I came. I thawed. I did some other things.

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I inhaled deeply of air recently exhaled by alligators.

I was 1,189 miles from home, give or take a few feet.

Distance can be difficult to judge. All I know for certain is that the older I get, the farther away my feet become.

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I’d driven past a plethora of southern Louisiana sugar cane fields to get to Morgan City, the shrimp and petroleum capital of the world. It’s an area where a TV show called “Swamp People” is filmed for the History Channel.

I was eating my way through the Cajun Coast. Cajuns are descendants of French-speaking Roman Catholics who were expelled from Nova Scotia in the 1700s. I ate like it was my last day on death row. Menus ran amok with giant portions. I enjoyed both Creole and Cajun foods. Apparently, Creole uses tomatoes and is more of a city food, whereas Cajun eschews tomatoes and is considered country food. I had blackened fish, jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée, andouille, crawfish, po’boys, alligator and boudin. I ate delicious spicy things of uncertain origin. Quite an accomplishment for someone who grew up in a household where an exotic spice was ketchup.

I found myself in Terrebonne Parish (a county elsewhere), the watery world of the Atchafalaya Basin, traveling on a bayou, the sluggish, swampy tributary of a river not much deeper than my pockets. I was on a small boat, but not a pirogue, which was originally carved from a hollow log and poled. We were all in the same boat, so I was busy trying to stay out of the way. A tall guy makes a better door than a window. A big fellow is always a cornflake, never a Cheerio. The boat was built unsinkable like the Titanic and was anchored by the shadows of its passengers. It was 36 degrees and the captain shivered as if a goose had walked over his grave.

It was a leisurely cruise. A good thing. There is no point hurrying through life.

Spanish moss dripped gracefully from bald cypress trees. The grayish moss was once used in mattresses. Swamp red maples and cypress knees, knee-shaped tree roots grown above the water, abounded. Someone pointed out French ducks — mallards. Water lilies floated as herons, egrets, ibises, pelicans, vultures, hawks and owls flew. Perched herons resembled someone with his hands shoved deep into his pockets. Bald eagle nests were watched. No stage fright was evident in the birds.

The captain sang some Creole songs. One of the passengers said that the mama bald eagle covered her babies’ ears when he started singing.

An airboat zoomed past, fun to ride, but no joy for listening.

One fellow on the boat looked like Dave Robicheaux or what I thought Robicheaux looked like. Robicheaux is featured in the mystery novels written by James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is a fictional policeman from New Iberia, not far from this particular swamp. Robicheaux is imaginary. Maybe the guy looked like Burke, whose photo I’d seen. I should have asked him, but I’m a Minnesotan. Minnesotans believe that it’s better to not know than to bother someone.

Twenty-pound brown rodents nibbled on vegetation. Despite their long tails and orange buckteeth, nutria have a high reproductive rate. Wildlife officials say there’s no hope of eradicating them from Louisiana, where they were imported from South America for the fur trade. Nutria were released when the industry collapsed and their population exploded. Their endless feeding and digging decimates native plants that hold marsh soils together and support the survival of native species. There is a $5 bounty per nutria. A hunter keeps the meat and fur, turning in the tail. Terrebonne Parish accounts for 36 percent of the state’s paid bounties. Feral hogs make a marsh appear to have been tiled, while nutria mow it flat. Bald eagles feed nutria to eaglets.

The captain claimed they made NutraSweet from nutria. He also said Cajuns talk with their hands so much that if he fell overboard, he’d never drown as long as he kept talking.

Shots rang out. Bad marksman or multiple targets? A body fell dead. I didn’t need to look for Dave Robicheaux.

A nutria had been shot from an airboat.

I left the boat reluctantly.

The captain said something to me in Cajun, Creole, broken French or something else.

I understood without understanding. It was so kind that it caused me to tear up and rendered me wordless.

I learned later that he’d said, “May a wet nutria hit you in the kisser.”


Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.