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Cap’n Lawrence’s Chain-Smoking Gator-Baiting Good Time Swamp Tour

December 28, 2009
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Before we move on to the new, I have to mention that if you’re planning a trip to the southeast, strongly consider a detour for the Natchez Visitor Center Museum in Natchez along the beautiful drive that is the 5000 year old Natchez Trace.  It was one of our most pleasant surprises in the whole trip so far, and that’s saying a lot over half a year.

A pretty city along the Mississippi river, Natchez was one of the largest slave auction centers in the States, and has somehow developed a sophisticated level of dialog among its population, and a genuinely friendly culture, people who seem to be proud about where they’re from and to have come to terms with its complicated past.  The museum presents a frank look at the cultural threads  and historical tensions somehow without pointing fingers.  It’s almost as if the history of the area was so ugly that the various factions were forced to digest and grow from the past.  We spent an hour and a half soaking it up and anyone who’s visiting the area should stop.  Also farther north along the Trace, The Mississippi Craft Center is a place to see local arts gathered under one roof – glass, fabric, wood, metalwork…

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That said, let’s get on to some down home Cajun flavor.

Captain Lawrence runs swamp tours in his little backwater bayou near Houma, Louisiana, on a pontoon boat that needs a bit of welding along the rails that are supposed to hold the passengers in.

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Waiting for Jack on the bayou

As we pulled up to a fishing shack, late for their sunny afternoon tour, a German couple who had just arrived in the country earlier in the day were just hopping in the pontoon. Cap’n Lawrence and his porch buddy, toting an oxygen tank, were leaning on the porch waiting for us. The first sight of them was enough to make us realize what we’d gotten into, but it was the warmest afternoon for a week and we wanted to see an alligator, dammit, so we hustled the kids on anyway. To kick off a festive spirit, all six of us passengers were incongruously adorned with Mardi Gras beads.

Our pilot was about sixty, in glasses and a baseball cap, a red and blue plaid flannel shirt riding awkwardly on his hunched shoulders, plenty amiable now but with an old stifled mean apparent under the surface. He looked like he was used to doing what he needed to to get by. He didn’t introduced himself, but his hand-lettered sign said “Cap’n Lawrence Tips Welcome”. So Cap’n Lawrence started the engine and tried to take off before untying us – jerked against the rope – mumbling “That’s no problem” under his breath to downplay his mistake. We eased into a typical backwater, flooding into the nearby sugar cane fields by all the recent rains. He started right out by talking about the wildlife we were sure to see. “We’ll see squirrels for sure,” he reassured us. The German couple stifled smirks. Hmmm. I had visions of my summer trip to the area years before, when the alligators were at their most aggressive during breeding season, hissing, backs slapping the water and white bellies flashing as they vigorously fought over chicken neck pulled off a woman’s crabbing line. I knew this was winter, the quiet season, but…. squirrels? Most kids are not quite that easy to impress.

Among the bamboo and cypress, ash, swamp willow, elm, the dangling spanish moss and duckweed growth throughout the water, we spotted a big fat squirrel. Cap’n Lawrence was excited. “See? See there?” He navigated his boat closer so my kids could see the curious specimen. He was, indeed, a pretty big squirrel and adept at the peculiars of swamp life. But my children didn’t get up off the aluminum bench, and Cap’n L moved on. He lit a cigarette. The squirrel turned out to be the only animal we saw on the ride who didn’t get fed.

Tall, still blue herons fished among snowy egrets. Cap’n Lawrence eagerly clamored, lined us up, lit a new cigarette, and threw nine or ten chunks of chicken and fish at them, calling to them “Come get something to eat! There! There! Come get something to eat!” The elegant birds attacked the meat like the carnivores they are.

We puttered in mud brown water, enjoying the sunshine and plant life and the simple joy of being on a boat. Any animal we might spy for a moment was tossed a chunk of chicken. Cap’n L pointed out his feeding stations for deer. He threw half a loaf of bread slices at a raccoon, who ducked slightly as she retrieved the slices, hating herself but knowing she’d be waiting there the same time tomorrow.

Along the way he truly did entertain us with stories of finding and entering an alligator nest (he pointed out the tree under which he’d found the hole in the bank), his buddy keeping an eye out for either adult’s return. He counted 52 alligators, tiny and entangled with each other, coming out later and he scooped two up with a fishing net. He said the mama was mad, really mad, and tried to get them back. He still had them at his pond.

The way you hunt an alligator is to rig up a big chunk of meat on a rope that’s hung from a tree branch, knotted so that the bait is hanging above the water, and when the gator jumps up half his height from the water to grab it (this is where homework pays off, knowing the length of the gator you’re hunting so you can hang the bait, say, 5 feet above the water for a 10 foot alligator), the bait and hook go right back underwater with him but he’s stuck there with a big hook in his mouth. “He’ll come right up when you give a tug on that, then, because it’s real sensitive.” If he’s big enough, you haul him onto the boat and he’s done. But if he’s too small to keep, you cut the line and “the hook dissolves within 48 hours because their stomach acid corrodes anything”. I didn’t find out what happens to the gator when he’s hauled aboard, because Cap’n L finished with, “Of course, you don’t hunt them, people don’t, it’s a bad deal, it’s illegal, you gotta have land promised to you to hunt to get a license” to control the harvest.

He told of the mushrooms he harvests, on elm and hackberry and willow. “Some people say they’ll take ash mushrooms, but not me. I wasn’t raised on that. I stick to what I know.”

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Jack the Twelve Foot Alligator

Trent was the first to spot the ripples snaking toward us, as Jack the twelve foot alligator delighted us all (Cap’n L included) as he arrived for a gorging. The kids were thrilled, and I had quite a thrill keeping them from leaning against the poorly latched gate above the gator as he tore chicken chunks from a hook offered just below us over and over. We could see the flap closed over his throat, to keep from swallowing water while taking in food, and his transparent inner eyelids closing and opening.

After plenty of ruckus from our fearless leader, “Come on yauh, Come on. Yauh! Get something to eat! C’mon, Jack! C’mon, Jack!” Jack eventually tired of the bounty and with efficient prehistoric movements of his tough massive legs and tail he swam away.

Cap’n Lawrence lit another cigarette and we continued on through the waterways to a collection of algae along a heavy rope strung across the bayou from levee to levee, which he explained, he had to leave in place to keep other boats out of his backyard.

Jack visited again on the way back, opening his jaws wide in a similar, but slightly more lethargic, encore performance. The vultures made a big show of their chicken and fish feast, and true to form, would not touch a slice of bread Cap’n L tossed to them as proof. All in all, the kids were happy. We stepped back onto shore.

Back at the cabin, a younger, thin man had joined the porch friend. He had with thick brown hair and a face of 70,  strung by his nostrils to an oxygen tank, his lips working a cigarette dangling long ash. It hadn’t been tapped off in awhile because the man’s hands were busy filleting a two foot catfish on a board strung across stumps, his customer looking on. With amazement I realized he was running his electric fillet knife with serrated fury right up against his oxygen tube, and the tube was rubbing against the raw fish. The man whose fish it was had a bit of interaction with him about how he wanted it filleted, and the fellow with the knife cut it off and looked up at Cap’n Lawrence as he stepped onto shore, “You oughtta show me how to do that. I’ve never cut it like that before. But you don’t got clean hands. I’ve got a pair of gloves somewhere in the pickup.” to which the good Cap’n replied “I don’t need gloves” and grabbed the fish with one chicken-and-tar spackled hand, and the fillet knife with the other, and preceded to cut the man’s catfish beautifully. Satisfied, the fishmongers finished their cigarettes and lit new ones, stepping back to admire the finished product of their efforts.

Enlightened, we took our leave.

Tasty fried alligator bites for dinner later were, unsurprisingly, a delicious mix between fish and chicken.
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