Doing the swamp thing on Louisiana bayou tours

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he steamy swamps, marshes and bayous along the Louisiana Gulf Coast and throughout the Mississippi Delta make up the Louisiana wetlands, one of the most unusual and fragile ecosystems in the U.S.

The only way to experience the myriad sights and sounds of the wetlands is on a swamp tour, which enables visitors to get a close-up look at this otherwise inaccessible area.

Tour operators offer individual swamp tours via motorcoach as well as combos that include a swamp tour plus plantation and/or city tour.

Propeller-driven airboats provide one way to tour the swamps.Depending on clients' interests and preferences, there are several ways to tour the swamps, from group tours on shaded pontoon boats to propeller-driven airboats, canoes or seaplane.

Most tours are accompanied by a Cajun guide who has grown up in the area and knows the bayous.

In addition to being familiar with the ecosystem's fauna and flora, guides also can comment on local history, culture, cuisine and other aspects of Cajun life that make this region such a unique slice of Americana.

Wild things

A great diversity of wildlife and birdlife inhabits the swamps. The most sought-after sightings are of alligators, which usually can be observed either gliding through the brackish waters or sunning on the muddy banks of a bayou.

Fish also abound in these waters, and there is superb recreational fishing throughout the wetlands, with more than 85 species, such as bass, catfish, bream, redfish and speckled trout. Large concentrations of shrimp, crab, oysters and crawfish also are caught here annually.

The swamps are home to a brilliant array of birdlife that attracts serious birders from around the world.

Swamp tours are available out of many cities and towns in southern Louisiana, and some excellent tours are just 20 to 30 minutes away from downtown New Orleans; roundtrip transportation to the departure points may be arranged from many hotels.

The following is a sample of tours available in the New Orleans area. Typical tours take two hours and cost $15 to $20 for adults and $10 for children under age 12.

New Orleans area

• Lil' Cajun Swamp Tours.

Cyrus Blanchard, a native Cajun, narrates this tour that departs from the shores of Bayou Barataria, a 25-minute ride from the French Quarter.

Guests on Lil' Cajun tours benefit from Blanchard's encyclopedic knowledge of the region; his tours have been featured on the BBC and the Discovery Channel.

Tours depart at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; there also is a Moonlight Shrimping Tour every evening. For more information, call (800) 725-3213; e-mail [email protected]; or visit www.areafocus.com/lilcajun/links.htm.

• Honey Island Swamp.

Cypress trees and wild azaleas flourish in this 250-square-mile wilderness.

Tours of this protected wildlife area are led by Dr. Paul Wagner, an expert on wetlands ecology. According to Dr. Wagner, Honey Island is one of the least-altered river swamps in the country and is almost in its original condition.

One of the natural wonders here is an active bald eagle nest dating to 1910.

Many wild creatures besides alligators have been sighted here, including bears, red wolf and the rarely seen Florida cougar.

Thousands of pounds of crawfish are caught here every year as well as largemouth bass, bluegill and buffalo fish.

Call (985) 641-1769 or contact www.honeyislandswamp.com.

• Cypress Swamp Tours.

Departing from Bayou Segnette, this tour, dubbed the Cypress Experience, aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the surrounding swamps and bayous, enhanced by facts about wildlife. For example, the Spanish moss that thrives on cypress trees was once used by local Cajuns to stuff their mattresses.

Call (800) 633-0503 or contact www.cypressswamp.com.

Houma Tours

A bit farther out -- 60 miles from New Orleans -- is the town of Houma, which has the highest concentration of swamp tours in Louisiana. (The word bayou comes from the Houma Indian word bayuk, meaning slow-moving river.)

Here are descriptions of three tours that leave from Houma.

• Cajun Tours and Cruises.

In operation for 21 years, these guided educational tours offer fascinating insights into the local way of life. In addition to spotting and photographing wildlife, tour members meet with crawfish netters to learn how they operate.

Tours also stop off at plantations and villages so participants can meet native Cajuns and observe their lifestyle.

In September, there are alligator hunting trips for those interested in meeting and accompanying the hunters. On tours during the winter months, hundreds of birds can be spotted during migration season.

Packages with meals, lodging and entertainment can be arranged for groups or individuals, and roundtrip transportation is available from New Orleans.

Call (800) 916-8687 or visit www.cajuntours.com.

• Cajun Man's Swamp Cruise.

This swamp tour is led by a colorful character known as "Cajun Man" (his real name is Ron Guidry), a former Green Beret and state trooper who speaks fluent French as well as English. (And no, he's not the former New York Yankees pitcher.)

Guidry plays the guitar and serenades the group with a French song or two as they glide in a large, canopy-shaded boat through the swamps and bayous where he was born and raised.

Call (985) 868-4625 or visit www.cajunman.com.

• Munson's World Famous Swamp Tours.

Over the past 22 years, these tours have been transporting visitors into the spooky black waters of the Chacahoula Swamps, exploring a wildlife environment that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

Here one is likely to see large alligators as well as many species of exotic birdlife, including the Great Blue Heron. Pontoon boats take small groups into areas of the swamps closed to the general public.

For additional information, call (985) 851-3569 or contact www.munsonswamptours.com.

Get More!
For more details on this article, see A plan to save the wetlands.

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