Photo by C.C. Lockwood
Camping in the Atchafalaya Basin
There are around one million acres in the Atchafalaya, and very few of them have seen a car. For those of us who want to get lost in the backcountry, there is a lot of possibility in that remoteness.
Years ago my aunt and uncle came into town from New Iberia for Thanksgiving and told stories about a canoe trip across the Atchafalaya Basin. They had to pitch a tent one night on the porch of a stranger’s houseboat because there wasn’t any land to camp on. At the time, I didn’t know what “the Basin” meant, but I still liked the sound of that trip—a seemingly endless and silent canoe ride, alligator eyes, coiled-up snakes, haggard cypress—and it has stuck with me ever since.
There are around one million acres in the Atchafalaya, and very few of them have seen a car. For those of us who want to get lost in the backcountry, there is a lot of possibility in that remoteness. There are also a lot of challenges. As a place, it’s difficult to pin down. Is it a river? Swamp? Wetlands?
I thought I’d find the answer to some of these questions when I learned about a document buried on a government website belonging to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. It promised to provide a menu of twenty-nine primitive campsites in and around the Atchafalaya Basin. This felt like receiving the keys and a map—with GPS coordinates—to a labyrinth.
I called up my uncle David and we planned a scouting canoe trip to three of these campsites in St. Martin Parish. At the stern behind me was an armadillo-shooting Ph.D. biologist who had used a nice chunk of his recent-retiree energy to plan this outing, so I felt hopeful.
We left under a canopy of sturdy second-growth cypress trees, passing fishermen checking their crawfish nets. We saw ospreys and kites, picked blackberries out of the bushes, and traced the bird-like tracks of alligators across a sandbar. But across one channel, a levee appeared over which we had to drag our boats. Then, the black water of the swamp and the cypress canopy quickly gave way to wide channels of fast-moving chalky brown water. And near the campsites, we experienced a needle-in-the-haystack search along the impenetrable wall of willows on the riverbank. We returned that evening with zero confirmed campsite sightings.
I’ve tried to explain this to people before—how difficult it is to figure it out. You know, you think if you have a GPS and a map you can figure it out. It’s still not that easy.
Don Haydel, who runs the Atchafalaya Basin Program for the state Department of Natural Resources, was able to shed some light on our struggle. Haydel’s job is to coordinate a wide list of projects ranging from establishing boat launches to organizing the worthwhile disposal of mud dredged up from a lake bottom to, in this case, locating campsites. His office planned these campsites after members of the public proposed them in 2011. These prospective campers were most concerned with avoiding disputes with landowners. There are over 800,000 acres of land within the Basin; about half is privately owned. (Crawfish nets and trophy bucks can go missing, and the area has a bit of a reputation for lawlessness.) The campers were least concerned with structural amenities. The consensus, Haydel said, was “completely unimproved” sites—little more than a metal welcome sign in the weeds. “They’re not heavily utilized, so every time I’ve been to them, they’ve been real primitive so that you might be walking through the weeds to get to it. And you might have to clear a little site to put up a tent.”
Photo by C.C. Lockwood
Canoeing on the Atchafalaya
Since the ‘50s the Army Corps of Engineers has been diverting water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya. By government recipe, the Atchafalaya receives a third of the flow of the Mississippi to relieve flood pressure on the levees surrounding Baton Rouge and New Orleans. That has grown the Atchafalaya into the sixth biggest river in North America by discharge. The logging and oil and gas industries, and the combined accumulation of 2.5 billion cubic meters of Mississippi mud, have changed the landscape, created land where there was once lake or swamp, and allowed willow forests to succeed cypress in dominating much of the landscape, especially the higher ground most likely to be dry for camping.
But Haydel told me about three sites between Bayou Sorrel and Plaquemine where I could camp among the cypress. He suggested a manageable route, described the site markers, and sent me on my way. “If you want to get away and just not be distracted by anything from civilization, these are the places to go,” he told me. “It’s just a misconception that it’s alligator and snake infested. I think it’s ninety-eight percent beauty and solitude.”
Reaffirmed, I planned another trip. The spots are technically outside of “the Basin,” a sometimes-confusing term that can change depending on the time of year. When the Atchafalaya River peels off from the Mississippi near Simmesport, the channel frays and gradually spreads and widens into an array of bayous and river channels until it reaches the Gulf. If it could, the water would spread all the way from Lafayette to Donaldsonville, which is the historical basin of the Atchafalaya. But when the Corps built a parallel set of levees to keep the water out of sugarcane farms and inside a manageable area, a separate space emerged. This is what people mean when they say “inside” or “outside” the Basin.
I left in good hands with a group that included a naturalist, an environmental worker, a friend who happens to be obsessing over maps, and another who has very good taste in music. Just outside the town of Bayou Sorrel, we crossed a drawbridge and drove through a cattle gate to reach the launch.
We watched the houseboats and cypress slip along the bank as we paddled, referring periodically to our scaled, detailed map with the GPS coordinates of our destination marked for the finding. When we arrived at the area between the two cuts in the bank where the map said the campsite would be, the cypress were standing tall, and the breeze had calmed, and my friend said, “This is a nice spot to camp, but I think I’d want a hammock.”
The water that had crept into the forest from the lake never got shallower than three feet. We still spent a considerable amount of time paddling through the trees looking for that welded metal sign, but every tree looked more or less like a pipe, and there are many, many trees in the Atchafalaya. To make the hunt even more uncertain, each person’s GPS device marked different locations for the sites. We never did find any of Haydel’s spots.
On the paddle back, I watched a man sweeping the front steps of his camp before loading his bags into a trolling motor-powered canoe. At the boat ramp he caught up with us, and we asked him about the primitive campsites. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he suspected people had ripped the signpost down, “just because people do that out here.”
Another man pulled up in a modified flatboat with a 50 horsepower engine. With one hand, he helped himself out of the boat, and with the other, he held a .22 rifle. His name was Jimmy Allen, and he said he didn’t know of any campsites or any people pitching tents in the area. We showed Jimmy the location on his map, but he continued shaking his head. He did admire the map, though, and when we offered to give it to him, a friendship was forged. He offered to show us around the next time we came.
I thought John Williams, the owner of Pack and Paddle outdoor center in Lafayette, might know of a reliable backcountry camping trip through the Basin. Beyond retail, the store hosts outings and specializes in sharing information that helps people enjoy the outdoors. But right off the bat he said, “As far as primitive spots in the Basin, I don’t really have any dependable spots to suggest to you.” It didn’t seem like the first time someone had asked him. “I’ve tried to explain this to people before—how difficult it is to figure it out. You know, you think if you have a GPS and a map you can figure it out. It’s still not that easy.
“The entire Everglades is a national park, so you know where you’re at. You know you’re in national parkland. In the Basin, one minute you’re on private land; the next, you’re not. And if the water’s high, you can be paddling over someone’s private land and get in trouble for it, even though you’re not touching land with your feet!”
Photo by C.C. Lockwood
Camping in the Atchafalaya Basin
Williams did emphasize that camping in the Basin is possible, in a hammock, for instance, but “it’s not for the average person.” For scenic day trips, the best spots for paddling, in his opinion, are outside of the Basin.
But these campsites weren’t planned for the common recreationalist. I plan to return to the spots north of Bayou Sorrel because I’d like to have a beer with Jimmy Allen and I’d like to get to know the water levels, the seasons, and the neighbors. If backcountry canoe camping is in the stars, I think cyclical familiarity with the Atchafalaya is a more important tool than GPS or Internet research.
In neighborhoods across South Louisiana, behind strip malls and floodwalls, there are non-hunting people who are eating very well but starving for wilderness. I know they’re out there, and despite all of the challenges, I would still suggest a careful visit to the Atchafalaya Basin—a scouting mission at the very least. If they can locate enough courage, or one of those elusive metal posts, they can carve a small nook in the edge of a forest, build a little fire, and pitch a tent. Otherwise, there is always a hammock.
Pack and Paddle’s “Where To Go” section offers fifteen detailed guides complete with maps for paddling, camping, hiking, and more in South Louisiana. packpaddle.com/where-to-go.
The Department of Natural Resources Sonris map has adjustable layers for land ownership, campsites, boat launches, water body names, and more. http://bit.ly/2m1eXp9.
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area’s Camping site features over fifty locations, from private campgrounds to Wildlife Management Areas. atchafalaya.org/camping.