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.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Light Rain

It rained on the river this morning. Here are four of the drops.

This must be the week of flights across the Gulf of Mexico. This morning the Orchard Orioles are here, and the Great-crested Flycatchers too. They join the Prothonotary Warblers and White-eyed Flycatchers that came a couple days ago. It feels good to know that the cycles are in order and the world is working as it has for a long time. Both the sun and the birds disappear, one once a day and the other once a year. Today we know they will return. We take them both for granted. It was not always so.

The river is at 16.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 17.7 by the middle of next week. There is still nothing above Memphis, so the rise we have will not be sustained beyond a week or so. Still, this is plenty water, another foot and our deck will be under.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Simple Lesson

Sometimes these sunrises just keep coming and coming. It has been like this for the past four mornings. If you add the sound effects of the water swirling past the dock and the many birds just arrived from points south, and the wooducks wheeping overhead, you have the makings of one of those times. You know, just one of those times. Wanting to preserve the moment in a bottle is tempting, but maybe the true value is in the transience itself.

I have a thought to share with others who might be sitting around the table drinking coffee with me this morning. It comes from a realization while doing a chore yesterday. I was cutting some scrap reclaimed cypress boards into short pieces to make a picket fence. I was tying bundles of them together in stacks about a foot in diameter. As I tied the bundles, I took note of what I was doing, and the knot I was using. And the memory came back from 44 years ago. I was doing what a man, a very special man, taught me in a brief moment of seeming insignificance. His name was Ira S. Nelson, and he was a horticulturist among other things, including being a great humanitarian. It was so simple, what he said. I was tying some packages of orchids to ship them, and I asked him if he would put his finger on the simple knot so that it wouldn’t slip while I tied the bow. He did, but then he said “You know, if you make another turn on the first knot, it won’t slip”. And I didn’t believe it, but it works - it did then and it does now. I can’t imagine how many times I have used that trick to tie something when there was no one around to “put a finger on it”.

The whole significance of this is, to me, that we always seem to remember people for solving earth-shaking problems whether they be inventing electricity or getting us through a life crisis. But we also owe much to people who just teach us how to tie a knot that won’t slip.

This whole knot thing goes beyond the usefulness of the knot Dr. Nelson showed me, and the ability to tie other kinds of knots that don’t slip, or do if that is their purpose. It ties directly to the things you have to do when you make a living on a river. Knots are everywhere. And if they are tied well, the river lets you keep your things, if not it takes the things for itself. They just float away. So, Dr. Ira S. Nelson, I remember you today for what you did all those years ago, as I have remembered many times since then. What small things will bring about the memories in others we influence everyday. And I wonder, maybe that really is all there is to immortality. It would be enough, I think.

The kickin river is at 16.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge this morning, rising to 17.1 feet by Monday. That’s a lot of water, but the crest of the Mississippi is at Memphis right now, with falling or stable stages above Memphis. If no really big rains come to the country up there, this could be all there is for this current rise. This will flush out a lot of the swamp and pump some oxygenated water into places where the little things make more little things, if they can breathe.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The other day I got an email from a person who wanted to know if I could help prepare something for a TV show. It was for a popular cable channel. The show was to dramatize how people survived in the swamps of Louisiana when they got into trouble. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything that would qualify as dramatic but not lethal. I told her that people in Louisiana just got out of the water if they fell in. They didn’t linger for days like being lost in a desert, or adrift in an open ocean. If people had problems in the swamp, they found ways to solve the problems. I’m afraid people think of Louisiana as a snake infested, alligator overrun, quicksand laden place where people routinely die of swamp fever, or something like that.

I told her it wasn’t like that, and I began to think about the people I know who got into trouble in the swamp. None of them tell tales of suffering beyond being cold in winter for a while if they were wet, or maybe having to feed mosquitoes for a night. And then it seems the other option is the other end of the spectrum, they do not survive. Five of my friends have met that extreme end in separate boat accidents. At first I couldn’t think of anything in between that would satisfy the needs of sensationalized television.

But then, my wife mentioned several things I hadn’t thought of. Things I didn’t think fit into the category of “survival” events, but were inconveniencies for sure. One I thought to mention here. There was a time when most boats used for crawfishing were made of wood. They were skiffs, pointed boats made mostly of plywood or cypress. Such was my first crawfish skiff in 1974, out of plywood. People were getting pretty handy with welding aluminum, but even so, aluminum skiffs were pretty costly back then. The main enemy of a wooden skiff, and the main virtue to an aluminum one, is the knees that surround cypress trees. If you come up on a knee in a wooden boat it can come up through the floor and say “Hi” very easily, unbelievably easily. With aluminum, mostly it won’t do that.

If you can see the knees, you avoid them of course. If you can’t see them because they are just under the water, they can surprise you. And if the cypress trees are surrounded with solid mats of water lilies (hyacinth), you have no idea what’s around you in the way of cypress knees.

One day I was running a set of traps in the Bayou Long swamps. The lilies were thick in some parts of that swamp. You could get into them in places where they were two feet high on the sides of the boat for acres around you. Even if you didn’t put traps in those places, you still had to go through them to get from one trap to the next. I had caught about ten sacks of crawfish which would have added about 400 pounds to the weight in the boat. I got into an area of lilies mixed in among cypress trees, somewhat like the picture here but much thicker. There might be five knees around that tree, or 50. I slowed the boat to barely a crawl and tried to feel what the bottom of the boat was feeling. And quick, as soon as I felt it, put the motor in reverse and back away before riding up on the point of a knee. Most of the time you could be quick enough.

This time I barely felt the boat touch, but before I could stop and back away, the bow rose about four inches out of the water, hung there for a very short/long time, and then I heard a sound for only that one time in my life: it went “thuck” – kind of softly and quickly. It came through the bottom just ahead of the crawfish stacked in the middle of the boat. It was not pretty, that five inches of brown tree spike poking up into the place it should not be. There was some leaking because the bottom plywood splintered a little, but not much.

What do you do? You know you have to get out of the boat and lift it up and off, there is no other way to get the boat off of the knee. But you can’t lift the boat unless you can touch the bottom. The water was about five feet deep. Whew, I could touch bottom. But you can’t lift the boat with the crawfish in it. Look around. There, about 50 feet away, is a big cypress log floating in the lilies. The snakes and turtles resting on the log had been spooked by my motor. The ten sacks of crawfish had to be lifted out of the boat into the water, retrieved when I got in, carried to the log and stacked on it. After that it was possible to work my way under the boat and get my back under it and lift it off of the knee. Fine, now there is a four-inch hole in the boat letting a lot of water in. As long as the boat was stuck on the knee at least it couldn’t sink. Now it could sink. I started the motor and pushed through the lilies toward the big floating log that the sacks of crawfish were resting on. I got the nose of the boat up onto the log and pushed it up with the motor high enough to get the hole in the bottom out of the water. So, now it wouldn’t sink. But…

The hole had to be patched at least well enough to get me home. We always carried something to cut bait with, usually a small ax. I took my ax and was able to knock off a plank from the front deck. Using the nails that came off with the plank, I was able to nail it down over the hole and then put a couple sacks of crawfish over it to hold it down. Crisis over. I pushed the boat back into the water and reloaded the sacks of crawfish. I think I ended up with something like 15 sacks that day. Like I say, we didn’t “survive” days like that, we just coped with them. Over coffee in Myon’s house later that day, I mentioned the event and the other fishermen smiled and sipped their coffee, and went on to talk about what the water in the Mississippi River was doing.

The river is at 15.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 16.8 feet by mid-week next week. Getting to be some serious water, that. And the Mississippi and Ohio are both rising about half a foot a day all the way up. I see that the COE is starting to talk about some possible relief for New Orleans in April. Yep, serious water. Crawfishermen won’t mind.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Louisiana Story Annex

I just had an opportunity to watch the “Louisiana Story” film for the first time. It may seem odd that it was the first time, being that it’s been around since 1948, but somehow this was the first time. It was being shown by Louisiana Public Broadcasting as part of their fundraiser. Many thanks to those folks.

The story is of a 14 year-old boy who lives in the coastal cheniers and is made to confront the coming oil industry as the first drilling rig moves into the bayou in front of his house. He spends much of his time in a pirogue and gradually makes friends with the people drilling the oil well almost in his front yard (front bayou?). The film ends with the boy and his father enjoying the newfound money from the successful well completion, and waving goodbye to the departing drilling rig from the top of the “Christmas tree”. You are left with a good feeling about the story and the people. And the oil company who financed the film certainly got good PR out of it.

I think it was basically a true story, not only for people living along the coast of Louisiana, but inland along the rivers and swamps too. I’m thinking particularly about the Atchafalaya Basin. I wasn’t in the Basin in the 1940’s, but I was very much in it in the 1950s. And I saw the changes happening. And it wasn’t only the oil industry, it was the timber industry too. People who lived during the changes mostly don’t complain about them. You ask them what it was like and the first thing they mention is the jobs. The jobs meant a chance to take part in an economy not available before. The new economy meant new material advantages to their lives. And the new economy meant changes. However valuable and welcome the new jobs might be, the changes were inevitable, and irreversible. And, for those who linger on such things, sad, in a most profound way. But for the most part it is not the people who were personally affected by the changes who lament them most loudly, it is those of us who reflect from a distance.

Courtesy of Ms. Darlene Soule, I have pictures here of three generations of people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin during the times these changes were taking place. The earliest of these was Mr. Homer Daigle (1882), and his wife Ernestine (1883). They lived in the swamp all their lives, most of it on houseboats, and all of it making the resources of the Basin support their growing families. Ernestine had 11 children in a three-room houseboat. If Mr. Daigle was ever part of the timber industry, I have no record of it. He fished and gathered moss, trapped and so on. Of the three generations, then, he was probably least affected by the economic changes that were about to transform the swamp economy. Not only that, but he rejected, it seems, any attempt to mechanize his life. The greatest need for newer and faster ways to do things was in transportation. But even though during his midlife a faster way to move around was invented (small engines) and introduced to the Atchafalaya Basin, he never would own a motorized boat. Rather than put an engine in a bateau, he pushed a “push skiff” through the water to do everything he had to do, sometimes going 20 miles to accomplish something.

The next generation, one of whom is pictured here with his wife of 50 years, was the generation who came fully into the timber industry. Myon Bailey (born 1905), was a stepson of Mr. Daigle's and was a fisherman first and a timber worker when necessary. But unlike his stepfather, he accepted the new put-put boats and later the very new outboards toward the end of his life. In 1985, knowing some of the good feelings we have about the simpler life and slower pace, I made a presumption and asked him:

JD: “Myon, what were the good old days like?”

MB: “Jim, the good old days? THESE are the good old days!”

And he emphasized that electricity, and running water, and doctors, and movie theatres were an improvement over “the good old days”.

He mentioned that the very early beginnings of the changing oilfield environment were noticeable even though he didn’t work in it. He said one of the first things Basin people noticed was that the oil people tended to get around in these big, fast, deep-running crewboats. The deep-running part meant that, if they didn’t slow down, they caused big waves to sweep the banks in the narrow bayous. These narrow bayous were where the houseboats were tied up all along the banks. The big waves would severely rock these houses, knocking dishes down off of the shelves and upsetting everything. Mostly the women would be in the houseboats when that happened. There is nothing meek about a Cajun woman holding pieces of her china and looking at what did it going down the bayou and away. A short period followed where there was a certain amount of gunfire, mostly one way, that damaged (some say sunk) a few of the crewboats. It became good manners after that to slow down.

The third generation would be Myon’s son Milton (born 1932), pictured here. Milton was of that part of the Atchafalaya Basin that was caused to move out of houseboats and out of the Basin, onto land – the first time that family line had been off of the water in more than 75 years. Progress and the floods from the Mississippi caused that to happen. The timber industry was mostly through, the trees were gone. Now comes the oil and gas industry into the Basin. By the time he was 20, the oil industry was developing facilities in the Basin and hiring young, capable people like Milton Bailey and the rest of his generation. These men eagerly accepted the new jobs and their natural skills of resourcefulness and toughness and pride-in-work made them sought after. His generation found they could work the shift schedules of so many days on and so many off and still practice their exceptional fishing and hunting talents to earn extra income. In other words, the economy had shifted to oilfield jobs as the primary wage provider, with the traditional industries of fishing, etc, still being practiced but to a lesser degree. Milton was very good at almost anything he did, and while the oilfield offered a way into the wider world outside the Basin, it also was the scene where his life was lost at age 39 in an accident on a drilling rig. It is tempting to accuse the setting of his end as being somehow guilty of something just by being there, but that is foolish, I think. Young men died in boats too. It is tragic either way.

Each day is different, the degree of difference sometimes makes us notice, sometimes not and we think it’s just another day. But it is different. All of these people lived their lives in periods of change. They all lived their lives in their own time and circumstances, and they all left a dent in their seat on the train. And that’s enough.

The river is at 14.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising slowly to 15.5 feet by next weekend. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising slowly and there is more water on the ground up there to keep the rise coming. Looks like a good year for Basin crawfishermen as soon as the water warms up.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cotton and Nylon

A large and scary cold front passed through here last night. This morning the sunrise looked like this. The temperature dropped almost 40 degrees in 12 hours. The wind blew over the water and it blew hard enough to test the ropes that tie the dock to the bank. They held. I really wasn’t too worried. Nylon is a miracle fiber. Besides being very strong, it does not rot.

You might have to have been a fisherman in the Atchafalaya Basin to have feelings about what it meant to discover nylon fishing line. Fishermen throughout time have used a fiber of some sort to make most of their gear, usually line and hooks, or line knotted to make nets. The durability of that line had a lot to do with how effective you could be, and how efficient. Consider this. A man (or woman) could provide for his family based on how much fish he could bring home with the least possible effort. Why? Because there was much else to do besides just fish. There was boatbuilding, or maintenance on existing ones. There was bait getting, which could take a large part of every day. And there was always the other chores that take less time but always seem to add up by the time you finally get to them. So, one of the biggest limiting factors in a fisherman’s life was how much time he had to spend on his gear. The less time the better.

But, before around 1950, the only fiber available was cotton. This cotton line came in large five-pound, loose coils called hanks. It was white, like bleached cotton is, and it rotted very quickly when wet. But that’s all there was, and all fishermen had to use it for both trotlines and nets. They were continuously changing gear because of it. The trotline stageons would break just as you lifted the big fish toward the boat. Or a net would split because the webbing you chose not to change just yet would pick the best catch to show you why you should have.

Before he passed away, my friend Russell Daigle answered a question I put to him about how long cotton line lasted in summer in the Basin.

RD: “…when we started fishing it was cotton line, there wasn’t no such thing as nylon. And about every three weeks, in the summertime, you had to put out new line.

JD: Whether you tarred it or not?

RD: Whether you tarred it or not, it lasted about three weeks and then it would go to breakin.”

How do you come by a strong feeling for the appreciation of a fiber? You try to make a living using it, that’s how. I fished with the community Russell belonged to for most of a decade. That was in the 1970s, 20 years or so after nylon replaced cotton as the fiber for fishing and related activities. I watched myself struggle to maintain a string of 1000 hooks placed along almost a mile and a half of line, and I could not imagine having to change that line every three weeks. Oh yes, it was easy to be impressed with the strength and durability of nylon. I will say this though, the men (and women) I knew then could have done it, and did in the early days before I knew them. That community had to be the most tenacious, hard working, effective single group of people I have ever known.

Yes, some things we don’t think much about. But each time I have to handle nylon line I always consider what it was like before the DuPont people invented it in the 1930s. I did barely make a living using it, but using cotton would have been out of the question.

I heard a grosbec fly over the house tonight, the first one I have heard in this new cycle of migration. Collecting them for food would have been one of the things the fishermen had to do, though probably a chore they did not mind too much.

The river is at 14.7 feet right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling about a foot in the next seven days. But both the Mississippi and the Ohio are starting to huff and puff. We may be in for a good rise in about ten days. Look out crawfishermen, warmer water is coming soon.

Rise and Shine, Jim