FOR ME, EXPLORATION HAS ALWAYS BEGUN AT CIVILIZATION’S END. In most places, one must retreat from the neon signs and golden arches and fully exit the concrete jungle to find wilderness. Generally, if I have even one bar of reception on my cell phone, I haven’t wandered far enough. Most populated places in America attempt to integrate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces” – finely manicured plots of lawn and picnic benches that are supposed to convey a sense of nature and openness. In the Deep South, it’s the other way around. Here, small towns carve a sense of civilization into immense, untamed wilds. Even larger suburbs seem strained to keep a creeping wilderness at bay.
Slidell is a New Orleans suburb that lies under a canopy of loblolly pine on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area saturated with rivers and bayous, where small gravel roads lead to stilted home neighborhoods deep in the marshes where you wouldn’t think neighborhoods would or could be. It’s a lowland so low (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “terra firma” doesn’t really apply. And unlike most places in the country, here one can simultaneously be deep in the wilderness and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House.
Slidell is bordered to the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from it’s headwaters in the area of the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds in central Mississippi and drains into the Rigolets and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The Pearl is home to the Honey Island Swamp, one of the most beautiful and least-altered river swamps in the United States. It takes it’s name from tales of abundant wild honey made by renegade bees that had escaped their beekeepers.
We had made no hotel reservations. There was nothing on the itinerary. We had no plan other than to drive lonely roads and explore forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly along Hwy 190, trying to take everything in. I soon saw that tombs weren’t the only objects stolen away by Katrina’s flood waters. A large tugboat loomed just off the highway, miles from any open water. I got out to take some pictures and was instantly attacked by swarms of what looked like over-sized flying ants. These little monsters came in mating pairs, and I was amazed that they would take the time out of their procreative rite to sink their teeth (or fangs, or pokers, or whatever) into my forearms. My only option was to run until I got close enough to snap a couple pictures, then sprint back to the car. It’s amazing how fast an out-of-shape thirty-year-old can run when being chased by hordes of two-headed devil bugs.
A few miles and several more beached boats later, we pulled into a clamshell lot fronting a swamp museum on the banks of the Pearl. A wooden walkway led out to the bank where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and both captains had ended their tours for the day. The swamp tour business was good before Katrina, they told me. Honey Island Swamp guides are now lucky to have one full boat per day, and it would have been a waste of gas and time to take only us on an after-hours tour. As we were turning to walk back to our car, another tour boat floated by and offered to take us aboard.
Ah, the swamp. Something I’ve seen in many a movie but never experienced for myself. It was amazingly quiet for an area so rich with wildlife. The setting was right out of the boat launch scene on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland- except that particular ride scene was probably taken straight from here. Old ramshackle boathouses lined the bank across from the launch, and I half expected to pass a fisherman strumming ‘O Susanna’ on his banjo before plunging down a waterfall into the world of swashbuckling pirates. But this was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina had been here. Lines of boathouses floated abandoned along the shore. Across from the launch one medium-sized boathouse rested atop a much smaller outhouse. A smaller boathouse floated beside the first, seemingly untouched by the storm.
“I’m going to turn on a little AC,” said Captain Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tours. “Oh good,” I thought. “I’m dying out here!” Turns out he just meant he was going to drive the boat really fast. It did feel good though. After speeding along the main waterway for a mile or so, Captain Neil stopped to turn into a narrow channel leading into a slough he called Dead River. A slough is a shallow backwater lake system that parallels the main bayou waterway. The Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these sloughs.
“Watch out for the giant cutgrass as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed to thick patches of tall, broad-leafed grass that brushed the sides of the boat as we drifted past. “That’ll cut your fingers pretty good.”
Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first set out alone in a pirogue at age 10 and owned his first motorized flat boat at 12. “I know some people out here that are pretty strange. Everybody who lives in the swamp is running from something- either the law or the voices in their heads.”
This caught my interest. I asked him later to elaborate.
“The swamp is a place to lose yourself- sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. If you are running away from life, the swamp will easily accommodate your request and take whatever past you had and hide it in its waters and beneath its canopy of trees.”
We were about a mile into Dead River’s labyrinth before I realized I hadn’t been bitten by any bugs since we left the car. Not even one mosquito, which surprised me, given we were on an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, other than our toddler’s repeated attempts to leap from the vessel, this was the most peaceful boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is an eerily beautiful place. Knobby knees of bald cypresses seem to float on the murky surface. The still, dark waters combine with the impenetrable fauna and moss-hung tupelos to cast a haunting, yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a wetland that features temporary or permanent inundation of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water.” Neil defines it as as an “underwater forest.”
Neil killed the engine as the slough opened into an oxbow lake or billabong, created when a wide meander of the river is cut off. I noticed a small green tree frog perched on the handrail next to my elbow. Though the swamp is densely populated with wildlife, it takes a trained eye to actually spot most of it. Once I saw that frog, I began noticing them everywhere. The swamp is like a 3-D Where’s Waldo book. The best way spot wildlife is to think of one type of animal and scan the banks until you see 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-bred wife nearly went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me wade out into the Provo River for a swim. In Utah there is a notable lack of animals that can hurt/maim/kill you compared to the Deep South. The most dangerous creature to hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake- and even he will give you fair warning before striking.
What’s unsettling to me in this bog is the wildlife you can’t see- the critters that lurk beneath the rusty surface of the water. Neil says swimming in the swamp is no more dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have alligators, snakes and the occasional bull shark in the river. Yet, like most animals in their natural ecosystem, the animals are more scared of humans than humans are scared of them.”
Well, I guess if it’s only an occasional bull shark mixed in with the alligators and snakes. I feel so reassured!
SWAMP RATS AND GATORS
Somewhat of a political anomaly, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives a pickup with an NRA bumper sticker. His love for exploration and adventure evolved into a passion for this delicate ecosystem, and he’s been guiding swamp tours for over a decade. A few days after hurricane Katrina nearly stripped life from the swamp by ripping off its canopy and flooding it with salt water, Neil ventured out to inspect the damage with reporter Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Tribune.
“This is unbelievable,” he told Montgomery. “For the life of me, I would have never guessed it. It’s gone. All of it.”
“It was my first time back in the swamp after the storm,” Neil tells me over the phone two years later on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “It was heart breaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you I was in tears.” A couple hours on a boat with Captain Neil reveals his zeal for this place.
Back in open water, we saw our first gator. Once we spotted one, we started seeing them everywhere. As we passed, alligators would swim toward the boat angling for the marshmallows Neil would toss to them. He even reached out to pet the one he calls Big Al.
In the swamp, you see a lot of things out of the corner of your eye. A frog or a snake here, an alligator or a wild boar there. Stories abound about an elusive creature affectionately called “The Thing.” Of the numerous reported sightings, no intelligible photo has ever been taken of the beast. But there are plenty of believers. The Honey Island Swamp monster is more than a myth to fisherman and swamp-dwellers. Over the years several investigators have produced plaster casts of the monster’s supposed footprints. Neil owns one of these casts. He preferred not to discuss it during the tour, “because I’d like to have some credibility.” His official position? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster and therefore, it exists. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
We did not witness this mythical creature that day. But then again maybe we were only taken to the “tourist-friendly” areas of the swamp where the beast is less likely to skulk. Looking at a satellite image of the swamp I’m amazed at how little of it we saw. Next time I’m down that way I plan to convince Neil to introduce me to the more secreted grottoes of this mysterious and wonderful place.
Neil tells me he does take people out on extended private excursions, but he requires customers to sign a “sign your life away” waiver.
“Because when you get that far out in the middle of nowhere, no one can predict what may happen.”
Sign me up, Neil!