You can’t live in Louisiana long without being invited on a swamp tour. Suddenly, on a bright November morning, I found myself embarking on one alone. Whether by fate, synchronicity, or the work of Voodoo priestess Julia Brown, my friends had dropped from our planned trip one by one, leaving me to face what felt like an initiation on my own. But, not one to shy away from an adventure, off I went to join the Canoe & Trails Adventures group.
The launch site into Manchac Swamp has no physical address. GPS certainly won’t get you there, and the trip went a little like this: Set your course for the abandoned lumber town of Ruddock, LA, ignore the large boat launch and parking lot on your left upon arrival to the ghost town, and travel a couple of miles on a two-lane highway that will surely be swallowed up by the surrounding swamp any day now. But don’t worry, Byron won’t let you go missing.
He was standing just off the road’s shoulder, one foot on the muddy bank, the other already comfortably in the wetland waters; our soft-spoken yet intrepid guide. A large sun hat and binoculars hung around his neck, and a friendly smile never left his face as I and the other members of the tour slowly found the unmarked launch. Byron has been leading tours of Louisiana’s wettest places since the 1970s, and his clear passion and knowledge put me at ease.
The thing about traveling alone is that you’re guaranteed to make connections and discover new ways of seeing and thinking. People mistake solo traveling for a lonely experience, but to the contrary, these adventures can yield lifelong friendships and new insight into yourself and your place in the world. Take, for example, my new-found friend Matt. Being without “plus ones” to fill the two-person canoe in front of us, we were forced together. Instant friend. Or at the very least, an acquaintance. It’s impossible to not get to know someone when you’re working together to maneuver a motorless watercraft.
My duck boots hit the water first, followed by Matt’s. We set our canoe afloat, I wobbled in, followed by my partner as he shoved us from the shore. Then, we glided slowly, quietly, into the Manchac’s russet waters.
The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the swamp is a shift in sound. Ringing, pinging, honking, shouting is replaced by rippling, sloshing, amphibious singing, and rustling. Then, you’ll look up and suddenly realize how vast the sky is once Cypress trees replace buildings. Moss and nests hang heavy in their branches like ornaments on the boughs of a Christmas tree.
We found and wound our way through a bayou as a single-lined flotilla. As it got narrower, we took moments to learn about the flora and fauna from Byron, help shove one another off of logs, and yes, pull out our iPhones to snap photographs. Turning a corner, we arrived at the main event: Wildflowers stretched to what seemed like infinity in every direction. A swell of life so beautiful as it bended and twisted to catch the shortening rays of the sun.
We reached Lake Maurepas and paddled back as day turned to dusk. I’ve since done two “Moonlight Paddles” with Byron and his crew, and the best description I have for a swamp at dusk and night is hauntingly beautiful. Those sounds I mentioned earlier? They turn mysterious and unidentifiable as mist rolls in and blurs the edges of things. Was that splash an alligator…or perhaps the Rougarou? Is that half-sunken house really abandoned, or was that the whisper of a shadow crossing the doorstep? It’s easy to see why legends, stories, and magic are born in the twilight swamp.
Getting closer to the launch site, I heard Matt whisper, “Do we have to go back?” And I knew what he meant. Our world had been replaced momentarily as we allowed the swamp to swallow us. Despite any myths or legends, I think it gave us all a reprieve. Often, water in a swamp can stand still, flowing neither left or right, upstream or down. Perhaps we had taken the invitation to do the same; to pause, stand, and be.
The sounds of the interstate were becoming clear again as we neared our makeshift launch, and soon my duck boots were back on solid – albeit squishy – ground. Matt and I shook hands, and our little tribe dispersed back to whatever lives we were leading on dry land. I made the short trek to Middendorf’s Restaurant and found myself sipping real Coca-Cola out of a glass bottle while eating more “flat-fried catfish” than should be allowed. As the last rays of the sun faded away, I felt content with the simplicity of things. I felt at home. Maybe Julia Brown did her work on my initiation after all.
If you’re looking for a swamp tour minus gimmicks and a “touristy” feel, something off the beaten path for a great solo trip, date, or activity with the kids, this trip is for you. For more information about the places I visited during this trip, please see the links below:
Does this story remind you of your own adventures and wanderings? Where should I go next? I'd love to hear from you.