This article originally appeared in Southerly Magazine on December 4, 2020. Written by Rory Doyle.
A photographer and writer visit some of the hardest-to-reach corners of the Atchafalaya Basin.
A 17.5-mile-long interstate bridge crosses the Atchafalaya River in southern Louisiana, and to the south, the river and its floodplain are unmarred by any other road for nearly 50 miles. Almost a million unbroken acres of bottomland hardwood forests: This is the largest remaining river swamp in the United States. The surrounding region, officially branded as “America’s Foreign Country,” is often regarded as the heart of Cajun culture. The swamps, then, are its lifeblood.
For generations, the Atchafalaya was home to the Chitimacha, who farmed the high ground and hunted and fished in the swamps. When Europeans arrived in the early 1700s, the slow-moving bayou was plugged in its northern reaches by logs and driftwood. Cajun immigrants moved in by the end of the century, living as fur trappers, crabbers, and even moss pickers who sold their harvest to Ford to stuff inside car seats. Loggers made fortunes culling cypress trees. Today, the Atchafalaya Basin yields 22 million pounds of commercial crawfish per year, and is dotted with pumps extracting natural gas. It’s popular among fishers, hunters, and recreational campers year-round.
In early November, photographer Rory Doyle and I joined Gerard Perrone, a New Orleans-based artist, for a three-day tour of the basin. Perrone built a pop-up tent that turns his johnboat into a floating campsite, which allows him to thoroughly explore the twisting bayous and bring visitors into otherwise hard-to-reach places.
The Atchafalaya River forks away from the Mississippi south of Natchez, and over its 140 miles, it traverses four ecosystems: drier woodlands to the north; then a dramatic swath of cypress swamps, where massive trees draped in Spanish moss rise above the water; and to the south, marshland and then a new delta, still being built by the mud the river carries south.
On our first night, we tucked the boat into a mass of floating lily pads and suppered on cold-cut sandwiches. I listened to vague hoots and howls above the brush of wind and water. Then came a loud skronking: A great blue heron, Perrone said. It sounded like the cry of some lesser dinosaur — as if this place had not changed since Earth was just a floating, liquid ball.
This landscape has changed, of course. Few places in America are as dynamic — or as unstable — as Louisiana. Over millennia, the mighty Mississippi has jumped between a series of pathways. (The Atchafalaya occupies a low point between two such routes.) Then came humans. In the 1830s, engineers pulled logs out of the Atchafalaya to clear paths for steamboats and carved a nearby shortcut that straightened the Mississippi, which turned the little bayou into a bigger river. A century later, the Atchafalaya was designated an emergency release valve for the Mississippi’s floodwaters; its floodplains were walled off with levees and the river was dredged into a deeper channel. This helped keep the swamps from being drained like so many others were.
But rivers are unwieldy. As the Atchafalaya grew, it carried increasing amounts of the Mississippi’s water, and eventually threatened to “capture” the big river and become its main route south. That would strand New Orleans and Baton Rouge on a backwater bayou. It’s a possibility still, which is why, beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a “control structure”: three sets of gates that ensure only 30% of the Mississippi River’s water is allowed in.
It’s still a much bigger river than it once was, which means more water (only five U.S. rivers have a higher discharge) and also more mud. The Atchafalaya now feeds one of the few bits of Louisiana coastline that are growing, rather than shrinking. Further north, though, all the mud causes problems: In the cypress swamps, former wetlands are turning into dry ground. America’s largest river swamp is quickly filling in.
Under grey skies, we motored through the port of Morgan City. Here, the flood-control levees end and the trees give way to sky and marsh grass. Eventually, we reached a shell beach along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s one of Perrone’s favorite sites to camp, though he noted that the five hurricanes that hit Louisiana this year have changed the topography.
A week after our trip, the Army Corps announced a new partnership with The Nature Conservancy to study how varying the amount of water that passes through the control structure might improve the ecosystem. But the swamp’s many stakeholders sometimes disagree on how to manage this landscape — whether it should be an economic resource, flood-control infrastructure, or a reserve for endangered species. Even environmental groups find themselves at loggerheads over dredging projects and whether they serve wildlife or landowners.
The Atchafalaya will never be as wild as it once was; it is too engineered. Somehow, though, the engineering has yielded something rare and precious: A vast wetland, the last of its kind.
It’s difficult to keep that landscape living, but adrift in a boat at the edge of a continent, that feels like worthwhile work.
Rory Doyle is a photographer based in Cleveland, Mississippi.
Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. He was the recipient of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Media Award in investigative journalism.
Disclaimer: The Nature Conservancy allowed the writer and photographer to stay in their Atchafalaya Conservation Center the night before the trip, and Rory has previously been hired by the organization for media projects.