Last summer I didn’t get my kayak out of the shed behind my house. With all of the packing and moving I did to move to Louisiana, the thought of packing my boat on top of my car and unloading anywhere just seemed like too much to do. Around September, I went on one trip with my brother and my nephew, but that was it. I’m itching to go this spring before the mosquitoes get so thick I’ll need a gator to pull my kayak through them.
I found a kayak outfitter in Lafayette that hosts trips. Sadly, Pack and Paddle in Lafayette is an hour away, and they had a Beer and Gear social gathering Friday night. I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet some people and see what kind of operation they run. If it seemed like a good place, I thought I might sign up for some of their camping trips this year. I drove west across the Atchafalaya Basin expecting to see 20 or so people having a few beers and talking to some vendors. To my surprise, I had to park WAY down the street since over 200 people beat me there. They had some really cool fishing kayaks displayed, and they were giving one away along with lots and lots of cold beer.
I met some folks from the Lafayette Paddle Club and the Bayou Haystackers – another paddling club in the area – and, to make a long story short, I decided to join the Haystackers for a trip to Blind River on Saturday. A guy named Mike offered a seat in his two-person canoe and a ride over to LaPlace. I think we had about 17 boats and 19 people on the trip, so it was a nice-sized group. While unpacking, launching and filling out the necessary Wildlife and Fisheries paperwork, I met a few people and started to feel at home right away. The weather was a perfect temperature and just a tad on the cloudy side, but it looked like it would be a nice day.
Right away, I noticed what looked to be red leaves in the midst of the wintery bare cypress swamp. It struck me odd that they’d be in full fall color in March. Mike explained that they call those Swamp Maples. They were beautiful. What I thought to be leaves were actually the seeds of the tree which form these propeller-like wings to aid in dispersing seed. Most were a lovely garnet although we saw a handful that were more of a yellow-orange. I imagine those had already reached their peak color and were in decline. The Spanish Moss hung thick on the trees in the swamp, and these Swamp Maples had me mesmerized with their deep red coloring contrasting the pewter-gray moss. Every time I laid my eyes on one, I just couldn’t stop admiring how pretty it was. I took way too many swamp maple pictures, but I was really happy that I happened by them at this time of the year. That’s the thing about nature. If you don’t catch it at just the right time, you might never see it.
Since this is my first season paddling in Louisiana, I have a lot to learn. Blind River is actually not a river at all. It’s a bayou, and it has no current. It’s called flat water to paddlers, and it means, quite simply, you will have to paddle the entire trip. When you have a current or even a little wind, you may have some help to move along, but in flat water you are the engine. I was pretty tired by the end of the four hour trip yesterday. But, it was a great workout.
We saw lots of wildlife. Several species of Egrets, herons, cormorants, a Great Horned Owl, a Kingfisher and some shorebirds showed up for our little adventure. At one point, our swamp music was the keer, keer, keer of a hawk. Someone finally spotted it enjoying its prey from a tree branch. We saw lots of fish rolling in the shallow water, and my guides said most of them were alligator gar although it’s not uncommon for some old world fish like choupique to be hanging around. We did not see any gators or snakes, although there was a lot of speculation that we might since it was so warm yesterday. So, my first kayak gator encounter is still in my future. I asked them about gators and kayaks, and most agreed that it is pretty intimidating since the alligators can be larger than the boat. I have to admit I jumped in my skin a couple of times yesterday when a gar rolled the water thinking it might be a gator tail swishing nearby.
We paddled about 3 miles out, and then a few of us paddled into a little slough just to see what was hiding in there. It was so peaceful and quiet. The others turned back, and we told them we’d catch up later after we did a little exploring. The water back in that slough was black like really black tea water. At the entrance, the muddy water from the bayou mixed in with the black water and looked like the proverbial “clouds in my coffee.” I was surprised that it would visually mix like that. You could see two different colors of water, and it was really cool. The black water finally took over, and it was very clear although very dark. I could see vegetation underneath the surface very clearly. The other kayaker with us said he saw an otter that left the bank to go for a swim, but we never found the little critter.
I drove to New Orleans this morning, and I thought how different the swamp looks from the road. Part of it is perspective, I’m sure. Those wintery-bare cypress and tupelo trees look gray and barren from the road. Every now and then you get a glimpse of a palmetto, a swamp maple or some new leafy green shoots. It looks pretty ugly, really. From a boat, though, you start to filter out all of the stuff around you. I get caught up in the fresh air, the splash of the water from the paddles and the landscape. It’s like when your eyes start to adjust in the bright sunlight. My focus becomes clearer, and the real beauty of the swamp starts to jump out at me. It’s not the bold beauty of a snow-capped volcano that can’t be missed. It’s the subtle beauty of a green palmetto growing from the inside of an aging, hollow cypress trunk. It’s the contrast of the Swamp Maple to its backdrop of Spanish Moss. The further I paddled, and the more my heart opened to it, the more I saw.
At one point in that black water slough, I noticed the reflection of the trees on the water. In the muddy water, reflections were dimmed. But, back there, when I would catch a glimpse before the canoe wake disturbed the glassy surface, there was a perfect mirror image of the landscape. It was so pretty. It was here that we heard a Great Horned Owl call. Then a Kingfisher danced through the tree limbs with a rattle. It was a lovely place. Someone mentioned that there are probably very few people who have ever been back here to see this. That’s what so awesome about kayaking and canoeing. You can go places where a motorized boat can’t go or where its drivers wouldn’t want to put forth the hand-power to get there. You always know that this is the place where Mother Nature reigns… and you are just blessed enough to sneak a momentary peek.
We paddled back to the group, and the trip back was much faster. We’d already seen the scenery once, and, of course, as with all Louisiana group gatherings, people started talking about where to eat. In fact, they told me that often they’ll plan paddling trips based on what local restaurants are in the nearby area. We were all getting tired of paddling. For those of us who went farther, we guessed we paddled at least 7 miles. I found myself wanting to get back much quicker than it actually took. Mike kept saying that, “it’s just around the next bend.” Then he’d laugh when it wasn’t, and he’d say it was the next one. The dock was a welcome sight. As soon as we landed, the beer started flowing, and everybody packed up. Loading canoes and kayaks is an ordeal, and by the time they were finished, we were eager to eat and head home. We had a couple of groups – one group headed west and one east – so we split up for dinner. Our group ate at Brewbachers. It was yummy, and I got to hear a lot of war stories… kayaking AND actual war stories from Vietnam.
It was a great day with some really great people. Between the two clubs and the Louisiana Hiking Club, they have outdoor trips almost every weekend. I’m going to get out my calendar and schedule some. You can’t beat outdoor adventure for fun. It’s inexpensive once you have the equipment. It’s great exercise. It’s so darn good for the soul. I can’t wait until next time. Anybody want to take bets on when I’ll see my first gator? I just hope I don’t see him up really close. And, heavens knows what Ashok will do. She better stay still in that boat. If it’s me or her… well …