Cajuns love the outdoors, the fresh air, being surrounded by wilderness, and there’s no better place for this in south Louisiana than in the Atchafalaya Basin. The Basin’s our backyard, a place we can get away to on the weekends and wind down with a little camping, fishing, and beer drinking — everything a modern Coonass needs.
When I was young, my grandfathers would take me to the Basin every few weeks. We’d drive on top of the Henderson or Butte La Rose levees and choose a good place to launch our boat. We’d ride out to our secret spot, moving past house boats and navigating a maze of cypress knees, careful not to hit any underwater stumps. Sometimes we’d fish, other times we’d pick up nets that my grandfather had set out earlier. Sometimes my grandfather would hand me a shotgun with instructions to shoot pretty much anything that flew over my head, endangered or not. To my grandfathers, hunting and fishing laws were more suggestions than anything else. Nobody was going to tell an old school Cajun what he could or couldn’t shoot. Luckily for the birds, I was a pretty bad shot.
South Louisiana contains 40-45% of the wetlands of the lower 48 states, and the Atchafalaya Basin makes up a huge part of that. With 865,000 acres, the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest swamp in the United States. The Basin is over 15 miles wide running east to west, and 150 miles long. The word Atchafalaya comes from its Choctaw name “hacha falaia” which means “long river”. The Choctaws used this word to describe the Atchafalaya River that feeds the Basin. For those that don’t want to get their hands dirty, the Basin can most easily be seen while driving the 18.2 mile stretch of I-10 that runs between Henderson and Marigouin.
The Atchafalaya is home to a wide array of wildlife, including over 300 species of birds and the largest population of bald eagles in the south central United States. It also hosts a large population of American alligator along over 54 types of reptiles and amphibians. In addition, over 90 species of fish, crawfish, crabs, and shrimp also call the Atchafalaya home, and provide a livelihood to many Louisiana fisherman. The fishing industry brings 300 million dollars into Louisiana each year, and the Atchafalaya is part of that.
The Atchafalaya Basin serves an important role as a buffer marsh. As a wetland, the Basin performs many vital functions, including flood control, water purification, and storm buffering. It is home to endangered species such as the Louisiana black bear and the bald eagle, and native wildlife like grobecs (delicious), osprey, herons, egrets, beavers, and alligators.
In the early 20th century, it became quite evident that the Mississippi River, seeking a more direct route to the Gulf of Mexico, was attempting to reroute itself over the Atchafalaya River. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 triggered a max exodus from communities like Bayou Chene, Sherburne, Atchafalaya, and Pelba as these towns were ravaged by Mississippi floodwaters. To prevent future flooding due to the Mississippi’s repeated attempts to redirect itself, the US Corps of Engineers erected huge floodgates at the intersection of the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers. An extensive system of levees and channels was also built to help control future flooding.
In recent years, control of the Mississippi’s flood waters has become a controversial issue as many point to it as a major reason for land loss in Louisiana. Much of the Mississippi’s valuable silt is now being deposited over the continental shelf, rather than into surrounding buffer marshes, which depend on this silt for replenishment. These marshes play an important role as buffers against storms and hurricanes. It is estimated that over 29 square miles of Louisiana land is lost each year to erosion. I’m no scientist or tree hugger, but I love the Basin, and want it to be around for future generations to enjoy. If that means I have to make a few sacrifices in the short term, than so be it.