The sons of the Atchafalaya lived in another world in another time. The Traveler’s Story.
June 25, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Breaux Bridge is another world that’s lost in another time and has absolutely no interest in joining the twenty-first century. Perched on the shores of the beautiful Bayou Teche, down amidst the swamplands of South Louisiana, the quaint little town immerses itself in its authentic Cajun culture with wild zydeco music and a genuine love for crawfish at almost every meal.
The Sights: From the edge of Breaux Bridge, it’s only a short journey to the foreboding wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the United States and one of the top ten wilderness areas in the nation. Interstate 10, running between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, travels over the northern channels of the basin, and boat tours carry you deep into the mysterious bayous and marshes that are home to more than three hundred species of birds, ninety species of fish and shellfish, and fifty-four species of amphibians and reptiles, including the great American Alligator. The land is a refuge for the beaver, otter, mink, and deer, and a few tough, tenacious, and self-reliant Cajuns who still make their homes deep in the swamp, living in cabins on natural islands that lay beneath the towering limbs of moss-draped bald cypress stands.
The Story: No roads lead to the home of Earlis Carline. It’s just as well. Earlis Carline doesn’t own a car. Never did. Never needed one. Still doesn’t.
Earlis Carline is a man of the swamp, hunkered up on a chunk of dry land that rises out of the Atchafalaya’s bewildered bayous, choked with lily pads, crawfish traps, and cottonmouths that go pretty much where they please, which is pretty much anywhere they want to, and Earlis Carline never goes out of his way to get into theirs.
“Got bit once,” he tells me as he eases his small wooden pirogue among the cypress knees. “That’s what I get for goin’ barefooted.”
“Where did you find a doctor back in here?”
“What did you do for it?”
“I cut it open with a pocket knife and let it bleed a lot.”
“Does that really work?”
“I ain’t dead.”
Earlis Carline depends on the river that wallows through the willows and oaks and mud of South Louisiana. It feeds him. It keeps his pockets full of loose change, as long as those old catfish are selling for forty to eighty cents a pound, as long as the raccoon’s fur is worth ten bucks and the nutria’s hide brings seven.
“When the catfish are runnin’,” he says, “it ain’t nothin’ to drag out a thousand pounds a day.”
“That’ll wear you out.”
“The big ones do.”
Earlis Carline grins. “I caught a seventy-two pounder once,” he says.
The river blesses Earlis Carline.
It has busted him.
He lives where the Atchafalaya wants him to live. Once that was on Bayou Chene, back in 1927. “Something made that damned old river mad,” he says in a grizzled voice. “By the time it cooled off, there was two hundred some odd dead.”
“Did you have any warning?”
“Not until we saw that river comin’ plumb up the streets.” Earlis Carline shakes his head. He had just as soon not remember.
“How did you get away?”
“We was livin’ on a houseboat at the time. We just held on as tight as we could, gave what was left of our souls to our maker, floated off, and kept on floatin’ till the river got tired and throwed us ashore.”
“And Bayou Chene?”
“It sank.” He pauses long enough to check his fishing line, then continues, “But sometime when the river is low, you still see a few rooftops stickin’ out of the water.”
“It must make you sad.”
Earlis Carline glances up, his gray, rumpled eyebrows raised in surprise. “Why?” he wants to know. “This damned old river don’t make no promises. And it sure as hell don’t keep any.”
Earlis Carline’s wife never did give herself to the Atchafalaya like she did to Earlis. She doesn’t trust it. Earlis Carline has no choice. Never did. Never needed another one. Still doesn’t.
He simply climbs into his wooden pirogue and paddles to Plaquemine on Friday nights, spends the weekend with his wife and family, then returns to his trotlines before daylight has time to catch up with Monday morning. The bayous are the only roads he has ever known. They’re the only ones that lead to his little wooden cabin, encased with ages-old deer antlers and squirrel tails all nailed to the front door. He’s been lost but never bothered by it. Earlis Carline squints as the sunlight pricks his pale eyes. “When I get lost,” he says, “I just get the hell out and go on home.”
The Atchafalaya, rolling on down past Lafayette to Morgan City is the second deepest river in the world. Its backwaters reach out across a four-million-acre floodplain swamp. Within it roam mink, otter, bobcat and black bear. The bald eagle catches the wind overhead. Egrets nest above the mud and silt that became the graveyard for Bayou Chene. Alligators soak up a Cajun sun. And the continent’s largest concentration of American woodcock comes each winter to the nation’s last great river swamp.
But there exists, within the shadows of the Atchafalaya, an even more unusual breed of creature. One is Earlis Carline. Another is Russell Ruiz, working his way by pirogue from one crawfish trap to another. And a third is Alcede Verrette, baking snapping turtle in its own shell and washing it all down with pumpkin wine.
For them, the swamp is home. They could leave it anytime they wanted. They don’t want to. Never did. Never needed to. Still don’t.
The saga of the swamp continues tomorrow.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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