Swamp Thingin’ New Orleans

Thursday morning I went out early for a walk through the French Quarter. The streets had been washed, as is the custom here nightly, and the morning sun made the old buildings gleam.

I walked east along Royal to The Esplanade, the eastern edge of the quarter, enjoying sights like this verdant balcony. I know they have a good deal of rain here, but the sun has been out nearly our entire visit, and it felt a bit more humid today, though still comfortable.

I walked toward the river and past the Flea Market in the French Quarter. There in a small park is this gilded statue of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, patron saint of the city, a gift from France in the 1960s. Working my way back through the quarter I rejoined Ellen, and we spent some time in the central courtyard of our hotel reading before going to Neil’s brunch.

In the afternoon we thought we’d do one of the many tours offered in the area, and decided on the Swamp Tour. I called and made a reservation and arranged for them to pick us up outside the hotel. We’d be driven miles out of the city to Honey Island Swamp for the tour. We first had to pick up folks from other hotels, and noticed others from Neil’s party were going, too. We spoke briefly to Shawna McCarthy, the editor who bought one of Neil’s first books, “Good Omens,” and said hello to Ellen Datlow, but they ended up taking a different swamp boat, like the one above. Each boat holds about 20 plus the driver/guide, and three boats went out.

The only wildlife we were guaranteed to see were Alligators, and we saw quite a few, this being one of the largest. Our guide offered them marshmallows, though we didn’t see any gators take one, they usually slipped into the water and disappeared when we got too close. Alligators don’t like people any more than we like them.

These turtles were actually the first wildlife we saw, just across the Pearl River from the dock. The Pearl River divides into different branches as it glides through the swamp here, we only saw a few miles of one branch.

In smaller tributaries the swamp was at its most beautiful, dominated by tall Cypress trees, waterways full of tiny leaved plants similar to duckweed. I don’t recall the name of these, but our guide told us they bloom once a year, covering the water with tiny white blossoms, the closest thing to snow most residents ever see.

The plant life up close is varied and fascinating, and would be fun to study more carefully, but the focus of this tour was larger wildlife, and stories about local culture.

This is a Nutria, or as Ellen said, a giant Guinea Pig. They are not native, but were brought in as an attempt to help local fur trade in the nineteenth century. As usual, it was a misguided disaster: the animals’ fur turned out to be unwanted, they multiplied like the rodents they are, and unlike native species, they destroy the swamp plants they eat, ruining the ecosystem. There’s now a bounty on them to encourage locals to hunt and kill them, which helps some, but there’s no danger of the animals being wiped out.

Great Blue Herons were the only birds we saw close up, and they are, of course, wonderful to see. A few other birds were seen flying at a distance, or heard, but this was not a great tour for birdwatchers like us. We enjoyed it, though. Our guide’s well-rehearsed patter did fill us in on local life, and the fishing village we passed through, accessible only by boat, was quite interesting to see and learn about, as were the stories of Katrina’s impact on the area, which we heard more of from our bus driver on the way out.

It wasn’t a bad tour, but perhaps we’re spoiled after Yellowstone, where immersion in natural beauty was more impressive and complete. As we were bussed back to our hotel, the sky filled with a gorgeous, colorful sunset to entertain us, and once back we went out for dinner just across from our hotel, and then to an early bed. I’m afraid the joys of bar hopping along Bourbon Street are lost on us. A Mimosa with brunch and a glass of wine with dinner were plenty for me!

I’ll have a bit more about our last morning in New Orleans next time.

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