Walking with Alligators Outside New Orleans [Part 2]

Southern Drawl

     It seems that warm water is the defining characteristic of New Orleans. Water in the swamps, water in the Mississippi river, water flooding houses, water falling from the sky in bucket loads, and water thickening the air in the form of humidity.
     Coming from a childhood in the deserts I was not used to humidity, the thickness and the warmth. I was used to walking fast, to being in a hurry. New Orleans changed that. There is a relaxed attitude to time, it’s an attitude that says; ‘things will happen when they happen, so don’t worry about it.’
     New Orleans always felt like s sleepy Sunday afternoon to me, when there is nothing to do and nowhere to go.
     One afternoon while sedately walking through the swamp, with my mind wandering, I thought about the southern drawl. I like how the word drawl sounds like what it’s describing. A slow measured accent, and I suddenly realized how much the heat and warmth had affected the people who live here. How it reflected the relaxed attitude to time and the slow relaxed way of talking.
     I had never considered before how weather could affect an accent.

Life

     The swamp feels quiet and sedate, it feels like everyone is asleep, but it’s not true, life is teeming in the swamp, it’s just wonderfully camouflaged.
     The first and most obvious form of life are the mosquitoes. I found that despite the thick warm weather, It’s a good idea to wear long sleeves and pants, it helps to keep those horrible buzzing things from your skin.
     And if you’re hot because of the extra clothing, just walk at a gentler pace, like the locals.
     The dragonflies are easy to see, because they glow in neon colors and pause in flight just before your eyes. For one second they hover like a helicopter, the next second they’re gone, like Scotty beamed them away.
     But sometimes they are kind enough to pause on a boardwalk for a portrait.


A neon green dragonfly relaxing on the wooden boardwalk at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.

     In the early morning, if you’re the first to travel down the trail, keep an eye out for spider webs. I don’t mean pretty little webs next to the path glistening with drops of dew, but huge webs, created by minature monsters, that span the whole path. The huge circular bulls eyes are the size of an archery target sitting hidden in the morning light, waiting for an innocent human to step through.
     I don’t recommend stepping through a six-foot tall web in the morning. It feels like thousands of bugs with small sticky feet are landing on any and all exposed skin. No amount of constant and compulsive rubbing on your face, arms and back of neck will get rid of the feeling that tiny monsters are crawling along the back of your neck.
     The only remedy is a long hot shower.
     When the spiders are not building webs to capture humans in the morning, sometimes they build smaller webs on the edge of the path, and sit with their children watching the humans pass by, and I imagine, salivating at their primordial memory of the taste of human flesh.


A Golden silk orb-weaver Spider sits on its web with its child watching humans pass by at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.

     The swamp is quiet, quiet in a way that New Orleans can never be. I found myself walking alone along the boardwalks most of the time, and the only noise was the soft tread of my feet, the mosquitoes in my ears, and the occasional splash of something in the water leaving expanding ripples.
     There were occasionally other people walking the opposite direction, and we would smile and nod hello to each other. Sometimes there was a brief conversation that went something like this: “There’s an alligator just round the corner on the opposite bank.” “Look for the turtle sunning itself next to a cypress tree just off to the right.”
     One of my favorite wildlife moments was early in my Jean Lafitte walking career. As I wandered along, I came across five people leaning on the wooden barrier looking across a twenty-foot wide canal. I stopped and looked at what they were looking at, which was an eight foot alligator sunning itself on the far bank.
     I lent on the guardrail and looked over the still water at this grey creature encrusted with black mud. It looked to be from a dinosaur movie. It didn’t look real, maybe like a Disney prop. It didn’t look dangerous, it looked hung over, like it had been drinking Hurricanes in the French Quarter till way to late and now all it wanted was an aspirin and to be left alone.
     After a minute or two of staring at the twin grey ridges running down it’s back, the closed eyes, the closed mouth and the still tail, I began to scan the rest of the area. Which was when I noticed the two alligators hiding in the still water just below my feet.
After the instant rush of fear and adrenaline I realized that there was nothing they could do to us, they were only about four feet long, and this part of the boardwalk had a railing and wooden supports that the alligators could not get through.
     I looked into the alligator’s eyes and all I could see was patience, patience that if these alligators waited long enough, one of us would be its meal.
     I pointed out the alligators at our feet to the other watchers and they all started with surprise, and so we stood and stared at the little ones at our feet for a minute.
     The alligators floated in the water with just their eyes, long nose and snout visible, the rest was hidden by fallen leaves. The water is so still in the canals that the leaves fall from the trees and cover the water giving it the appearance of solid ground.


A view looking over one of the canals, covered with leaves creating the illusion of solid ground. Life is camouflaged in the swamp, as alligators hide in the water underneath fallen leaves, with only eyes and snout showing, and I can imagine their mouths watering as they watch the humans walk by at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.
[Notice the alligator hiding in the bottom left corner of this photograph?]


The same view and alligator as in the above photograph, but this time taken with a zoom lens at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.


     Using the walkways is not the only way to visit the park. One afternoon I met a family from Minnesota who were on vacation and brought their canoe all the way down to New Orleans to paddle through the swamp. (There are places to rent a canoe in the park, you don’t need to bring our own.)
     They were tied up to a jetty at the end of the Coquille trail, and the father and I chatted about where to find alligators in the swamp.
     When it was time for them to paddle away, the little girl complained loudly that her older brother had been sitting in the front for too long and it was her turn. She said that she wanted to run her fingers in the water at the front of the canoe.
     After a moment of clichéd brother-sister bickering the father said that she could sit in the front –despite the protests from her brother- but trailing her fingers in the water might not be good as an alligator might eat her fingers.
     The family paddled away down the still swamp, with the girl proudly sitting in the front, her hands firmly stuffed in her armpits.

     Other than the jetty at the end of the mile long Coquille Trail, there is a viewing platform and a bridge. The bridge lifts the trail up and over one of the canals, which is the highest point of the walk, and affords a view of the canals and the walkway.



View looking south from the bridge over a canal at the end of the Coquille Trail, with the wooden walkway off to the left at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.


Very occasionally I was lucky enough to be standing on the bridge at the end of the Coquille Trail when an alligator would swimming underneath, at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve.

     At the end of the trail, when there is no further way to go and the only way is back, there is an elevated viewing platform with a bench. I spent quite a bit of time on this bench, staring over the huge field that seemed to stretch into infinity. I could, if it had been raining and the air was clear, see the trees in the far distance, but most of the time the humidity kept the far trees in a blur and it looked like a perfectly flat field covered with low green plants.
     One day I mentioned to a ranger how wonderfully flat the field was at the end of the Coquille trail, and he looked at me confused. I described the huge field that stretched forever away from the viewing platform, and he smiled and laughed, it wasn’t a field, but a lake covered with floating vegetation.

     After a little searching, and some luck, I had found my swamp, my piece of solitude from the bustling party city that is New Orleans.

Please click on the links below to see other photographs of New Orleans.
New Orleans Katrina Destruction One Year Later
New Orleans Band Practice
New Orleans Voodoo Alleyway

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