Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Orleans Vacation Day 3: The Swamp Things

We began Day 3 in real vacation style, getting going just in time to make the cut off time for serving breakfast at the Trolly Stop cafe a block from our hotel.  We ate here three time because it was pretty good, very close, and cheap. I discovered a new yummy food: grits!  Drew has made me instant grits here at home, but they don't even come close to the flavor and texture of true homemade grits served with butter and salt.  I always thought grits were close to zero on the nutritional scale, but it turns out if you eat whole grain grits they have nearly as much fiber, protein, and carbs as oatmeal.  Of course the butter didn't do me a lot of good, except to make my tongue happy.



Journey Into The Swamp

We drove about an hour and a half west to the mid-sized town of Huoma.  Nothing much there except as a launching point into Bayou Black. 

We joined three other couples and our guide Junior (no kidding, his name was Junior and his daddy had been a swamp man, too) in this air boat.  This was my first time on an air boat, and it took a while to stop cringing when we would slide over a log, thinking for sure the propeller was going to get munched. No propeller!


 Air boats are loud so we got to wear these stylish earmuffs.


Right off the bat, we saw a mid-sized alligator.


Junior steered the boat through very straight channels that were quite clear of vegetation.  I had noticed similar straight channels in the swamp on our descent into the New Orleans airport on our flight in.

The straightness puzzled me until we saw this sign.


Junior talked about how there are thousands of miles of pipeline buried about 4 feet deep that transport oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico inland.  He said the several boats we saw at the marina were all boats hired out by the oil companies for surveillance and maintenance on the pipelines.  It is a big part of the economy, as we noted driving by several small refineries on the way to the marina. The pipelines occasionally leak, but most of the pipes have leak protection devices. The swamp sure seems to me like a bad place for an oil leak.


To get into the good stuff, Junior turned us onto a twisty network of shallow channels, probably mostly made by the swamp tour boat. 

Turning off the big deep channel into the encroaching swamp filled with cypress trees and ferns and who knows what kind of creatures was a bit unnerving, even in broad daylight.  I was already so lost I began to think about eery things like what if the boat broke down and we were stranded out here after dark.  There would be no walking or even swimming back to the marina.  Or what if Junior was a bad person and decided to murder us all and dump our bodies overboard.  There would be no sign of us and no way to find us, I was sure.  Guess this North Dakota prairie girl was feeling a little out of place.

I needed a diversion from my thoughts, and what better to provide it than an ecological story. The story of nutria.

Nutria

I was hoping to see a nutria on this trip.  Junior stopped the boat and pointed out the "South American Aquatic Rat at the base of that thar tree".


I asked if that was kinda like a nutria. He said it IS a nutria.  (Swamp newbie Lucy!)  I had read about nutrias a while ago - how they are a large rodents that were introduced from South America for fur farming in the 1930s but then they escaped and how now they are a major pest.  They destroy vegetation, chewing through everything including irrigation systems and houses, causing erosion, and displacing native animals.  The article I read was about a state or federal program to promote the control of these rodents using everything from a bounty program to a cook-off contest using recipes made with nutria.  I'll take my beef please! 

We didn't get a good enough look at the bugger to see his or her orange beaver teeth, which look like this

Nutria (not my picture)

I was sure our nutria friend would not mind a bit if Junior threw us overboard.

Big swamp and alligators

On to more swamp and animals.  One of my favorite spots in Bayou Black was this wet clearing.  It just looks so "swamp".  The trees are bald-cypress (native) and the green covering on the water is duckweed (which Junior said was invasive and a problem because it shades the water and hinders those plants and animals that need more light).



We continued on to a large treeless area that Junior said was very important habitat for many ducks and other birds.

We watched this great blue heron fish for a good 15 minutes. 


Once we started to motor on, we scared up a little baby alligator and Junior quickly whipped out his alligator-catching stick and brought the little guy on as a passenger.



He said this specimen was a year and half old.  He was about 2 feet long, which would bring Junior $20 in the alligator hunt.  The Louisiana Dept of Wildlife and Fisheries issues hunting permits to land owners or others with permission to hunt.  It wasn't clear to me if the Department paid the hunters or if it was a free market (for meat and hides), but Junior said he gets about $10 per foot of alligator.  Other for-profit hunting in the swamp include coyotes, feral hogs, nutria, and bull frogs.  Bull frogs bring in $1.50 each or more if you skin them, but Junior said it wasn't worth the time to skin a frog. They also harvest alligator eggs and sell them to alligator farms.  Apparently alligators don't like to breed in captivity.

He passed our alligator friend around to anyone who wanted to hold him, so I did.  He had quit squirming by that time.

We trolled on a little farther and stopped again in time to see a bald eagle fly way.  Here we sat in the middle of the hot muggy swamp while Junior told us various stories and "ways of the swamp".  In this video clip he is answering one of the passengers who asked if you could walk across the areas that looked to be solid ground.

video

Yup, Junior was the real thing. Or else he just put on a pretty good show of being a swamp man.

We continued on through more bald-cypress.  I didn't get a good picture, but all over the base of the trees and these root-like projections known as cypress knees...


were 3- to 4-inch long blobs of bright pink eggs that looked like this.
  Snail egg masses. Picture from http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/invasive_species/nwrc_research.htm.

Junior said they were from an invasive snail that negatively impacts local rice agriculture and can spread disease to humans.  I did a little research for this post and I think they were the Island applesnail (Pomacea insularum).  I wish we could have seen an adult, because they are huge.
Apple snail. Picture from http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/invasive_species/nwrc_research.htm.

Junior was afraid we would run out of gas so he took us to his boss's "compound".  My imagination started to run wild again, as this place was hidden in the middle of the swamp and had some sort of rack that looked like it could be used to string up a deer or __________ (fill in the blank). 


We had a treat of satsuma oranges, which were very sweet and easy to peel.  I wish we had them here in Utah.

But all too soon (it was actually about three hours worth) we headed back to the marina and solid ground.

I loved the swamp tour.  It was my favorite thing we did all week.  I got to see strange animals and plants and a foreign environment, all from the relative safety of an air boat and a seemingly trustworthy and knowledgeable guide.   Well worth the drive and the $45 bucks.  I would definitely recommend Bob's Bayou Black Swamp Tour; ask for Junior.

Pig Done Right

We drove back to New Orleans and changed out of our swamp clothes to go find some dinner.  A local had recommended Cochon: Cajun Southern Cooking .

Cochon means pig (maybe in French?) and most items were pork related.


Although this was a Monday night, we should have had reservations.  We were lucky to get two stools at the chef's bar, which was fine by us because we got to watch some of the magic.  We tried fried alligator with chili garlic aioli, which tasted like chicken but denser and a little bit tougher.  The waiter brought us a complimentary appetizer of pork pate, which tasted like fancy spam, a yummy bread basket, and a plate of pickled okra, another likable new taste for me.  For my entree I had Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, which looked like a pile of shredded pork with some little veggies in a thick sauce, but tasted like a fantastic explosion of savory sweet tangy deliciousness.  The vinegary sauce set off the heaviness of the pork and the vegetables were crisp and tender.  Really great.  Drew had smoked beef brisket with horseradish potato salad, which was also delicious.  He also had a side of home-style macaroni and cheese.   For dessert Drew had Apple Pie with Sour Cream Ice Cream, which must have been so good he wouldn't share, and I had my first southern moon pie.


This was not a supermarket treat, this was a gourmet honey marshmallow sandwiched between two oatmeal and sun-dried cherry cookies, topped with Dr. Pepper ice cream.  It was very, very good, and I did not share either.  We practically had to roll back to our hotel we were so stuffed.

Day 3: Deep swamp and great food - how much more Louisianan can you get?

1 comment:

  1. If you want to see nutria, just head on over to Oregon. We have quite an invasion on the lowlands of mom's farm :) Looks like you had a fun time :)

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