A wetlands tour with a differrence, just mind the gators
People flock to south Louisiana swamp tours for the experience of puttering down a lazy blackwater bayou banked with moss-draped cypress trees, a paunchy guy spouting patter and bad jokes in a Cajun accent, and sufficient alligators lurking about to offer a thrill.
Evergreen Swamp Tours isn’t like that. Except for the alligators.
In fact, Evergreen Swamp Tours, which is based at Evergreen Plantation near Edgard, the most intact plantation complex in the South, doesn’t go into a swamp. It’s a wetlands tour, on the Mississippi River batture, through terrain that conservation biologists call bottomland hardwoods – and it proudly pegs itself as “the only Mississippi River wilderness tour” anywhere near New Orleans.
The adventure is the creation of Benjamin Richard, the charming, 20-something owner and operator, who has devised a two-part outing that includes a swamp buggy ride across the river batture (the area between the flowing river and the inside of the large man-made levee) and a cruise-about in a flat-bottomed pontoon boat on a mini-oxbow lake of the Mississippi River.
Richard (whose surname is pronounced the French way) made the swamp buggy himself. It’s a big-engined tractor pulling a converted rice rig – a high, aluminum box on monster tires, outfitted with bench seats, railings and a tarp. It’s admittedly rustic, but not uncomfortable, even with a load of 18 people.
The day I climbed aboard, Richard nonchalantly steered the rig out of the plantation’s grand entrance, across River Road and along a short dirt track between sugar-cane fields. Then we rolled up and over the 20-foot-high Mississippi River levee into a mile-wide sweep of deep woods that has never been logged or hosted a man-made structure, save a couple of drainage ditches stretching all the way back to the cane fields behind Evergreen. This is rare habitat, a relic wetland from the millions of acres bordering the Mississippi River that once looked just like this. Now most of it has been lost to leveeing and development; the little that’s left is private.
Unlike land outside of the levee, this landscape is subject to the river’s natural cycle – dry when the river is low, flooded when the river is high.“It gets 3 or 4 feet deep in here,” declares Richard, which means that the tour either must enter from a different place or he and the buggy take a couple of days off.
Benjamin Richard is in his element in this wilderness, having grown up on the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana, where his father worked. He added an LSU degree in wildlife management and a previous job running someone else’s swamp tour before he decided to start his own tour, without the usual swamp-tour blarney.
We jounce slowly along the dirt track Richard blazed through the woods himself as he dispenses bits of natural history, occasionally bounding off the tractor seat to point out where the natural high ground is (it’s where oaks and palmettos grow); beds of native red iris (“so beautiful in the spring”); the wiry web of the golden silk spider (“greatest tensile strength known”); and the spot where a beaver undermined his culverts, and not just once. He has also recently begun to tell visitors about Louisiana’s wetlands loss, relating the more familiar loss of coastal wetlands to the less familiar loss of Mississippi River wetlands.
Richard is an enthusiastic guide, overflowing with information. Although there are no cypress trees in his wetland, he can point out oaks, tupelos, hackberries, maples, elms and sycamores, and shrubs and ground cover, plus the litany of native creatures he’s encountered here, including a bobcat, deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, beaver, owls, snakes (“the only poisonous snake here is the cottonmouth”) and birds. This day, however, we encounter nothing more exotic in the woods than a large, barred owl and a few small songbirds.
But the alligators are out in force.
The swamp buggy bumps to a stop against a small sapling. “Sorry,” the driver apologizes. “This tractor doesn’t have brakes.” We dismount onto a small, wooden dock at the edge of a pristine wilderness lake, a flat-water oxbow of the Mississippi ringed with tangles of textured greens. Flocks of snowy egrets decorate a bank of trees like white, art-moderne Christmas ornaments. A great blue heron stalks in a mud flat.
Before we cast off, the eyes and nostrils of a slow-swimming alligator riffle through the tannin-dark water next to the boat. As we pull away, an anhinga pops up from the murky water, then disappears, like a comical bathtub toy. Shad, stirred by the motor, flip above the water like silver flashes.
At my request, Richard refrains from tossing marshmallows to lure the alligators. This swamp-tour trick seems unworthy of a place so pristine, and unnecessary in a place where Richard has counted as many as 18 gators, “some large enough that I won’t get out here in my pirogue anymore.” To facilitate alligator-viewing, however, he has also built a plywood sunning platform in the middle of the lake.
The long, narrow lake is beautiful and unspoiled, save Richard’s constructions, and is separated from the Mississippi by only a screen of willows. The river is so close, in fact, that when a tug’s horn blares, we jerk around, sure it will run us down. There is a second mini-oxbow lake connected by a small channel that Richard tours when the water is high enough.
The swamp buggy retraces its route across the batture and deposits us at Victorian House, an early-19th-century cypress structure built to house some of the extended family that lived at Evergreen Plantation. The confusing name is derived from its having been moved, renovated and enlarged in the 1890s. The building serves as a ticket office, restaurant, and gift shop – a place to either end the adventure or continue it.
When Evergreen first opened to tourists, the only way to visit the plantation complex was as part of a New Orleans-based bus tour. Now, however, the house-and-grounds tour, as well as Benjamin Richard’s tour of the wilderness behind the Mississippi River levee, are accessible to anyone.
Together, the tours offer a glimpse of life as it has been lived along the Mississippi River Road by 18th-century Germans – Evergreen’s first inhabitants – through today … including the alligators, which have always been part of the scene. •