Nighttime adventures in the Louisiana bayou
Posted July 10, 2010
The first rule when you come to the Louisiana bayou is never dis LSU baseball. The second? Don’t ever get in a boat heading into the reeds unless the boat captain knows damn sure where he’s going.
I learned that lesson the hard way my last trip down. One hot afternoon I hitched a ride with an out-of-state wanna be boat captain making a trial run into the bayou and out to the Gulf. He planned to join BP’s oil cleanup efforts out at sea and needed to learn how to navigate the tricky waters. For me it was a good opportunity to get out on the water and take a look around.
Along with his buddy from New York, we slowly pulled out of the Cyprus Cove marina on his borrowed 25-foot fiberglass skiff, loaded with twin 250 horsepower engines—a rocket on water. After we cleared the harbor and ship channel, we gunned the engines and roared into the reed covered canals. Herons, egrets and seabirds of all kinds flew up from the grasses as we sped along; alligator, mink and nutria secretly scampered away from the banks as our vessel zoomed along.
We sped past oil processing facilities and pipelines that crisscross the marshes, an incongruous mix of modern petrochemical technology and the natural beauty of America’s greatest estuary. Each time I head out here I wonder how local fishermen who depend on the bounty of this rich, yet fragile ecosystem coexist with the noxious oil and gas industry that drills, pumps and collects poisonous chemicals from the seabed below. Sure, America’s economy runs on this stuff. But does it have to come from here? Another good reason to kick our oil habit.
Such is the dichotomy of the lush Louisiana bayou. The fishermen work the way their ancestors did before them; the oil industry creates newer, bigger and more complicated machines to drill deeper and further into the sea for lucrative—yet toxic—black gold. Humans and wildlife seem oblivious to the perils that awaited them.
As we passed through the narrow delta channel we came to a wide bay that spread out before the Gulf. The end of the mighty Mississippi delta stretched before us in a golden late afternoon glow. The marsh sparkled as we glided along about to burst into the Gulf waters ahead.
Suddenly the boat lurched violently to the right and then left and slid to a halt. Our captain jammed the throttle forward, revving the twin 250s to the max, but we only pressed further into the muddy bank. He quickly cranked it into reverse, and black Mississippi mud spewed out of the back of the boat and all over deck. It wouldn’t budge. We were stuck in the reeds at the mouth of the Mississippi and sunset was fast approaching.
I slipped off my sandals and along with the other passenger jumped into the murky waters to try to push the boat off its intractable perch. Immediately I sank up to my chest in soft sticky river bottom gook. I grabbed onto the boat to keep from getting sucked under in the quicksand. We tried pushing on the boat, a futile effort that only made us sink further into the watery glue. The boat hull rested on a thick brown bed of sediment that oozed up the side of the hull. It was clear this boat wasn’t going anywhere.
Quickly our captain got on the phone his experienced river boat friend, Capt. Jimmy (name is changed to protect the innocent—or not so), who I learned later vehemently warned our fearless guide not to venture out in these tricky waters alone. When Capt. Jimmy got our call, he used plenty of salty language to express his displeasure at our situation before agreeing to come rescue us.
So as the moon brightened in the eastern sky across the bay and the sun sank below the reeds near our embedded boat, we felt sharp relief that help was on the way. Plus it was very peaceful. Once in a while a fish would flip out of the water, a frigate bird soared overhead. The hum of an oil processing plant far off in the distance seemed to grow louder as its lights flickered in the darkening sky. Marooned unnoticed at the mouth of the country’s greatest river under the light of a full moon wasn’t such a bad way to watch the sunset.
As the sky blackened and the bugs started biting, we got a call back from Capt. Jimmy. “Where the hell are you?”
Our captain double-checked his GPS and repeated the coordinates and our estimated location. But it didn’t seem to make sense on a nautical map. Capt. Jimmy ranted at us, using more colorful language. We weren't where we thought we were. Now it was pitch black while Capt. Jimmy floated around in a small flat bottom boat, looking for us in the hundreds of canals and passageways that crisscross the delta area.
I found a flare gun in a supply box, which we thought would be a great idea to shoot off into the night sky to pinpoint our position. “Don’t do that,” Capt. Jimmy barked over the phone. “You want to get the damn Coast Guard involved? You’ll never drive that boat again.”
So we waited it out in the dark. We were drenched in water and mud, a feast for the Louisiana state bird; the bayou mosquito. Another hour passed, more confusion and profanities over the phone. Stars stood out brightly in the night sky such that I hadn’t seen since a trip to Yellowstone. We imagined boats coming toward us, but it was just a mirage; nothing was out there except the twinkling lights of an oil processing plant far in the distance.
As we mulled over our fate, way off around the bend of the dark canal we heard something, a motor getting louder. Could that be a boat? Then we saw a light peak through the reeds, slowly moving in our direction. It was Capt. Jimmy! We were going to get pulled out of this muck after all, at least we thought.
Off in the distance I could see the light of the barge approaching, looking like something out of Huck Finn with a lantern strung from each end. The boat came closer and our captain yelled, “Is that you Jimmy?”
“Who the hell do you think it is,” a voice roared back. “You think I’m out here in the dark in the middle of nowhere on a pleasure cruise?”
Capt. Jimmy used stronger language than this but that is approximately what he said.
After trying to get closer and getting stuck on a sandbar nearby, Jimmy gunned his flat bottomed boat into reverse and pulled back into the murky water. The tide was going out fast and he wasn’t happy. “I’m not risking my crew for you,” he barked. “I’ll send someone to get you.”
A minute later a dark figure splashed into the water about 500 feet away and swam towards us pulling some rope and a buoy. As he got closer he trudged through the muck like a soggy marine on a mission. Turns out he was a vet and served two tours in Fallujah during some of the heaviest fighting. “My name’s Cowboy and I’m coming to get you ‘all out of here,” he yelled.
Cowboy made it to our boat and pulled himself in. He was caked in Mississippi mud and quickly assessed the situation. “Ok, here’s the deal. We need to get you out of here fast because the tide’s going out and we can’t stay here any longer. You either come with me or stay here with the boat and wait for the tide to come in.”
We looked at each other in the moonlight. My two shipmates immediately decided to stay with the boat, fearing they would never see it again if it were abandoned. I offered to stay as well, but they insisted I was their guest and I would be of no help if I suffered with them through the night.
So I strapped on a life vest and abandoned my cell phone, camera gear and wallet, not sure I would see them again. Cowboy shouted, “Grab the rope and stay with me and you’ll be fine.” We plunged into the black water and sank into the muck. My sandals ripped off my feet and I grabbed them underwater, wading heavily in chest deep mud and water toward the rescue barge 500 feet away. It was like walking through a bowl of thick gumbo, fighting the river current and the suction simultaneously. No time to think about what creatures lay underneath (this was alligator country after all), much less the oily content of the water.
After a few minutes we made it to deeper water where we could swim. We splashed to the rescue boat and hung on. Cowboy pulled himself up and grabbed me by the arms and yanked me on board, popping me out like a champagne cork.
Captain Jimmy raced the engines and slowly pulled away from the ebbing tide. We radioed the Coast Guard with the coordinates, notifying the CG that two passengers were waiting out the tide stuck at the mouth of the delta and had water and provisions to make it through the night. We watched their boat slowly disappear in the darkness as we snaked back up the pitch-black bayou.
Now that could have been the end of this adventure, but Capt. Jimmy was in a partying mood. He cranked up the stereo in his roomy cabin, outfitted with a wide-screen TV playing a war movie, while the Temptations blasted across the bayou. He popped open a Bud, offering it to me. “Let’s boogie!”
Capt Jimmy grabbed a female deckhand and started dancing with her out toward the bow. The bright lights of the barge cast a carnival effect on the tall reeds that lined the canals. I immediately felt transported back to the night scene in Apocalypse Now where the Navy Swift boat makes its nighttime escape from the American outpost under siege by the Viet Cong, bombs blasting while Hendrix blared into the jungle night.
We weren’t exactly under fire, but the trip home seemed more harrowing than my swim in the river. The barge zigzagged back and forth in the dark channel miraculously avoiding logs and obstacles, often with no one at the wheel.
It was strangely entertaining, although Cowboy the Iraq war vet was still on a dedicated rescue mission and became increasingly agitated by Capt Jimmy’s raucous behavior. I was sure he would suffer from a bout of PTSD and throw the frolicking captain off the boat.
Finally about 45 minutes later the channel widened and the lights of civilization—oil processing facilities—appeared ahead. We pulled into the harbor before midnight and our adventure came mercifully came to an end. All of us, save Captain Jimmy, were more than eager to get off the boat and get a hot shower. Capt Jimmy wanted to stay behind and have another beer.
I thought of my newly acquainted colleagues marooned on the boat out in the bayou. What would happen to them?
Turns out they made it back safely the next day, but not without further adventures. The voracious insects got so bad they had to cake themselves in marsh mud to ward off the stings. In the early morning hours they somehow managed to pry the boat off its muddy perch, but they got lost again in the maize of delta channels, making circles in the darkness as they prayed not to get stuck again. Somehow they didn’t. I got my wallet and cell phone back and all ended happily, more or less.
My boat captain learned an important lesson, as did I. The Louisiana bayou’s beauty can be deceiving. Underneath the calm waters dangers lurk below. Like the gusher in the Gulf, the consequences of human activity can be disastrous if we venture carelessly into places we do not belong.