Two dozen canoes carrying more than 50 people might seem like a crowd, but as soon as our flotilla set off on a guided expedition into the Manchac wetlands, we seemed swallowed by its immensity and secluded within its wilds. We rounded a bayou corner, breaking the sightline to our cars parked at the rustic, unmarked launching point behind us, and at once the extent of the dry, tidy world was reduced to the slim plastic hull of each canoe moving quietly through black water.
Over the next few hours, this trip would take us though natural bayous, long-abandoned lumber canals, freshwater marsh and labyrinthine cypress swamps. Then, after sunset, we would thread our return through the same route by the light of the moon, and the sense of immersion would be complete. At night, another canoe could be just a few feet astern, but we felt quite on our own under the pearly moonlight and amid the nocturnal cacophony of mostly unseen bugs and birds and beasts.
Such a plunge into Louisiana's eminently accessible natural heritage is just the point of this outing, billed as a "moonlight paddle" by New Orleans-based tour operator Canoe & Trail Adventures. We drove about 30 highway miles from the city on a recent Saturday to meet our guides for this deep, two-phase sensory soak, with its vibrant, lush scenes on the way in and its moonlit journey back.
The outing was led by Byron Almquist, who originally formed Canoe & Trail Adventures in the 1970s as a New Orleans retail outlet for outdoors gear. He started leading canoe and hiking trips to help promote his products, and when the shop closed in 1988, the tours became his main line of business.
"It's a hobby that turned into a living," says his son, Chad, who helps guide many of the outings today, including this one.
The night paddles are scheduled monthly on the Saturday falling closest to the full moon. Our route has been carefully calculated to take in a diverse range of watery habitats around the edges of the Manchac wetlands, a tangled, trackless stretch covering some 200 square miles between Lake Maurepas and the Mississippi River.
The scenery, the sounds and the water current all change as we move from relatively open bayous to the tight swamp passages through dense forest. Everywhere, though, our canoes cut through a thin green growth of lentil-shaped platelets matting the water, and our path is lined by cypress trees draped with fleeces of Spanish moss, waving like curtains. We occasionally spot the snouts of alligators, which look so much like floating branches that we will assume all future floating branches are alligators until they prove themselves otherwise. Overhead, enormous herons and egrets flap from perch to perch and other birds head off purposefully in formation.
We pause at key forks in the route and cluster together as the senior Almquist gives some facts about the journey so far and fields questions we've accumulated along the way. He rises to stand in his canoe, a surefooted feat of balance that makes him look like a holy man addressing the attentive flock sitting by twos and threes in their own canoes. But his approach is gentle and soft-spoken and he shares what is clearly a lifetime of observed and studied knowledge.
We learn that some of that vegetal mat over the water is native (the tiny duckweed) and some is invasive (the prodigious salvinia). We learn that state agents have released a clinically selected weevil to devour the invasive type and — hopefully — nothing else.
"What about the cypress knees?" asks one boater. "Why are some of the knees all red at the tops?"
Byron Almquist points out the cypress stalagmites sprouting profusely at the edge of the water and explains that their ruddy, brass-colored knobs indicate a healthy and growing tree pushing its outcroppings skyward. We learn that the water looks so dark from all the leaves and needles dropped from the trees, and that briny storm surges from the 2005 and 2008 hurricanes made it all the way to this swamp, killing off wild irises and lilies along the way.
"It just shows how sometimes the impact of these hurricanes isn't what you see, but what you don't, and sometimes that's months or years after the storm," he says.
Once we've breached the thickest stand of cypress swamp we emerge into a gentle, watery glade where the channel narrows to a motionless corridor flanked by bottle-green rushes and the tall, flat leaves of arrowhead plants. We packed our own suppers, and as the sun sinks over the tall cypress line we dine in our canoes. Soon the magentas and coral pinks of the western sky fade completely and the promised moon shines down on the water, alternately beaming and shrouded as granite-shaded clouds cruise past.
The arrival of darkness signals a circadian shift change in the swamp, and on some deep, chromosomal cue the teeming insects, frogs and birds are set to glorious shrieking and gurgling, singing and ticking, like cooped-up children or puppies finally unleashed to play. The authors of all this nightlife are invisible, but they are so close we can track their motions as the individual sounds move around just behind a thick veil of reeds. The baritone bullfrogs are particularly impressive, letting loose their deep booms like a thud against metal.
Never in my life have I heard an owl sound so completely and convincingly like an owl as one that now lets out a manly, layered multi-note hoot. It seems to silence the chattering swamp, as if all those countless little green or furry items of potential owl prey out there in the thick intuitively hold their collective breath for a moment, flinching for the imagined talons. The hush lasts just a few seconds, however, and then the creaking, croaking, skittering, burping sounds of the swamp resume. The canoes slide on, adding the thin slithering sounds of their prows through the still water.
We've been in the dark for about 45 minutes when the guides break out powerful flashlights and begin illuminating random stretches of the bayou banks. The rays are as bright and jarring as a state trooper's spotlight at a dead-of-night traffic stop, and the guides move them around constantly, searching for something.
"There's one," says Byron. "Right there, everyone, can you see his eyes?"
There, hugging the dark bank, about 60 feet distant, are two red dots, like dim LCDs, which could only be alligator eyes. Alligators are hard to spot by the light of day, but their eyes sparkle like red rubies when hit by a light at night.
"There's another one," Almquist says calmly. "Any over there, Chad?"
"Yup, two over here," calls his son, who is positioning his canoe while his girlfriend keeps a light trained on the opposite bank. "Actually, three!" she adds cheerfully.
The moving spotlights identify a few more, so now the count is up to seven alligators sitting motionless in the water with their illuminated red-dot eyes spaced as regularly as the taillights of distant cars. Suddenly, the bayou feels very narrow and hemmed within such parallel silent gazing.
It is briefly unnerving to realize so many toothy reptiles have been silently watching us from banks all this time, but it's clear they want no business with us. Anyway, our attention is soon commanded by more immediate company. In addition to showing the gators' eyes, our guides' lights reveal just how laughable our efforts have been to fight off the swarming mosquitoes. We'd been beating them with growing frequency ever since sunset, the rhythm of our swats rising from a random slap to something worthy of a John Bonham solo within a half hour.
Bug spray is as necessary on a nighttime canoe trip as oars, and we had been applying it regularly. But what is sufficient for an evening on the porch at home is good for only a few minutes in the swamp. The spotlights reveal holding patterns of mosquitoes above the canoes, each spastic silvery speck vying for the right approach to whatever inch of flesh the DEET left naked, like an elbow or the back of a thigh above the shorts hem. We quickly learn to reapply the spray every few minutes, but in the end we have to accept becoming blood brothers with dozens of tiny swamp dwellers.
Soon enough we'll be back at the darkened launch site, where white SUVs fairly shine where we left them by the roadside, and the elevated Interstate 55 booms with semis and the loud tailpipes of passing bikes. But for the next little while, on this last leg of the trip, the alligator spotlights are dimmed and silence has taken hold within the canoes. The nearest sound is the dipping paddle, and the reflected moon bounces and swirls on the little waves of each stroke.