The Cajun Bayou – just 35 miles south of New Orleans — isn’t just a place, it’s a culture. Here you’ll find a 100-mile stretch of backcountry beauty peppered with small towns and populated by folks of Cajun heritage. It’s important to note that Cajun is a distortion of the word Acadian. Say “Acadian” three times fast and pretty soon you’re saying something close to “Cajun.”
Contrary to some assumptions the Acadians or Cajuns are not Native Americans. They are descendants of French people who settled in Acadia – now Nova Scotia, Canada. In the mid-18th century the British took over the area and resettled many Acadians to France, the Caribbean, Britain, and along North America’s east coast. Some of these North American exiles found their way south and about 60 years later nearly 4,000 Acadians had settled in Louisiana.
In the semi-isolated marshlands known as the bayou, Acadians adapted their French history to local resources and mixed in Native American practices to create a distinctive culture. Contributions from this culture are found in regional music, cuisine, language and lifestyle. The first thing visitor here notices might be French-influenced names of places and people.
Our Cajun Bayou adventure started at midday in Southern Marsh RV Park in Cut Off, La. We were a little apprehensive about the location, knowing that it was behind a casino. We needn’t have worried. The casino was the size of a Bravo restaurant, not the full-sized convention centers we encounter closer to home. We heard and saw nothing of the gambling crowd.
After parking the RV and trailer, we rolled out the motorcycle and headed north to Thibodaux, La., to learn more at the Acadian Wetlands Cultural Center. There we traced Cajun housing, clothing, religion, food and music through the centuries. And, because it was Monday, we watched local musicians gather at 5 p.m. for a Cajun Music Jam. The sound is usually composed by accordion and fiddle.
Dinner was Cajun gumbo, the waitress’s mom’s recipe at The Venetian in Thibodaux, an incongruent Italian name for a Cajun bar/restaurant. Unless, it’s a reference to the existence of local shipping canals.
The next morning we rolled east to Airboat Tours by Arthur Matherne in Des Allemands, La, about 45 minutes from New Orleans. We were early so I had time to chat with Matherne about his wildlife trophies – a nutria and an alligator large enough to swallow a short man – in his ramshackle office/gift shop. Matherne is a stereotypical Cajun who supplements his income with hunting and fishing. Among these pursuits is trapping nutria or “swamp rat,” an invasive species that is outcompeting native wildlife in area habitat. Get him talking and you’ll learn why the area is a hot sportsman destination.
Matherne provided earmuffs for our airboat ride, but vibrations from the 550 HP engine still made my inner ears tickle and the noise gave me trouble perceiving sound in my left ear for 24 hours after the ride ended. The temperature was only 60 F during our cruise through the swamp, over the marsh, and through moss-draped trees. That’s too cold for alligators; so I photographed herons, egrets, and a bald eagle.
After lunch – gumbo, whatelse?—the day warmed up. So we rode to Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only occupied barrier island, and a place we’d heard about at a party in Ohio. Grand Isle is known for its fishing competitions including the International Tarpon Rodeo held each July. The rodeo, which started in 1928, claims to be the oldest fishing tournament in the United States.
By now we had seen myriad houses elevated to survive high-water storm surges. The houses on both sides of the Grand Isle bridge weren’t your glamour homes from the eastern Gulf Coast. Many were little more than fishing shacks and trailers on stilts.
On the ride back to Southern Marsh RV Park, night fell and so did the temperature. We were rethinking the fishing charter scheduled for morning because the October weather was unseasonably chilly. As northerners we didn’t anticipate drops in mercury. But, we’d committed so we stopped by Walmart at 10 p.m. for a visitor’s salt-water fishing license.
It was in the 40s at sunrise when we were to ride the motorcycle 26 miles to the charter boat. Fortunately, Captain Dan Bryan of Big Dog Bowfishing let us delay our start until the sunshine warmed the air. His wife Angie DeBlieux was less patient. She talked us into layering our warmest clothes and heading south as soon as the sun rose. When we arrived she handed us large sweatshirts that she’d thoughtfully warmed in her clothes dryer. With the heated sweatshirts over our layers, we stepped gingerly into the shallow boat. Soon, we were motoring into salty waters.
Dan told us that the “watermelon” smell of the watery environ was fish saliva on the water. I think he was testing my naiveté.
Our mission was redfish. And, we motored about the small islands casting along the shoreline where they hangout. I was more interested in perfecting my cast. I don’t know what I’d have done had I caught a real fish. In fact, after a while I gave up and busied myself taking pictures of shrimp boats that look like the flying fantasy ships of James Christensen art.
My partner had no problem casting and was disappointed we didn’t get to reel in any fish in our abbreviated tour. I guess we should have been ready at sunrise
When we return someday, we’ll try Dan’s newest activity – bowfishing. A nighttime sport, Bryan takes up to six passengers on an airboat outfitted with spotlights. Each fisherman has a bow and tethered arrow to shoot fish in the water. Likely targets will be redfish, flounder, alligator gar and drum.
While we were more interested in learning about bayou history and culture, those committed to fishing will find the bayou welcoming and generous.