This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Old Men

Whenever Rut Gajan wanted to spend the weekend in the Basin, he had one place that he would go. It was to a houseboat tied in Little Bayou Pigeon. He would take me with him on some of these weekends, and those were special times. You got to experience the swamp not only in the daytime, but by staying overnight in the houseboat you got to hear and see the swamp in darkness too – a very different and captivating thing to do. [see the posting “Lost Lake” for a little background on Rut Gajan]. I visited the houseboat with Rut from the time I was about ten years old until I was old enough to have my own boat, at which point he cut me loose to explore the Basin without him. I got that boat when I was 15, and it had a 25 horsepower Johnson motor, a big deal in those days. That would have been in 1953. So, for five years I visited the houseboat on Bayou Pigeon as a guest, and then for about four years more on my own or with friends my age. It was a glorious time.

To get there we would launch at Charenton Beach and pay Old Man Etienne one dollar to do it. Rut usually had a Mercury outboard of a size sufficient to plane a boat with two people in it. His motors always looked old to me, but they never broke down, at least not on the trips I was on. In those days it was already too late to cross Grand Lake from west to east in a direct manner. Most of the lake had already filled with sand. By then you had to go down river in the Atchafalaya main channel (called the Santiago Channel in those days, after the dredge that dug the channel through the lake, I think) until you got to something called “the crevasse”. You could then turn east and follow that through the sand bars to Blue Point, which was the original other side of the lake. Once at Blue Point you could turn back up current and follow the cypress lakeshore to the two Bayou Pigeons. It took an hour and ten miles of travel to get to the camp from Charenton. The big motors that people had in those days were only 25 horsepower, but that seemed awfully fast to us at the time. Today I saw a picture of a boat with four 250 horsepower motors on it. We do get where we are going that much faster these days, but we don’t see very much along the way. Times have changed and so has the potential quality of our experiences, I’m afraid.

I don’t know who owned the houseboat, but it was always the same three old men who were there when I was. It was never one or two, but all three, and sometimes a fourth. These men were all from St. Martinville. Their names were Bill Thomas, Elmer Fournet, and Shorty Savoie. The sometime fourth was Pat Gary. Since I was just a kid, I never got to know these men on a personal basis, but I did spend enough time with them to know that I liked them all. Bill Thomas was the owner of a bar on the main street in St. Martinville. Though long dead, he is still remembered by people in the area. I don’t know what Elmer Fournet did for a living. Pat Gary was a house painter who mostly lived in Lake Charles. Shorty Savoie was my unofficial education role model, and that nearly cost me a completed college degree. He did this by living what I thought at the time was a perfect life. He was a “sugar cooker” during the grinding season, which limited his employment to the months of October, November and December. During the time I knew him, he worked in a mill in White Castle and lived the rest of the year with a daughter in St. Martinville, I believe. So, for nine months he was free to be doing things in and around the Basin. What a life. Of course, the other two men must have had their lives well arranged too, because they were always at the camp when Shorty was. What did they do there? They fished some trotlines across the bayou when they wanted fish, and sometimes they actually exerted themselves to catch enough to bring back fish to sell and thereby pay for groceries for the next trip. The pirogue shown is the type we used to fish bushlines, it was built by Carl Carline. Note the compartment in the middle that is made to keep fish alive for a little while. Otherwise, squirrel hunting took some time, and they always had frogs to eat if they wanted them. Cooking was something they had time to do, and they did it well. I do remember bottles of cheap wine not being scarce, mostly emptied bottles actually.

The houseboat itself was pretty standard for that, and earlier, times. It was about 30 feet long on a 40 foot cypress barge that was 12 feet wide. It had three equal rooms, a kitchen (on the end) and two bedrooms. There was a porch on both front and back. At one time there had been a walkway around the outside, but it was gone on one side and the other side had rain barrels mounted that prevented walking past them. I think it had a tin roof, but I’m not sure about that.

The kitchen had a wood stove in one corner, a kerosene cook stove in another corner, a table that would seat four, and a “safe” for holding dishes and stuff, and a sink that drained to the bayou for dishwashing. The table legs stood in little cans of kerosene to prevent the ants from claiming the sugar, etc., that always sat on the table. Even the ropes tying the houseboat to the trees on the bank had rags tied around them soaked in kerosene. The kerosene stove looked like a regular four-burner kitchen range. Because of all the kerosene being used, the camp always smelled like that. To this day, that is a welcome smell to me. There was a refrigerator in the middle room. It was a butane refrigerator. That machine came as close to being magical as anything I had ever seen. I mean, you turned the valve on the 5-gallon butane tank, you lit a little pilot light situated in the mechanism below the refrigerator box, and you stood back and watched this little compressor thing start to work. It kind of vibrated slightly and made small noises, and the miracle was that in a short time the refrigerator would be cold – you lit a fire to make the thing cold. I’m still not sure I want to know how that works. But it was mighty handy to have when you stayed out there a week with no electricity.

The food those men cooked at that camp was something I marvel at even now. I don’t know if it was just the fact that the houseboat environment made everything taste good, or whether everything really did taste good. Either way, you can’t lose. On some trips Rut and I would come in late on Friday afternoon and Rut would bring a medium sized gaspergou with him (the ones in the picture are too big to eat, they get too oily). He had a few nets out in the Basin and he could always go and get a fish when he wanted it. He would clean the gou and Shorty would start to make a red gravy in a big black pot. He would put onions and bell peppers and garlic cloves into tomato sauce and water and cook it for a couple hours before putting the fish in. Because we had come late, I would be asleep by the time the fish was cooked but they would wake me up when it was ready. Gaspergou courtboullion over rice with French bread and butter is not something you forget easily – even if you have to wake up from a sound sleep to eat it.

Another favorite food, especially in the winter, was green gumbo. Some people know this dish, many don’t. You start with a good-sized roux in a pot and add onions. After the onions are cleared you put in a mixture of fresh chopped greens – ½ collards, ¼ mustard, ¼ turnip. It takes a lot of greens, and you can add some salt meat too. Add water as in a gumbo and let this cook until the greens are tender and falling apart. Several hours are needed, up to four or five. Add chopped potatoes and turnips during the last 30 minutes or so of cooking. Somewhere in this you would have added salt and pepper. Serve this over rice, just like gumbo. Man! Put the dogs outside! We used to eat the gumbo for supper, and then again in the mornings in the winter, and then go out and split wood for the wood stove. That stuff would hold you for hours. Shorty and Bill would sometimes cook frybread to go with the gumbo in the morning.

And potato stew! A dark roux and cleared onions and garlic, and add a lot of cubed potato. Add water and salt and pepper and cook until the potatoes are falling apart all around the edges, making a thickened gravy. This takes a while too. But served over rice with some kind of bird meat on the side smothered until dark brown and smelling like heaven itself – unforgettable. At times like that you could truly wonder what the poor people were doing because you sure as anything were anything but poor right then. And once in a while the birds were legal.

Sleeping at that houseboat was always accompanied by the smell of Flit. When everybody had finished going outside for whatever reason, someone would get out the Flitgun just before going to bed. Flit was an insecticide and you dispensed it with the Flitgun. There were a lot of mosquitoes, and Flit was cheap, so it was liberally used. At bedtime there was so much of the stuff in the air that the whole camp would get this foggy aura around any lamps that were still lit. But once that was done you could sleep soundly with no mosquitoes to worry about. At least as long as there were no holes in the screens. I do wonder what the insecticide did to us. But, you went to sleep under open windows in the summer with just a sheet over you, and listened to the bullfrogs right outside in the swamp, and the owls – large and small, near and far- in the trees around you. Sound sleep was no problem.

This was the life Shorty had for nine months of each year, and it sure looked good to me. You get caught up though, and things carry you along. Currents move, changing directions and seldom showing you what’s around the next bend. I went off to college at 18, and while I was away they moved the camp south about 15 miles from Bayou Pigeon to Bayou Boutte. While I was in school a hurricane passed by and destroyed the houseboat cabin. Someone got the barge for scrap lumber. There is something fittingly final about that, and I can find no regrets.

The river is at 6.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady for the next several days. But the Ohio and Mississippi are both rising fast up above and we will start to get some of that water next week. We could get more than just a little. Poor crawfishermen, they'll have to move traps again!

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Marked Bird

They are always changing, these seasons. And the signs of the changes are always out there to see. Right now a whole new crop of wildflowers are doing their best to produce seeds for next year’s generation, from the bright yellow groundsel to the tiny purple blossoms of henbit. In the clock of our yard, these things mark time. And so too do the trees. The limbs show the swelling of the twigs and the new buds that the birds and squirrels are so quick to take advantage of right now. I guess you can’t say we had a hard winter, but not finding much food for even a few days (much less weeks) has got to be an issue for wildlife that depends on the provisions of nature for sustenance.

Dave Patton came out Sunday and set out his trapping apparatus to catch the calliope hummingbird that has been staying here this winter. Within a short time he did catch it and then he did the measurements he routinely takes, placed the band on its leg (visible in picture), and released it. In a short time it was back at the feeders sucking down sugar water. It may spend a few more weeks here before leaving for its breeding grounds in the northwest, perhaps as far north as central British Columbia. That’s a long way for this little animal, the smallest bird in North America, to travel. . Information in the reference source “Birds of North America” shows this species breeding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada and wintering in southern Mexico. Obviously some of them head east instead and spend the winter around here. I am always appalled when I think of the hazards that will present themselves to this animal on this twice-a-year thousands-of-miles round trip! And some of them seem to do this for a life span of at least six years, the first year by necessity without any previous experience. Pretty hardy little bird, I think.

Sometimes when we do the banding, we have to put His Excellency Napoleon Bonaparte Felis inside, where he watches the birds at the window feeder. By now he knows he can’t catch the birds (many lunges having been abruptly stopped by the glass, with unknown numbers of headaches) but he watches anyway. Yesterday I was outside and it occurred to me to wonder what he looked like to a bird feeding so close to the window. Did they really see that a cat was just six inches away from them and could they see this and still come to the feeder? So I took a few pictures from the bird’s point of reference. The result was a set of very eerie-looking images of the cat – just inside the window. In the one here you can see the trees outside behind me, the glass window, and Nopoleon inside. I told Carolyn I should make up a story that the cat had died and when I went outside I could see his ghost looking out the window at me, and I got a picture of it. She said no.

The river is at 6.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising slowly to 7.4 feet by Sunday. But the Ohio and Mississippi are both falling all the way up so we may soon get even lower stages than we see now. This is an example of why docks are so hard to maintain on the Atchafalaya. The water has fallen almost ten feet in the last few weeks, enough to leave any unattended docks high and dry until the next high water floated them free again, and that has been an iffy situation the last few years (high water, I mean).

Rise and Shine, Jim

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Neutral Rat

It seems that if you look out over a river, any sunrise is pretty. This was yesterday morning and it was 70 degrees. During the day, the wind changed from southeast to northwest and began to prepare us for colder weather.

Ready or not, it’s here today. The colder weather is especially not welcome for all those folks who were in the path of the tornadoes that came through this area two nights ago – no deaths but much rearrangement of living conditions for those people affected. Luckily, all we had was evidence that the big wind tried to push the dock up on land. All that held it in the water was two 2x4 poles that are set to hold it about 20 feet offshore. One of these was splintered in two. It took a force to do this that I’m just as glad not to have seen.

Sometimes when a front is coming in from the north and west, the clouds make this pattern in the sky that reminds me of flocks of gray sheep grazing on a blue hillside. Standing on the dock and watching this yesterday, with the wind blowing from behind, and the ripples on the water, really gives you a feeling of cold and shivers, even without the whiteness of snow in the ground that our friends to the north are experiencing now. We will have that snow here in a month or six weeks, in the form of a spring rise on the river.

A nutria decided to visit yesterday, the first I’ve seen around the dock in daylight. I see evidence of them coming up on the raft at night to eat the vegetation they pull up off of the bank. They seem to like to have feeding stations away from the food source, and I guess any raft in the water will do for that purpose. All my older Cajun friends call them neutral rats. When these animals came into the U.S. from Argentina in 1938, the word “nutria” was not something that many here could relate to. So, the closest seems to have been the word “neutral” and that, combined with “rat” (which we knew a lot about from having had muskrats around and common) became Neutral Rat. It still is a commonly heard name today. I like it.

When the trees are brown, the osprey stands out no matter how far away it is. It sat in the trees across the river yesterday for most of the day. Click on the picture to bring it a little closer.

The river is doing some of its more dynamic seasonal activity. Not long ago it was up at 16 feet, now it’s at 10.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and falling to 7.7 feet by Sunday. That’s a lot of fluctuation in a short time. The poor crawfishermen have a tough time keeping up with traps that are in the woods at times like this. Traps in the small bayous are less likely to be stranded than those in the swamp. Sometimes it hard to make a living when you have to spend all your time moving traps instead of fishing them. The Ohio and Mississippi are both showing small rises due to the rain and snowmelt that is happening in the Ohio valley right now. When some of that gets here next week it might be enough to slow this rapid fall in the Atchafalaya. Hope so.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, February 05, 2007

Birds and Beavers

Well, some are winter visitors and some are more permanent than that. The cardinals in the picture have been feeding all morning and now spend the middle of the day loafing in the trees around the feeder. They may be full of sunflower seeds, but they seem to like to keep the source in view.

The other picture at the feeder shows some of the goldfinches that are here right now. I count 49 on the ground and 23 on the feeder (click to expand the view). They, and the cardinals and chickadees and titmice are consuming about ten pounds of seeds each day. The trees, like swamp maple, are starting to bud out and this natural food might be attractive to them soon. There is a pine siskin feeding with the goldfinches. The siskins visit our yard about one year out of every two, on average, so it’s always good to see one.

Dugan and Chip and I were doing a bird survey for the Louisiana Winter Bird Atlas this past Saturday. We did pretty well on total species (69) for one day and had some high numbers too for a few species. It’s always energizing to see a bald eagle sitting in a cypress tree - that white head and tail against the brown winter landscape – and we did see one near Butte La Rose.

Of interest on the bird survey was a non-bird. As we traveled down the levee road from Henderson, we saw a brown furry blob on the grassy shoulder. I pulled over and there was a beaver, freshly killed by some vehicle. Because I’m always interested in material I can use for my bone-reference collection, I stopped and took a look. Usually these serendipitous events involving road kill include the smells related to some level of decomposition. Not this time. The beaver had so recently met its end that it was still warm. I had had the opportunity to handle a whole beaver once before, but I had forgotten how big they really are! This animal was BIG; estimated weight was 60 pounds. I weigh about 200 and you can see that this guy was at least 30% of me.

People who visit the swamp to experience the range of wildlife available to be seen do tend to appreciate the occasional beaver. But otherwise, beavers have a pretty negative reputation around here. You almost never hear praise for the value of having a beaver population in the vicinity, especially if the speaker interacts with the river or swamp environment in some way that includes some type of land management activity. Beavers just seem to do things that run counter to the desires of people. They build dams in the Basin between lakes that otherwise would flow from one lake to the other and eventually out into a bayou. They cut trees that fall and get in the way of boats. They gnaw wood that is meant to support boat docks and other manmade structures. They cut trotlines tied to trees on the bank, necessitating the use of twenty feet of wire to attach the line to the bank. They find hoopnets and either cut the anchor lines or get into the nets and gnaw giant holes in the webbing (can’t hardly blame them for that). As commercial line fishermen, we used to use willow poles to support shrimp bushes in the Basin. These days, you can put out 50 shrimp bushes on willow poles and when you come back next day all the poles will be cut at the water line and your bushes will be gone for good. That is a lot of wasted work. We used the willow saplings because they grow long and slender and are plentiful, the beavers use them because willow bark is a primary food. Other species of trees were tried with mixed results until we discovered that the beavers don’t like Chinese tallow wood (EJ Daigle told me this). This may be one of the very few good things about importing the Chinese tallow tree into the U.S., aside from providing about the only really striking fall colors that we have here.

As for me, a beaver or two is visible most nights when I go down to the river to see what kinds of animals are out and doing what they do. Seeing the river at night is kind of like watching one scene of a stage play. You see Act One of the play as a daytime scene, and then down comes the curtain, and when the curtain rises on Act Two – it sets the scene in darkness. The beaver is a player in Act Two.

The river is at 15.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, falling to 13.5 feet by Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling hard all the way up, so this loss of two feet of water on the Atchafalaya this week will be followed by more losses next week. Not good news for the crawfishermen who are putting out traps right now in areas flooded only by two or three feet of water. This isn’t the sustained rise we hoped for.

Rise and Shine, Jim