…on the bayou.
On Facebook yesterday, I twittered a dilemma I had about what to do that afternoon. Should I go to the French Quarter to find the blind man who uses a pony instead of a guide dog, or should I go to the bayou on an air boat?
Since I had no idea where to look for the blind man, I opted for the air boat, and some nature time away from the city.
Captain Kevin — a mid-twenties Cajun kid with an infectious, high pitched laugh — took six of us out from the docks at Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, to the backwater bayou, where canals were once dredged for the lumber trade that harvested cypress trees in the early 20th century.
The canals make great pathways for the air boats, with a canopy of cypress limbs and spanish moss, and some wildlife — gators, egrets, cranes and turtles.
Within a few minutes we spotted our first alligator, a three foot critter, ambling near the bank. Kevin says he estimates a gator’s length by gauging the distance between its nose and eyes. If it’s three inches, then the gator is about three feet long. That’s about how long this one was.
“Alligators grow about a foot each year for the first six years,” Kevin said in a thick Louisiana drawl, “then they slow way down and only grow about an inch each year.” Which means the record alligator to be seen in these parts, which Kevin said was 13 feet long, must have been plenty old.
“They can live to be 70 or 80 years old,” Kevin said.
I have always wanted to ride on an air boat. I have mental images, from TV in my youth, of Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or Jacques Cousteau gliding across the everglades in search of charismatic megafauna. What I wasn’t expecting was the noise. The ear protection was a necessity; the revving of the V8 engine and the roar from the prop were deafening.
Kevin paused in the bayou and the engine sputtered to a halt. A gator came toward us. “We got this one on the payroll,” Kevin said as he pulled out a bag of marshmallows. He smacked the marshmallow on the water’s surface. The gator sensed the vibration and came toward him. A few marshmallows later and Kevin got a little bolder with the animal, lifting it out of the water by a fold of skin under its chin.
With that gator getting a little tired of being teased, and its belly full of marshmallows, Kevin led the boat further down, then stopped and ran the nose of the boat up onto the bank. He had spotted another alligator, about six feet long, and he lured it to the bank, where he did a few more antics with it, getting his hands near its mouth, trying to get it to crawl up on the bank.
Later, he pulled a young gator out of a little red cooler he had on the boat. It was about 8 months old and less than a foot long. The group took turns holding it.
The skin was softer and dryer than you’d imagine.
I’m not much for the gator handling. I’d prefer they let the animals be and just let us enjoy the ecosystem. But in spite of it, I did like being out in nature, viewing the marvelous environment, the bright green of the trees and water plants, the chocolate brown tannins in the canals, the cypress knees and mossy islets.
Kevin fired up the engine and we glided out of the bayou canal, into a larger waterway, and out through a marshland covered green in irises and lotus plants. He stopped the engine, which spat and choked for a few minutes before finally halting, and then we could hear crickets, cicadas and bullfrogs.
He told me he takes groups out bow fishing in the evenings. They hunt red fish and gar with arrows tied to strings. I’d done it before in Texas, when I worked with the filmmaking division of the parks and wildlife department there. When I make it back this way again, I might give Kevin a call, pick up a bow and try my hand at it once more.