It’s all about the water in Atchafalaya Basin. The swamps and marshes offered refuge to exiled Acadians when the Spanish lured them south and promised a permanent home, according to Captain Tucker of Basin Landing Swamp Tours. He would know after spending decades living here and navigating the meandering waters. The Captain fires up his airboats outside Henderson. It’s an easy ride from Lafayette, past levees and villages to the modest launch site and into another world.

Basin Landing Swamp Tours shop on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin near Henderson, Lafayette

Basin Landing Swamp Tours shop on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin near Henderson, Lafayette

The Atchafalaya Basin ebbs and flows until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The waters pass islands and villages across fourteen of Louisiana’s parishes creating the largest swamp system in the world. Today the area is different than the world the Acadians called home. They mingled with the few Native Americans in the swamp. They shuddered through stormy winters and soul-sucking days of fog. The heat and humidity of summer challenged their resolve. The Natives showed them how to use fish fat to fend off mosquitoes. Soon after, Captain Tucker jokes, Acadians created the first two-bedroom houses.
Captain Tucker's airboat run by

Captain Tucker’s airboat run by

Serendipity helped me discover the Acadian heritage as I first visited Quebec in the early spring of 2018. The Acadians were exiled to Canada from France during the Seven Years’ War (between 1756 to 1763.) The French colonists pushed them into parts of Northern Maine and south. Today their influence is acknowledged in the name of Acadia National Park. President Woodrow Wilson named the National Monument, Sieur de Monts, in 1916. It was changed to Lafayette, the first National Park east of the Mississippi, three years later.  1929 marked a recognition of the nomadic exiles and the name, Acadia National Park has stuck to this day. I enjoyed hiking trails and eating Acadian broths full of local lobster across the island parks just as fall colors were emerging. Less than two months later I was skimming across the Louisiana Atchafalaya Basin in Captain Tucker’s airboat.
Captain Tucker shares his stories and history of the Acadian heritage.

Captain Tucker shares his stories and history of the Acadian heritage.

After a murderous flood in 1927, the government built levees to manage the basin tides. The Captain mentions the management wryly, as he and many locals are no longer allowed to hunt and fish in vast areas. It’s part of the rhythm of the Atchafalaya Basin. In the twenties those who had made their living from subsistence hunting, fishing and trapping moved to higher ground and into other pursuits. Crawfish, for example, flourish here and the Basin still leads in wild-caught but many more are farmed. Alligators spend long days basking in low water during the warm months. They hibernate in semi-sleep states on marshy outcroppings during the winter. Hunting them is highly regulated and again many are farmed.
Osprey and catch in the Basin

Osprey and catch in the Basin

Inside the Atchafalaya Basin

On the boat sitting next to the Captain, we passed close to the flanged roots of towering Cypress trees. The boat left a ripple as it parted floating weeds and hanging mosses waved as it sped past. The swamp system has no directions and each season brings its challenges as marker stumps, left after lumber companies did their worst, change. Some crumble, waterlogged, at other times their wide roots are exposed.
Captain Tucker has been leading tours for years and swears he’s “never been lost only confused.” The forest waters open to vast spaces too. There are over 300 species of birds, several poisonous snakes, and many, many alligators.
Bayou Bromance - Captain Tucker and Hercules, an alpha male alligator in the Atchafalaya Basin

Bayou Bromance – Captain Tucker and Hercules, an alpha male alligator in the Atchafalaya Basin

The Captain pulled into a dead-end bay and cut the motor. Within moments a bending line of water signaled the approach of Hercules, a ‘friendly’ alpha gator who’s bonded with Captain Tucker. He’s almost docile when the boat comes into his shallow bay but has been known to toss other gator challengers out of the water. There are about 19 other gators in the small bay, says Captain Tucker, but we can’t spy them in the clotted marshland. Hercules and Tucker put on quite a show. The gator lets Tucker pet his head, then swims with a slow swish of his mighty tail, along the length of the boat to check us out. Once he returned for a handout from the Captain, who deftly tossed a chicken breast in the toothy maw, Hercules shifted slightly. Tucker reached in the water to lift a leg and shook the creatures claw. Their lovefest went on for nearly fifteen minutes as we watched their partnership in awe.
The Atchafalaya Causeway rises above fishermen and airboats.

The Atchafalaya Causeway rises above fishermen and airboats.

On our return, we swing past the double bands of the causeway with their incongruous semi-tractor trucks. A few houseboats dot the bay and boaters come and go. Patient fishermen nod as we pass. Bright white herons lift and fly down passages as our boat approaches. I’m certain the loud airboat engine ruffles more than a few feathers in the area, but we come and go swiftly. The Heritage area is protected and Captain Tucker notes every change, preserves stories and inspires guests to be gentle in this wild space so it may be enjoyed for generations to come.
Canoeing in the Atchafalaya Basin near Lafayette, Louisiana

Plan your visit to the Atchafalaya Basin and learn more about Acadian culture:

Map showing Henderson and the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana
Spending hours out in nature is bound to make you hungry and Lafayette is home to fine Cajun to Spanish cooking, local brews, and cocktails. Read more about that in my earlier post.
Thank you to Atchafalaya Basin Landing and Lafayette Tourism for making this tour possible.
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