Photo by Sara Louise Singer/Shutterstock
A quiet morning in Honey Island Swamp, which covers more than 70,000 acres in eastern Louisiana.
The state’s swamplands have long provided food, protection, and cultural grounding for the surrounding communities—but they are at risk of disappearing.
There’s a special sort of calm that emerges from the swamplands of Louisiana. Alligators, birds, turtles, and water tupelos are tucked away, shielded by tall cypress trees and low lush banks. Glistening waters painted with the glow of the sun emit a soft sound; almost all is quiet. Go beyond the initial enchantment of the water, though, and a world of wonder—and challenges—awaits.
Swamps have always been a place of enduring mystery for me. During childhood trips between my hometown of Houston and my parents’ childhood home of Baton Rouge, swamps were part of some of my earliest travel experiences. Seeing them from the highway meant we’d finally crossed the Texas-Louisiana border, and that exceptional Creole and Cajun food was just a few more miles away. The emergence of swamps indicated a cultural change, too. Zydeco music would replace country, Cajun words and phrases like “lagniappe,” “gris gris,” and “laissez les bons temps rouler,” became integrated into my own vocabulary and the accent graced my ears over the next few days. And water—which covers nearly 20 percent of Louisiana—would be a main character of the trip, ever present in the swamp I would tour, the food I would eat, and the backbone of a culture that welcomed me. Swamps are a mainstay of Louisiana culture, but until adulthood, I’d yet to fully understand the magnitude of the swamplands, which provide food, protection, and cultural grounding for the surrounding communities.
The Manchac Swamp, about 30 to 40 minutes northwest of New Orleans, is one of nearly 300 swamps in Louisiana. Snuggled under the Manchac Swamp Bridge (one of the world’s longest bridges over water), the swamp is one of many types of wetlands that cover about 2.5 million acres throughout Louisiana. Like many things in and around New Orleans, rumors of a lurking Voodoo Priestess who haunts the swamps continue to draw many travelers, but the true gems of this swamp lie far beyond folklore.
Earlier this spring, after meeting up with other travelers in the French Quarter, I ventured out with Wild Louisiana Kayak Swamp Tours. It promotes ecofriendly tours that use kayaks, as opposed to mechanized boats, which can damage the marsh through pollution. Our tour guide, Smitty, drove us out to the Manchac Swamp Bridge. Armed with a two-pronged paddle each, my friend and I entered the water under the bridge and journeyed into the swamp alongside 14 others. Our surroundings became almost silent, and we were welcomed to the calming atmosphere inherent in the swamplands.
“Getting out and using good old elbow grease to power your way through the swamp is probably the most nonintrusive method that you could use,” says Corey Miller, director of Community Resilience of Greater New Orleans Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to support the various needs of New Orleans residents. A native of the Greater New Orleans area, Miller is deeply moved by the beauty and significance of the swamplands in Louisiana's culture.
“I find–whether you want to call it religion, or spirituality, or what have you–in nature,” he says. “It’s amazing to sit there and listen to the sounds; to reflect and to look at the simple beauty of an iris or some weird little beetle that has vibrant colors.”
Miller, who speaks regularly about the importance of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems, says spending time within Louisiana’s wetlands helps travelers and locals establish a real connection with a state treasure: In addition to the ecosystems they provide, swamps and other wetlands provide protection for urban and city centers during storms and hurricanes that regularly hit the coast. Yet increasing temperatures and rising sea levels are devastating the wetlands. Researchers believe that the loss of these wetlands is likely inevitable, a damning prediction for an invaluable natural resource that provides protection, food, and cultural memory to local communities.
“When you lose the habitat, you lose that productivity, and you lose the bounty of our coast,” says Miller. The severity of recent storms also worries Miller. “If you can’t safely live inside those swamps and closer to the city centers, and if you can't harvest the seafood, then you lose your culture.”
As I kayaked across the water, I was welcomed by the anhinga, red-winged blackbird, barred owls, and cypress knees—the name for the roots of the trees. As my muscles tightened from paddling, I was greeted by the sneaky eyes of at least six small alligators, all of which were less concerned with me and more concerned with the food beneath the waters. And as I listened to Smitty share information about the animals and their habits, I was reminded that the swamps, currently under major threat, once sustained generations, dating back to the Indigenous communities that first used them.
Respecting the swamps’ past and embracing tour companies that do the same can help preserve the wetlands. By researching tour companies and looking for tour groups that use ecofriendly practices, it’s possible to help curb pollution in the area. Being a good visitor matters, too; avoid littering during swamp tours, and use low voices while in a kayak or boat to avoid scaring or harming wildlife. Visitors can also look toward individuals trying to craft a better future as one way to impede the loss of swamps and other wetlands. Pointing to restaurants as the likely next stop for most tourists taking a swamp tour, Miller mentioned several chefs, including Melissa Martin of Mosquito Supper Club, Dana Honn of Carmo, and Ryan Prewitt of Pêche as a few local individuals working to use local seafood and highlight the bounty of Louisiana’s water and the culture it provides in their restaurants.
“Finding that appreciation of the beauty of nature, and then reinforcing it by spending your money in a responsible fashion at a restaurant that’s taking all those things into consideration is really the full package for somebody who’s traveling here,” he says.
Our tour ended at the beginning; we returned to the bridge’s entrance and rode back to New Orleans in the tour bus. As I looked out against the night sky, I realized the enduring truth of the incredible state. For much of Louisiana, one part touches another. Food is never just food; it’s part of a cultural history. Buildings are never just buildings; they’re home to a seemingly endless number of stories and tales that define the region. And water isn’t just water. It’s the lifeblood of Louisiana.
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