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, October 27, 2008

Chapter One Preview

It is time to start the book, the book that will try to preserve the story of the houseboat people in the Basin. Maybe it is easier if you intend to write a small amount, but I seem to have so much to write that it is very hard to know how to start. As readers of this blog have noted, I have things to say about the Atchafalaya Basin, particularly about the times gone by. It is those times that I have to write about, the Myette Point community that used to be, and the people who lived three generations on houseboats in the swamp. Time, too, is itself important since I can claim three score and ten next month.

A colleague is helping with this effort. He lives and teaches up north, having arrived at formal education down here and then giving in to the need for employment. He will write some of the descriptive material and I will try to provide the “people” part of the story. We will see.

The first thing on the list of things to write is an introduction to the people who will be the constant heroes in this book. They are members of about 25 families who lived mostly as a nomadic community in the Basin, sometimes tying their houses next to one another and sometimes living farther apart than that. The oldest voices here were born in 1905 but their memories include their parents and grandparents, which extends our ability to witness life as it was lived in the 1850s in the Basin.

While all aspects of their lives for which I have documented evidence from interviews will be addressed, the beginning of the story may need to root itself in the primary way they kept body and soul together, and that was fishing. This is far from a simple thing to write about. We think fish and we think just go catch one. No, when you have to rely on fish as a product to convert to clothing and housing and guns and ammunition, it becomes a far more complex and more serious subject. We will try to convey as much as feasible about the actual means that were used to catch fish in chapters provided for that but now I would like to just introduce a little of the story by talking about how these people learned to do what had to be done to earn a living with hook and line.

It was not unusual for children of the houseboat life to begin to explore fishing as a daily activity, some as young as seven or eight years. They would get permission to take a pirogue out and paddle in the swamp near home and set what are called bushlines. These simple lines tied to a low limb and suspended about a foot underwater were often what the children first learned to do. Albert “Putt” Couvillier told me:

JD: What do you remember about when you were a boy on a houseboat, concerning things like…like fishing?

PC: Well, back then we was too small to go out by ourselves, Jim, and uh, the onlyest way we could…in other words…go out, was if somebody [was] with us, you know? Till we got a lil older, about seven, eight years old, then we could go out on our own fishin.

JD: You were fishin on your own [at] seven or eight years old?

PC: Yeah. You take a boat, you know, a pirogue? And uh, Jessie [his brother] was a lil older than I was, you see, but we’d fish around…pretty close to the house, you see?

Lena Mae Couvillier was proud of how she also learned early how to be a productive part of the family. She learned to fish bushlines when she was about eight years old and living along Grand Lake. Talking to me Lena Mae is sitting comfortably in a very nice house on Bayou Teche. The man she sells her fish to in the story was a fishboat operator who bought swamp products from the houseboats and brought items from Morgan City that they needed. She tells this story. Remember, this is an eight-year-old child.

LC: I remember, uh, must have been about eight years old. I wanted to go put some bushlines out, between the canal where we lived, and that other canal at Blue Point, that Blue Point canal? … And I’d fish in between there. Paddle a pirogue.

JD: Along the lake edge?

LC: Along the lake. Oh, I looked and looked and looked [for] some old swivel to put on my lines, you know? Couldn’t find none. Say, “… I’m gone do it like this”…so I just put me a hook on my bushline and I tied it in a tree, no stageon, or nothin. Just tied onto the line. And I was fishing out of that pirogue. And it was cold! They had ice! Barefooted, barefooted…no shoes to put on. Well, I wanted to go run my lines. I had baited with live perch. And I got in that pirogue, by myself now, and started catchin them goujons.

JD: Big goujons! [she measures with her hands] Three feet long.

LC: I mean goujons! Twenty, 15, 20, 30 pounds. Well, I got about halfway, I had to turn back, my pirogue was loaded down with fish. I done forgot how many head of fish I had, but anyhow, I come home, unloaded my fish. And I wanted to go back, Momma said “No”. I say “Momma, I got to go back and run my lines I didn’t finish runnin”. And they got all excited about the fish I had caught. Boy, I went back and I caught just that much on the rest of the line!

must’a had 250, 300 pounds of fish. But it was too much for the pirogue. So, then, they was all excited about my fish. So the fishboat came, and I sold my fish. I had over $100 worth of fish. I mean, in them days, it took a lot of fish to…for $100. But boy I got there and went to dividing the money. Boy, I give Momma and them so much, I say “Momma, I gone keep this much, I want Pinkerman to bring me two dresses”. I wanted some dresses. So I told Mr. Pinkerman, “Bring me two dresses”…and he did. He come back with my two lil old dress, and I wore the heck outta them dresses. And that’s what I bought with my money, and they didn’t costed maybe four or five dollars apiece, if they cost that much. The rest of it, give it to Momma and Daddy. Everything I’d make, I’d give it to Momma and them.

There are many other accounts of children of this community learning to fish alone by the time they were eight to ten years old. As adults they speak to you with a visible pride in accomplishment. Some of them were needed to help a father raise nets. Sometimes the first children were girls but they learned to do what had to be done just as the boys did. The younger children caught bait in the form of small bluegills to bait bushlines with. This live bait would often yield the biggest fish (as Lena Mae says above) in the form of Opelousas cats or flathead cats (goujons), and so the children would render a direct service to the family as a whole even before they were big enough to work on more physically demanding jobs. Sometimes they would find items in the swamp to help a father repair a tool, like a long slim cypress tree to make a net handle with. Often a child would ride with a parent to just help with things that needed doing, or push the oars on a pushboat if they were strong enough.

These are some of the things that helped these families function as a unit, a single working unit that was able to wrest a living from an environment that would be absolutely impossible for most of us today to even consider as a way of life. But they did it, and their stories will be expressed in this book as well as we can tell them.
The two older pictures are from the collection of Ms. Darlene Soule.

The river is at 3.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge. My raft is sitting on the bottom. The Ohio and Mississippi are not going to provide much water for at least a couple weeks. The cold north wind is creating conditions tonight that will make the first run for white eels possible.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, October 03, 2008

Water Wandering

That’s what we were doing for most of last month; almost three weeks in Ireland. There are lots of things to see there, it seems, and each person already brings with him the things he will see. I am a water and fish person, so I see water and fishing things. I am a bird person, so I see birds. I am not a pottery person or a castle person and even though those were there, I didn’t see them – although I looked at them. I did see 63 species of birds, 41 of which were new to me.

Northern Ireland is where the Titanic was built and I didn’t know that, in Belfast. Most of us only know Belfast because of “the troubles”. But there were seven sister ships to the Titanic and they were all built in Belfast. Today you can stand inside the dry dock that housed the big ships. You get the feeling down there in that big hole that the ruler stretches at both ends – you seem smaller than before, and the ships seem to be even bigger than you know they were.

Ireland is filled with rivers, all of them running with black water. It is stained that way by the peat in the soils through which the streams run. The rivers are host to trout and salmon, something our local waters won’t do, and I guess that testifies to the coldness and high oxygen levels in those black Irish waters.

They catch and eat/export a lot of seafood. They eat mussels like we do clams and oysters, though I didn’t see anyone eat the mussels raw. They catch a type of rock crab and lobsters. The traps (pots, everyone but us seems to call them) are used for both species. These devices are so strongly built you would think you would have to have bolt cutters to break one up. If that’s how powerful the crab’s claws are, well… Everywhere you go you can get a local seafood chowder, and we could learn a thing or two from those cooks! Man, talk about good! Every place does it a little differently with local ingredients, and each time you eat a new one you would swear it has to be the best of all – until you try the next one. I had one that actually had about ten little octopuses floating around in it. Carolyn had it too but she gave me her octopuses. Chewy little guys, but good.

The boats are very different from anything we use here, the commercial fishing ones I mean. Most of them are double-ended (of course, but I mean pointed or rounded at each end). There is a reason for this but I don’t know what it is. A lot of sailboats were the only fishing boats until pretty recently. They have a festival to celebrate a type called the Galway Hooker. I mentioned to them that in the US maybe that name would require a small explanation.

While we were gone Ike came and went. It missed us and went to Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula but a local legacy is hard to avoid with these storms. The rain that fell in the upper Mississippi and the Ohio watershed caused the Atchafalaya to rise from 7.4 feet to 10.4 feet while we were gone. That unexpected rise, coupled with me not being here to monitor the dock, caused some damage to the walkways to and from the bank. A minor issue to be sure, so no complaints. The biggest log jam that I ever saw in front of the dock was cleared away with minimum subsequent aches and pains. Minimum, not nonexistent.

The river is at 9.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge now, falling to 6.8 by next Wednesday. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling all the way up. So, what’s done is done, and it’s good to be back on the river again. My friend Rusty, the buffalo fisherman, came by this morning setting nets. Seeing him is like seeing the leaves turn, it means Fall is coming soon.

Rise and Shine, Jim