Crossing the Atchafalaya Basin

Crossing the Atchafalaya Basin
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A-T-C-H-A-F-A-L-A-Y-A, no I did not sneeze, thank you. When you clear off Baton Rouge in Louisiana going west towards Texas on Interstate 10, and before you reach Lafayette, you must pass through an eerie landscape, a swampy territory, an inhospitable marsh where time stands still. The term Atchafalaya comes from the Choctaw word hacha falaia, meaning Long River. The Native American tribe originated from the modern Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama lands.

The preserved refuge is a giant land of hardwood swamps, lakes, inlets, bayous and flood plain of the Atchafalaya River, joining the Mississippi River, to end in the Gulf of Mexico. The quietness and stillness of the wetland vegetation feels like a dream sequence complete with slight smog in some areas, a few singing and cackling invisible birds. Let's say that I would not want to be there at night.

The surface of the water is green in some spots, so smooth and unwaved that it's hard to tell if it's water you're looking at or a field of grass. Stumps of cypress and branches of mangrove add to the spooky feeling and strange beauty. Shrouds of moss hang from low branches, while dark roots spruce upwards from the water to form a spooky landscape. After living in Florida for years, I have seen many-a-swamp indeed, but none quite so tragic or still.

The basin's wooded wetlands is a natural habitat for woodcocks, eagles, ospreys, kites, ducks, wild turkeys, deer, squirrels, cottontails, swamp rabbits, foxes, coyotes, skunk, opossums, beavers, otters, bobcats, minks, raccoon, muskrat, storks, herons, and some 85 species of fish, although the two times I was there myself, only silence surrounded me, and I never saw more than a red bird flying solo - maybe I did not hike deep enough into the preserve, but how do you trek in water? I would have needed a flat bottom boat of some sort.

Further south of the basin, the Attakapas Wildlife Management Area is about 20 miles N.W. of Morgan City and 10 miles N.E. of Franklin. Trust me, you'll need those precise directions when traveling though swampy areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a small tract of land also managed by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Access to the tract is by boat only.

The mysterious swampland there is made of cypress, tupelo, oak, maple and hackberry. Black willow hangs everywhere like witches' fingers. The natives here are blackberry, holly, elderbery, goldenrod, greenbriars, peppervine, pokeweed, palmetto and switch cane. About 30 miles of trails meander around the east and west sides of the Atchafalaya River.

On Interstate 10, for miles and miles the freeway is suspended over water in two parallel ribbons seemingly floating in the weird landscape. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to build this part of the freeway. I am amazed that the surroundings have not been used and seen in movies that much, maybe the logistics would be too complicated. But it's a good tip for all the locations' scouts out there. The proud nickname of the Atchafalaya Basin is: America's Foreign Country.

A large portion of the State of Louisiana nurtures Cajun or Acadian influence, food, language and culture, passed down from their ancestors who were expelled in the 18th century from what are now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, parts of eastern Québec and northern Maine, during the Seven-Years War between France, England and Spain, fighting over colonies and trade interests.

Hypnotic former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte did not know what he was doing in 1803 when he sold the vast expanse then known only as Louisiana Territory to the US for a mere $12-million ($240-million in today's value). The chunk of land, then controlled by France, extended over all or part of 15 present-day states, plus two Canadian provinces. Some deal. I bet France is sorry now.

Did I mention the alligators?

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