated from the Atchafalaya by a scant seven miles.
For a century levees had been constructed and natural outlets closed until the Atchafalaya
River was the only one left to carry off the Mississippi's floodwaters. Out of it they
created a massive but highly controlled conduit.
Had I not read John McPhee's Atchafalaya (in his masterful 1989 book The
Control of Nature) on the Mississippi's yearnings, and the Atchafalaya's intent to seduce it, these
spillways would have looked like another Corps of Engineers boondoggle. They're anything
but when the Mississippi is running 2 million cubic feet of water a second, however, as it
did in 1973. And sheer volume isn't the only threat. The difference in elevation between
water in the Mississippi, the higher river, and in the Atchafalaya, the lower, can reach 20 feet. The
force of that gradient exerts massive stress on the structures.
For a few weeks in the
spring of 1973, everything and everyone from Baton Rouge to New Orleans depended on the
control structures to relieve pressure from the Mississippi: all 11 million people, 110
petrochemical plants, and every jazz band in the French Quarter riffing away below river
level. The control structures came within a hair's breadth of failing then; repairs and
embellishments are still under way.
I look at the maps and consider the Mississippi in terms of one of its most enduring
symbols, the alligator-a gator so huge and old and with such a dangerous tail that she's
been put in a cage. This gator can get mad, but no one's seen her really furious here
since 1927, though she thrashed in 1973 and almost broke free. She's not happy where she
is, and she knows what she wants to do-she wants to join the Atchafalaya.
In a natural world, the Mississippi would continue to lash its tail from side to side
in a wide arc from Lafayette to Baton Rouge, forming a fan-shaped delta, shifting her
course every thousand years. But since the early 19th century, as soon as people began to
appreciate the rich delta silt, they set about guiding the Mississippi with levees to
protect their farm fields. Though the river eventually would move again, always seeking
the shortest and steepest route to the gulf, they could have kept her confined for another
But they never got the chance. The reason for the effort behind the control structures
can be traced back to one man and his toys. In the 1820s, Captain Henry M. Shreve
developed the powerful shallow-draft steamboat, which could carry dredges or derricks.
Shreve, in a move of astonishing hubris, decided in 1831 to dredge a five-mile shortcut
across a long meander on the Mississippi, saving 18 river-miles. The river accepted the
shortcut and bypassed its old channel. But that bypassed meander turned out to be critical
to the whole lower delta. The Red River entered it from the north. Around the bend, a lot
of water also exited from it, via the Atchafalaya, heading south.
Shreve's cutoff encouraged what's known as a stream capture. The Red, flowing into the
meander, lined up perfectly with the Atchafalaya, flowing out. Back then, though, the
Atchafalaya was blocked by a stupendous logjam. Centuries of trees had piled up where it
exited: 30 river-miles of hardwood trunks, solid enough to run cattle drives over. Shreve
thought he would develop both river channels while he was at it, the Mississippi and the
Atchafalaya, so the logjam was dismantled. Everyone tooted their whistles for the brand
new water-highway south.
The Red and the Atchafalaya, now effectively one river,
represented a shorter and more direct route to the gulf. Alarmingly, on more and more
high-water occasions, the Mississippi discovered that route and turned west at the cutoff,
joining the Red-Atchafalaya. In the restrained words of the Army Corps of Engineers,
"It was apparent that, unless something was done soon, the Mississippi would take the
course of the Atchafalaya."
If that happened, in a geological instant New Orleans would become a brackish duck
pond, and the factory docks below the cutoff would be ready for bungee-jumpers. Captain
Shreve's big idea ended up costing taxpayers about $7 billion, and that doesn't count the
century of levee-building that went on before everyone realized levees wouldn't work. Is
it fixed? Only the next bout of gator fury will tell, or the next one after that.
From 1831 till the devastating flood of 1927, levees were the accepted solution.
Outflow channels into bayous were cut off, one after another. Most engineers believed
that, locked behind walls, the river-gator would dig a deep bed for herself and stay put.
They were wrong. The Atchafalaya remained as her last escape hatch.
Finally, starting in the 1950s, the levee-builders relented and commenced the
control-structure project. About a third of the Mississippi's flow is permitted to join
the Atchafalaya through the structures, and the rivers' marriage keeps the great swamp
alive. In this very dry year the Mississippi is a quiet gator; she's lounging. Eventually,
in some very wet spring, a succession of fat nestlings will fall, such as the Missouri,
the Illinois, and the Ohio Rivers. Then she'll be well fed and ready to thrash. The
control structures will have to restrain her.
Willowy, scrubbed, and twenty-something, Sierra Club field representative Sarah Craven
circulates among the assembled citizenry. Her cool aplomb would do her credit at any Old
West poker table. Landscape-architecture professor Charlie Fryling, chair of this public
hearing (and the Club's Atchafalaya Committee), is her ally and opposite. He beams, he
bounds, a big, freckled, friendly presence. Their colleague Harold Schoeffler,
sun-leathered swamp sportsman and conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Acadian Group,
is a master of diplomacy.
In the Rocky Mountain West, where I live, an environmental
hearing usually means you give your shaky, impassioned testimony under the glare of the
apoplectic, anti-environmental "wise-use" folks. Here in southern Louisiana,
things seem to have evolved into civility. Tonight's convocation will focus on a
long-fought-for accord over the fate of the Atchafalaya Basin. Following up on a carefully
considered state master plan, signed into law in 1998, ten agencies have assembled to tell
the public what they've accomplished so far.
Are they working toward, as the master plan has it, "a landscape where the complex
interrelationships of all components, from the Atchafalaya River to the smallest life
forms, will be not only evident but carefully protected and interpreted"? Are they
crafting "a place where natural processes are operating on a grand scale, where
humans moderate their activities so that they become less intrusive and a reasonable part
of, rather than an encumbrance on, these processes"? You could get shot in the West
for using language like that. Here, all the agencies, including the Army Corps of
Engineers, demonstrate more or less convincingly that this is exactly what they're trying
How could these disparate factions have possibly gathered enough mutual sticks to build
a nest platform for the Atchafalaya? Right before my eyes are three reasons behind this
success. The first (in the form of elaborate maps) is the humbling magnitude of the
Atchafalaya Basin itself, and its crucial role in venting the Mississippi River. No one
can consider the Atchafalaya marginal or expendable.
The second is the full-house of
skills I've already seen in the hands of Charlie, Sarah, and Harold. They've mastered
bottomless amounts of data and present it with persuasive informality. The third is that
the Atchafalaya is no remote wilderness: It still supports vibrant crawfish and crabbing
industries. The people here rely on the Atchafalaya for a sustainable living, as they've
done for generations without devastating its riches, and they're not about to give it up.
On an obscure road, Charlie Fryling scatters gravel as he drives us up and over the
levee, into the domain of the swamp, which we're about to explore in canoes. Levees guide
the flow of the Atchafalaya, but in this case they trace the outlines of a true-to-life
floodplain, 15 to 17 miles wide.
The Atchafalaya River has a main channel, dredged and confined in locks for large-scale
navigation, but it occupies only a narrow ribbon of the whole basin. Outside that channel,
but bounded by the levees, is a labyrinth of fluctuating waterways. Bayous sometimes flow
one direction, sometimes the other, depending on local water levels. Interlocking streams
and old oxbows add further camouflage. And then there are lakes with no predictable inflow
Charlie and Sarah Craven occupy the lead canoe. Getting lost doesn't worry Charlie; his
solution is just to head either east or west, and you'll hit a levee-maybe day after
tomorrow. Sarah is especially glad to be along; after running a gauntlet of meetings and
hearings, she needs water time. The Sierra Club in this region hasn't overlooked the value
of celebrating the swamp, and swamp culture. A few years ago, Sarah and others organized
the Atchafalaya Heritage Festival in Henderson, a gathering designed to feature
swamp-based ways of life and their attendant crafts, stories, history, food, and (of
course) music and dancing.
We paddle upstream in a good-size channel for a while, leaving behind the docked shanty
boats, decks busy with hammering weekend improvers. Then we turn into a driveway-width
water-lane, drifting along under arching tupelos and willows in new leaf, startled only by
the emphatic song of prothonotary warblers. Glimpses of them too: sulphur yellow and
elegant French gray. The bird is an emblem of the true river swamp, and used to be found
as far north as Ontario. But since so few rivers are allowed to flood anymore, its range
has diminished. One of only two North American warblers to nest in cavities (which it
fills to the brim with soft moss), it will often choose a site just a few feet above the
waterline, affording the canoeist an ideal view.
Charlie draws our attention to the banks. These are wee levees, created by the
watercourse itself. When water flows over them, it slows down and drops its sediment load,
raising the original banks. When the water level falls, as it has relentlessly for the
last two years, it lies content within its bed. High water can cover all these subtle
topographies, but a swamp veteran like Charlie, or any local crawfisherman, will know when
he's passing over a drowned waterway, or crossing a natural levee.
Small posts on the bank warn of a gas or oil pipeline passing beneath us. Under nearly
every square mile of the swamp lie these ducts, though water and vegetation have hidden
their scars. This is the less obvious face of oil-and-gas development. Everywhere along
freight-bearing waterways in southern Louisiana you see mammoth struts, scaffolds, and
bulwarks for the offshore platforms. Instead of a geometric grid superimposed on top of
the landscape, this plaid of pipeline lies under it. It makes sense. There's no bedrock
anywhere around. Beneath us the river-borne sediments are nearly four miles deep, the
ideal matrix for a network of shallow trenches.
We're in a lake. Or it's a lake when it happens to be. We idle into forest cul-de-sacs,
where big cypress boles emerge from dark water. Bird calls reverberate in the yellow-green
canopy, many with Pleistocene sounds that raise the hair on your neck, especially those of
the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl, with its demented cackles and whoops in lieu
I specifically came here to draw, so my companions park me in the midst of a cypress
"island," a grove in the middle of the lake, and depart in the other canoe. In
quiet solitude, at once the myriad tiny details press in. That's not cypress bark, it's a
tiling of snails. That's not wind on the water, it's gyrating whirligig beetles. That
little fog, way up along the cypress bole? A swarm of wild bees around their cavity hive.
A watery grass? No, minnows in unison. A slime bubble in floating pond-weed? No, a spider
in a waterproof house.
Later, on an outing with Harold Schoeffler, I see a different aspect of the swamp: a
true lake, an enormous lake, but one without a distinct shoreline. The open water in the
middle gives way to cypress pavilions at the margins, and then impenetrable scrub, still
rooted in water. We reach the lake by way of a grimly straight agricultural canal, our
errand being to check his crab pots in preparation for the Sierra Club annual meeting.
This is one meeting to look forward to: It boasts a crab "boll," and of course
live Cajun music and dancing.
Harold's deadpan manner could seem unfriendly, and it's clear he doesn't suffer fools
easily. He lets me know that when I point out what seems to be a small island in the
middle of the lake. "That's a DUCK BLAHND!" he barks incredulously. But he's a
generous walking encyclopedia of Louisiana lore, all delivered in a rich, old-school
We collect crabs, then fish half-seriously in the dappled cypress shade, listening to
Harold talk about the many ways the swamp has been misunderstood and misused, from mining
to cypress logging to oil extraction. He especially relishes famous follies, like the time
Texaco drilled a well in a lake and hit a salt mine underneath, which drained the entire
lake and took the drilling rig with it. Harold's way of being in the swamp is purposeful,
at least on the surface: to come back with a mess of crabs or fish. The swamp and its
solitude are what have gotten him through some hard times in his life, and he's a fierce
Where I grew up in Ohio, we saw crawdads, or crayfish, in the culverted, sewage-scented
"creeks" and would no sooner eat one than we would kitty litter. Down here, in
far different conditions, the mud-bug is crown prince; his dancing figure shows up on
menus, billboards, and welcome banners. And no wonder: He's a delicacy. Lobster plus a
freshwater hint of frog legs might be an approximation. The Cajun way of cooking
crawfish-rendering the fat out of the heads and thoraxes to flavor sauces, and eating the
tail meat in such concoctions as étoufée-brings out its true nature.
The crawfish hunters, as well as the other anglers and crabbers who use the swamp in
traditional ways, are powerful voices in the debate over the Atchafalaya Basin. Their idea
of how much water is enough doesn't always jibe, however,with other denizens of the place,
or with each other. The crawfishermen want more water for the 23 million pounds of
crawfish they catch each year.
The big ships also want more, and so do most cities. But
Morgan City, mostly an oil town, is a levee-fortified island at the lower end of the
swamp, close to the gulf, and it definitely doesn't want additional water. Neither do
shrimpers who need shallow-water nurseries. The swamp and its delta are already so
weighted down with sediment, and sinking fast, that the salty gulf stands as another
predatory gator ready to move in.
We've run out of time for a final expedition into the swamp, so we decide to eat and
drink our way through our last day on the bayou. At Cafe des Artistes, in Breaux Bridge,
after crawfish for breakfast we pick up a local cookbook written by John Richard
"Dickie" Breaux. It contains a well-written account of Cajun history. I knew the
origins of the 18th century French Catholic Acadians and their self-imposed exile from
Nova Scotia to avoid being forced to join the Anglican Church, but I didn't know how
they'd since managed to escape assimilation.
According to Dickie Breaux (who's somehow
related to Leon Breaux, dubbed in this cookbook as the "First and Only Eternal
Crawfish King"), the levees played a role. Before they were built, the principal
bayous carried constant steamboat traffic between the swamp and New Orleans. Full-scale
levees finally ended that exchange; the detours and lock systems that came with them in
the 1930s were designed for large freighters, not a steady stream of small craft. And it
would be a long time before reliable roads would be built in the half-water bayou country.
The Cajuns, already masters of survival, kept to the old ways, in new isolation. When
outsiders did venture in, as during the first oil boom, they considered crawfish barbaric
fare. The Cajuns learned to keep their "backwater" preferences, both culinary
and musical, hidden from strangers.
All that's changed in recent decades. Cajun music, raw and lyrical at the same time,
has a huge following, as do crawfish. On Sunday afternoon, with a major storm brewing over
the swamp, we find our way to Angell's Whiskey River Landing, near Henderson. We have to
drive up and over the levee to get to it, so it's in the authentic no-man's-land, subject
to floods. Combination boat-dock, bar, dance hall, and restaurant, it's cool and barnlike
inside, sitting on pilings right over the swamp.
The band, "Balfa Toujours," has set up against the windows, in silhouette.
Always the accordion, always the fiddle, and this time a woman with a keening, no-frills
voice. The rhythms are powerful, and a few couples begin to dance and are joined by about
200 others in the next half hour. The floor is constantly full, the dancers are creative,
exalted, tireless. Lots of old folks dance, and the more energetic young ones travel
smoothly around them.
There are splendid Cajun men in cowboy dress, wicked and grinning.
There are sixtyish single women in tight tops that say "I Live to Dance," never
without partners. There are beautiful teens with bored expressions, belied by their
enthusiastic jive. There are wild-eyed crawfishermen in wet T-shirts. One of them joins
the band, wearing a high-tech washboard, which he plays with spoons.
I had been disappointed not to be able to visit the swamp one more time. But the swamp
is very much present right here, embodied in the people who can't stand to be far from it,
who define themselves by it-so much so that they refuse to move their gathering places
(both social and economic) to the "safe" side of the levee, preferring to take
their chances. Maybe some of the exuberance expressed in this room is a direct result of
the swamp's persistence, and the horizons opened up by that fact-dancing not as a
distraction from hard times and loss, but because there's some kind of future for this way
A vision of "sustainability" has been written into the Atchafalaya
master plan. The basin is to be a place where "a diversity of livelihoods will
continue . . . where the overriding mood will be a harmonious balance between naturalness
and unimpaired ecological processes, and the enlightened and unobtrusive use of the
Yes, maybe just a collection of words, flimsy sticks upon which to base a future. And
with enough pressure from private interests, the nest platform could collapse. But I've
witnessed patience, goodwill, canniness, and stubbornness in the people working to build
it, be they activists, drafters of documents, fiddle players, or engineers. A surprising
number have shown themselves willing to step forward and say, "Give me that, I'll do
it!" May the First and Only Eternal Crawfish King watch over all, and let's dance.
Hannah Hinchman, a former Sierra columnist, is author of A Life in Hand:
Creating the Illuminated Journal (Gibbs Smith, 1999) and A Trail Through Leaves:
The Journal as a Path to Place (W. W. Norton, 1999).