It us nearly impossible to live in New Orleans during hurricane season and not hear about the value and benefits that the Louisiana wetlands provide our city in the event of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. These wetlands, lying to our south, absorb a great deal of the water surge a storm creates and diffuses it before it can cause flooding farther inland.
So, of course, we all realize the importance of protecting our wetlands. Could there be a better way to ensure that the next generation of caretakers and decision makers recognizes and appreciates the value and beauty of our marsh than to take the kids on a swamp tour?
Louisiana is home to approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands. One of these wetlands, the Honey Island Swamp, is just a 40-minute drive from New Orleans and offers many great options for tours and is visited by people from all over the world. Named for the hives of honeybees that were seen on an island in the marsh many decades ago, The Honey Island Swamp is approximately 250 square miles running along the Pearl River and is one of the most pristine and unchanged wetlands.
Cajun Encounters, Pearl River Eco Tours and Honey Island Swamp Tours are all highly recommended and reputable tour companies. We chose Honey Island Swamp Tours for our most recent adventure and were not disappointed. Less than five minutes off of the Gause Boulevard exit on Interstate 10 in Slidell, you’ll drive up to a small Cajun log cabin where you check in. Next we headed down to the pier and boarded our boat. The boats provide bench-like seating on both sides of the boat so everyone has a front-row seat. The boats also have a cloth top that provides shades for the passengers – a definite bonus in the summer heat. Very quickly you realize you’re in a special place.
Off of the main bayou, there’s a maze of smaller channels that the tour guide navigates with the same familiarity as we do the streets around our homes. The channels are lined with gorgeous mature cypress and tupelo gum trees emerging from the water and draped with a canopy of Spanish moss, which filters the sun shining down in the marsh. At times, the scene is so beautiful and haunting it seems surreal.
Our tour guide was not only very entertaining but also an expert at pointing out and identifying the various types of vegetation, including trees, lilies and wild irises.
Next, we started searching for animal wildlife. It didn’t take long to spot countless turtles, raccoons and even a snake or two. Occasionally, wild boars will make an appearance, but they were evidently hiding on our tour day. But if there’s one animal you think of when you think of the swamp, it’s the alligator. The tour just would not seem complete without the kids spying an alligator. We didn’t need to worry! Our guide would make noises and, like the Pied Piper, we quickly had several small alligators literally swimming up to the sides of the boat. The guide then put broken pieces of hot dogs on the end of a stick and held it our over the water. I knew alligators were great swimmers, but I didn’t know they were such jumpers until we saw them literally leap out of the water to grab the hot dog. Our guide seemed to know the alligators by name, identifying them by their colors or scars. As our parting gift to the gators, the guide gave us a few marshmallows to throw in the water for the gators, who seemed to enjoy marshmallows as much as hot dogs! You run a much greater chance of seeing the gators in the spring, summer and fall when the temperatures tend to be warmer. The only other thing we didn’t see on our trip, although we heard many interesting tales about his origin from our guide, was the famed Honey Island Swamp Monster. Maybe next time!
Back at the dock, the kids each picked out a Cajun treasure as a souvenir. The store sells T-shirts and alligator tooth necklaces and bracelets, as well as drinks, sunscreen and bug spray. Keep in mind that the gift shop only accepts cash. If you have friends or family coming in from out of town, all three of these companies offer shuttle service from the downtown hotels to their facility for an additional charge.