Atchafalaya Basin. It was once a huge shell midden, probably placed there by the Chitimacha Indians, a tribe that still has a presence in the area. Because the shell mounds provide a good foundation for launching boats and other recreation, the land has long been owned and operated as a boat launch. As a boy of 18 or 19, I frequently used the beach to launch my boats into the Basin. Because we often came in after dark, it was easy to notice that there were a lot of frogs in a low, swampy area just behind the beach. I decided to come back one night and catch some of them.
So, in early June one year, I got together a sack and some old tennis shoes and a headlight and drove to Charenton – the beach – and parked the car on the beach and walked back to the swamp behind the shell mounds. There was a mix of trees, second growth cypress and tupelo and some others, and these were flooded in about three feet of water. Because this was just a flooded forest, not a permanent swamp, there was a lot of debris floating in the water and some areas where it was clear, and open. I stepped into the water and it was warm, telling me that the frogs would be active and hard to approach by wading. The water came up to my waist, and there were frogs all over, mostly sitting on debris or just holding onto it with their front feet. From all around me there was the jugarum chorus, some medium pitched and some very low pitched. They did spook easily, but I found that if I shuffled my feet on the bottom instead of trying to step forward, I didn’t make too many waves and could sneak up close enough to catch some of the frogs, and I quickly caught quite a few and put them in the sack tied to my waist.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment at a time like that. Here I was, quietly wading through the water on a warm night with owls calling and big bullfrogs all around me. Before I realized it, I had gone quite a distance into the swamp, just going along using my headlight and catching frogs. A note about the headlight, in those days we believed that you had to have a very dim light to not frighten the frogs. So we purposely used low power batteries, or put mud on the headlight to reduce the brightness of the light. I had used mud this night, and used weak batteries too. And it was a surprise when the first snake swam by close enough to see. It was only a few feet away and when I shone the light on it, it stopped and looked at me. Now, there are snakes and there are snakes. I was interested in identifying animals from early on and this was a water moccasin. You can easily tell about that, because a moccasin can sit on top of the water like a long brown balloon. Water snakes (non venomous) can’t do that. They ride much deeper in the water, showing their backs only and their heads. So here was the moccasin, not a big one, about 18 inches long, sitting there looking at me.
It becomes so very clear at that moment which one of you belongs out here in this swamp at night. The snake looked so confident and I felt like the clumsy intruder that I was, compared to him. After a moment of stillness, the snake moved off in a real leisurely way. Maybe I needed to take a look around, I thought. So I rinsed the mud off of the headlight, and looked around me. Everywhere I looked in a complete circle, there were snakes on the water, riding high as if to announce their identity. And not only moccasins, there were copperheads too. I thought “that’s not supposed to happen”. Copperheads are thought to be dry-land snakes and they shouldn’t be out here riding on the water with the moccasins, but here they were. I seem to remember seeing a dozen snakes within 20 feet of me, but that number and that distance may not be accurate any more. I remember that it seemed that all of the snakes were looking at me. They probably were, at the light, anyway.
Obviously it was time to go back, but I realized then how far I had come out into the flooded woods, and I wasn’t even so sure how to start back. I learned that you can sweat standing waist deep in cool water. There is something about the thought of being snake bitten at waist level that is worse than the same thing on a foot or hand. It’s ridiculous but true, for me anyway. I turned and hopefully started back in the right direction. Everywhere it seemed there were snakes and I would move away from one only to have to change directions again because of another. You want to just start running, or whatever that would be waist deep in water, but then again you worry that that might irritate them, so slow and steady. The one thing on my mind as I pushed back through the trees was what if the snakes wanted my frogs, and I looked back, and saw a moccasin riding on the top the sack of frogs tied to my waist? Was it worth it to untie the sack and let it go? Almost, but not quite.
After about six months of pushing through that water I heard the sound of a truck loading a boat on the beach, and I headed for that and found the beach a few minutes later. As I waded out of the water I remember the relief and the weakness in the knees. I still had my sack of frogs, and a renewed understanding of why it’s best to use a boat to catch frogs. I always did it that way from then on. Now, when I pass that spot 50 years later, I still look at that piece of swamp behind that beach and remember those snakes.
The river is at 4.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and it will stay near there for the next week or so. The Ohio and Mississippi are falling slightly all the way up.
Rise and Shine, Jim