How Much For Bank Run Gravel In Old Town Maine Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp

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Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp

FOR ME, EXPLORATION HAS ALWAYS BEGIN AT THE END OF CIVILIZATION. In most places, you have to step away from the neon signs and golden arches and step out of the concrete jungle entirely to find the wilderness. Generally, if I have even a bar of reception on my mobile, I haven’t progressed far enough. Most populated places in America attempt to integrate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces”: manicured plots of grass 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 out of vast, wild wildernesses. Even the biggest suburbs seem strained to keep wild nature at bay.

Slidell is a suburb of New Orleans that sits under a loblolly pine canopy on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area saturated with rivers and bays, where small gravel roads lead to neighborhoods of clapboard houses deep in the marshes where you wouldn’t think there were or could be neighborhoods. It’s such low-lying land (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “mainland” doesn’t really apply. And, unlike most places in the country, here one can simultaneously be in the middle of the desert and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House.

Slidell is bordered on the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from its headwaters in the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds area in central Mississippi and empties into the Rigolets and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. La Perla is home to the Honey Island Marsh, one of the most beautiful and least disturbed river marshes in the United States. It takes its name from tales of abundant wild honey made by renegade bees that had escaped from their beekeepers.

SWAMP BOUNDARY

We had not made any hotel reservations. There was nothing on the itinerary. We had no other plan than to drive lonely roads and explore forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly down the 190 freeway, trying to take it all in. I soon saw that graves weren’t the only items stolen by Katrina’s flood waters. A large tug was sitting just off the highway, miles from any open water. I went out to take some photos and was instantly attacked by swarms of what looked like large flying ants. These little monsters came in mating pairs, and I was surprised that they took the time out of their procreation 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 take a couple of photos and then run back to the car. It’s amazing how fast an out-of-shape thirty-year-old can run when chased by hordes of two-headed insect demons.

Several miles and several more stranded boats later, we approached a clam patch in front of a marsh museum on the banks of the Pearl. A wooden walkway led to the bank where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and the two captains had finished their tours for the day. I was told that the swamp tour business was good before Katrina. The guides at Honey Island Swamp are now lucky to have a full boat a day, and it would have been a waste of gas and time to take just us on an after-hours excursion. As we turned to walk back to our car, another tour boat passed by and offered to take us aboard.

Ah, the swamp. Something I’ve seen in many movies but never experienced for myself. It was incredibly quiet for an area so rich in wildlife. The setting was right off the ship launching scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, except that particular ride scene was probably shot directly from here. Old, ramshackle boathouses lined the shore on the other side of the shuttle, and I almost expected to pass a fisherman playing “O Susanna” on his banjo before plunging down a waterfall into the world of savvy pirates. But this was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina had been here. Lines of houseboats floated abandoned along the shore. On the other side of the launch, a medium-sized ship rested on a much smaller outbuilding. A smaller house floated next to the first one, apparently untouched by the storm.

DEAD RIVER

“I’m going to turn on some AC,” said Capt. Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tours. “Oh well,” I thought. “I’m dying here!” Turns out he just meant he was going to drive the boat really fast. Still it felt good. After speeding along the main waterway for about a mile, Captain Neil stopped to turn into a narrow channel leading to a marsh he named Dead River. A marsh is a system of shallow lakes that parallel the main waterway of the bayou. Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these marshes.

“Watch out for the giant cut grass as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed out 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 went out on his own in a pirogue at age 10 and owned his first motorized flat boat at age 12. “I know some people out here who are pretty weird. Everyone who lives in the swamp is running from something, whether it’s the law or the voices. in their heads.”

This piqued my interest. I asked him later to elaborate.

“The swamp is a place to get lost, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. If you run away from life, the swamp will easily accommodate your request and take whatever you had and hide it in its waters and under its tree canopy. .”

We were about a mile into the Dead River Maze before I realized I hadn’t been bitten by a bug since we left the car. Not a single mosquito, which surprised me as we were in an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, aside from our toddler’s repeated attempts to jump off the boat, this was the most peaceful boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is a strangely beautiful place. The gnarled knees of bald cypresses seem to float on the murky surface. The still, dark waters combine with impenetrable wildlife and moss-draped tuples to cast an eerie yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a wetland that has a temporary or permanent inundation of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water.” Neil defines it as an “underwater forest”.

CRITERIA

Neil turned off the engine as the swamp opened up into an oxbow or billabong lake, created when a wide meander of the river is cut. I noticed a small green frog perched on the handrail next to my elbow. Although the swamp is densely populated with wildlife, it takes a trained eye to spot most of it. Once I saw that frog, I started noticing them everywhere. The Swamp is like a 3D Where’s Waldo book. The best way to spot wildlife is to think of one type of animal and scan the banks until you see it.

We don’t have many critters in Utah. I sleep on the forest floor and dive into lakes and rivers without a second thought. My Texas-raised wife almost went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me go into the Provo River for a swim. Utah has a notable lack of animals that can hurt/kill/kill you compared to the deep south. The most dangerous creature for hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake, and even he will warn you before he strikes.

What worries me about this swamp is the wildlife you can’t see, the creatures lurking beneath the rusted surface of the water. Neil says that 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. However, like most animals in their natural ecosystem, animals are more afraid of humans than humans.”

Well, I guess if it’s just the occasional bull shark mixed in with the alligators and snakes. I feel so calm!

SWAMP RATS AND CATS

A bit of a political anomaly, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives a pickup truck with an NRA bumper sticker. His love of exploration and adventure turned into a passion for this delicate ecosystem, and he has been guiding swamp tours for over a decade. A few days after Hurricane Katrina nearly took the life out of the marsh by ripping off its cover and flooding it with salt water, Neil ventured out to survey the damage with Tampa Tribune reporter Ben Montgomery.

“This is incredible,” he told Montgomery. “For the life of me, I never would have guessed. It’s gone. Everything.”

“It was my first time back in the swamp after the storm,” Neil told me by phone two years later, on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “It was heartbreaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you, I was crying.” A couple of hours on a boat with Captain Neil reveals his zeal for this place.

Back in the open water, we saw our first crocodile. Once we saw one, we started seeing them everywhere. As we passed, the alligators would swim toward the boat looking for marshmallows that Neil would toss them. He even reached over to pet what he calls Big Al.

In the swamp, you see a lot out of the corner of your eye. Here a frog or a snake, there an alligator or a wild boar. Stories abound about an elusive creature affectionately called “The Thing.” Of the many reported sightings, no intelligible photo of the beast has ever been taken. But there are many believers. The Honey Island Swamp Monster is more than a myth to fishermen and swamp dwellers. Over the years, various researchers have produced plaster casts of the monster’s supposed footprints. Neil owns one of these casts. He preferred not to talk about it during the tour, “because I would like to have some credibility.” His official position? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster, and therefore it exists. If God didn’t exist, he would have to be invented.”

We did not witness this mythical creature that day. But then again, maybe they just took us to the “tourist friendly” areas of the swamp where the beast is less likely to hide. Looking at a satellite image of the swamp, I’m amazed at how little we’ve seen of it. Next time I’m down this road, I plan to convince Neil to introduce me to the most secret grottoes of this mysterious and wonderful place.

Neil tells me he takes people on extended private tours, but requires clients to sign a “life sign” waiver.

“Because when you get that far out in the middle of nowhere, no one can predict what might happen.”

Sign me up, Neil!

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