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Captain of the Bayou

Dear Friend,

The Road Warrior crew is resting comfortably at home while we re-provision for our next excursion.

In the mean time, I thought that I would share with you a story of an experience we had in the bayous of southern Louisiana last weekend.

While visiting New Orleans, we thought that it would be interesting to take a bayou tour of the swamps and wetlands of lower Louisiana. We joined a group of folks aboard a small boat captained by a lifelong bayou native, with a unique Louisiana accent that sounded to my ears like a marriage between the deep South and northern New Jersey.

The bayou boat tour was great. It rained while we were out, and I had not seen such intense downpours since my days in the Costa Rican jungle. The weather was hot and humid but the rain felt like I was taking a warm shower.

My kids handled a gator the captain scooped out of the bayou, and a small snake made a new home in one of my kid’s long hair (we finally got it out, to the disappointment of all of the yung ‘uns).

If you didn’t know (and I didn’t), a bayou is a natural waterway or inlet that generally contains brackish water and is surrounded by wetlands of various types. Bayous are the remnants of ancient river bends that have been cut off from the main river channel by the constant shifts in the river’s course. The word “bayou” derives from an American Indian word that had its pronunciation distorted somewhat by the Acadians (now called Cajuns) when they arrived in Louisiana from Atlantic Canada long ago.

Despite these unique experiences, what struck me the most about this excursion was not the beautiful natural surroundings, but rather the boat captain himself.

This man fit the bill of what I like to call call a “marsh dweller,” Where my family is from is full of low salt marsh areas, and the people who live back in these harsh environments always came off to me as tough, harsh at times, extremely independent, often loud, occasionally braggarts, tellers of “tall tails,” yet in matters that count honest to a fault and the salt of the Earth in character.

These marsh folks often seem to be people who put you off at first, even perhaps bowl you over a bit with their loud manners and their rough appearance. But, once you spend a bit of time among them, and show them some basic human respect, they inevitably treat you like close family. And their honesty about themselves and the world around them is so refreshing that I find myself not wanting to leave their presence – except that I would have to endure more loud, tall tails.

This Louisiana boat captain was one of these familiar marshy folks. So in a way I felt at home.

While on our bayou tour captain told us a story about the alarming loss of wetlands all over southern Louisiana.

Apparently, one of the many benefits of coastal wetlands is the role that they play in lessening the impact of hurricanes before these storms reach major coastal population centers. The most common cause of coastal hurricane damage is the “storm surge,” or wall of water that these storms push ahead of them as they approach a coastline. An extensive coastal wetland buffer can knock down the height and force of these surges substantially. When the coastal buffer is lost, coastal cities lie open to destruction from the sea.

Our captain told us a story about a group of Dutch scientists and engineers that were invited to the US a few years back as consultants to the US Army Corps of Engineers. Their job was to advise the Corps on how it might stem the loss of these wetlands. These folks were in the States for two weeks, and had the occasion to take a bayou tour with our captain during their visit.

Apparently in the two weeks they were in Louisiana these Dutch folks constructed a simple demonstration system that pumped river water from the Mississippi river into the bayous, effectively proving that wetlands could be reconstructed in a relatively simple and inexpensive manner, reversing the wetland losses that had so devastated the coastline to date.

The captain explained to us that the Mississippi River used to naturally overflow its banks into the bayous all the time, dumping silt laden waters into these slow moving waterways, where it served to build up the wetlands and counter the effects of tide and erosion.

However, since the Corps earlier efforts to control regional flooding by building an extensive system of dikes, called “levees,” the waters and their precious silt content were being channeled directly into the sea, dumping this silt into the ship channels at the mouth of the Mississippi. The Corps apparently then dredges the silt from the ship channels and dumps it farther out to sea.

At the time our captain was excited to hear about the efforts of these Dutch engineers. Holland is a very low country surrounded by a system of dikes, so Dutch know-how in this area is renowned worldwide. However, our captain was far from impressed by the news that, once these engineers had demonstrated their cheap and simple solution to a problem that the Corps had been unsuccessfully struggling with for decades, these Dutchmen and women were promptly sent home, and their experiment was canceled.

Our captain was convinced that somebody at the Corps was afraid of looking bad, or of being shown up by “foreigners,” or whatever. He said that he was so upset by how things were being handled in the bayous and wetlands these days that he and his wife had already picked out the town in Montana that they will move to as soon as he gets ticked off enough to just chuck it all.

From my life experience, this man’s story rings true. But of course we will likely never know about many simple solutions to expensive, complex problems for the same reasons.

Anyway, I enjoyed this man’s story, and I particularly enjoyed the passion and obvious expertise that this otherwise simple sounding man clearly displayed.

I am a well educated man. I suspect that this boat captain may not have even finished high school. But in the matters that he was discussing, I would weigh his opinion over many a doctorate holder.

I learned long ago not to judge a person’s intelligence from his or her appearance or speech patterns. I have met many stupid people who were wearing nice suits and a surprising number of apparent geniuses in dirty T-shirts driving in rusty pickups.

Anyway, that’s my story from the bayous. I thought it worth repeating. I hope that you have a chance to visit this beautiful and fascinating part of the world sometime too.

All the best,

Hugh

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