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Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coastby Mike Tidwell
"You want to do what?" says Papoose Ledet, his balding head sticking out the forward hatch of a whitewashed shrimp boat. He's changing the oil of his 671 Detroit diesel engine-and that's all I see: his head sticking up out of the foredeck.
I stand opposite Papoose on a wooden wharf, my backpack hanging from my shoulders, my sleeping bag held on by bungee cords. I explain my idea of hitchhiking down the bayou on boats just as two of Papoose's sons whiz past me. They're carrying bundles of green shrimp netting and various ropes to be employed during the night's trawling just ahead. A gaggle of laughing gulls hover noisily overhead.
My idea makes no sense at all to Papoose judging by the look on his face. He pulls himself out of the forward hatch and walks slowly toward the gunwale nearest the wharf, eyeing me intently, wiping grease from his hands with a rag. His sun-weathered face squints in the midafternoon June heat, sending remarkable creases from just below his eyes all the way to his jawline. We don't shake hands.
"You ever been down de baya before?" Papoose asks in his heavy Cajun accent. Down here the word "bayou" comes out "baya" and "down de baya" means, in effect, "our home," chez nous, that watery rural Louisiana place located at the very end of the world just the way locals like it. Not too many outsiders, lost or otherwise, wander this deep into the region. And certainly none walk up asking for rides aboard working shrimp boats.
"No," I tell Papoose, lowering my backpack to the wharf. "This is my first trip down here."
"What about shrimpin'?" he asks. "You know anyt'ing about shrimpin'?"
"No," I say again, confessing my knowledge of Cajun fishing customs is nil. "Mais, je parle un peu de français," I say, hoping to establish a connection. "And I have a great love of boats and I'm happy to work as an unpaid deckhand."
Papoose's facial expression still doesn't budge.
"I just want to float down the bayou with you," I say. "That's all. It doesn't matter how far you're going. I'm just traveling. I just want to get downstream."
Suddenly he looks a bit less confused. He doesn't exactly smile, but the idea starts to sink in. "Just travelin', huh? Like a tourist?"
“Well, okay den. Why didn't you say so? Put your pack in de cabin."
I see his hand, still stained with engine grease, suddenly outstretched toward mine. I cross the wharf and shake it.
"I can take you as far as Leeville, an hour and a half downstream. I'm going shrimpin' down dere right now."
Papoose is the first fisherman I've met, after a brief search, who's heading my way-and just like that, in the melting swelter of the South Louisiana sun, I have my first ride. Papoose unties from the dock and we begin floating down the sleepy olive-green water of Bayou Lafourche. His quick invitation to board belies the myth of bad-tempered swamp people hostile to all outsiders. In reality, bayou Cajuns turn out to be some of the most hospitable people I've met anywhere.
"Bayou" is a Choctaw Indian word meaning sluggish, slow-moving stream, and this one, Bayou Lafourche, is maybe two hundred feet wide and ten feet deep, situated about an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans. It follows a southeasterly course toward the Gulf, and as it passes through the tiny Cajun town of Golden Meadow, where I met Papoose, it's lined with all manner of fishing vessels tied to wooden docks cushioned with used-tire bumpers. These range from the vaguely tugboat look of shrimp trawlers to the longer bargelike proportions of oyster boats to the quicker, smaller crab boats, many barely bigger than rowboats with outboard motors. Papoose's fifty-year-old wooden trawler has a high, jaunty bow that flares back along softly sloping gunwales to a broad, square stern.
The town buildings, meanwhile, hug the bayou banks like swimmers to a lifeline: a few modern houses, rusting trailer homes on pilings, a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, two gas stations, a tin-roofed oyster bar, some rope swings tied to overhanging willows. Passing the town's main commercial bank, Papoose gives a long, low blow of the boat horn, and his wife, Faye, a teller, comes out the front door to wave goodbye to her husband and sons. The shrimpers are sometimes gone three or four days, and all necessary provisions have been stowed on board. A five-pound bag of red onions hangs side by side with a life preserver from hooks on the wooden wheelhouse wall.
Barely a few blocks back from the riverbank, on either side of the bayou, the town of Golden Meadow stops abruptly, giving way to an endless maze of marsh grass and open water and more marsh grass adorned with statuesque snowy egrets fishing stone-still in a pose straight out of an Audubon painting. The town actually rests atop natural earthen levees created by the Mississippi River when this bayou-Lafourche-was the Mississippi's course to the sea seven hundred years ago.
The forward motion of Papoose's boat creates a cooling, hair-tussling breeze that deepens the exquisite sense of freedom I feel leaning against the port gunwale, my backpack stored away. I'm drifting through Louisiana on the boat of a Cajun I just met, going I know not exactly where. It is, admittedly, a unique feeling seeing my car grow smaller and smaller along the bayou road, not knowing how or when I'll see it again. But I try not to worry, focusing instead on rolling up my pant legs and taking off my shoes.
Shoes seem forbidden here: Papoose and his three sons are barefoot and Papoose actually steers the boat wheel with his toes, sitting on a tall stool at the helm. All afternoon I never see his hands touch the wheel, just his toes, freeing him to operate the two-way radio mike and speak French with his best friend Goo Goo, another shrimper downstream. I have trouble following the conversation, not only because it's Cajun French but because there are actually variations of the language from region to region in Louisiana. "The word we use down here on Bayou Lafourche for turtle is de same word dey use up in Lafayette for a woman's private parts," laughs Papoose, who's forty-two years old and has a broad, toothy smile.
Even Papoose's English can be hard to follow. Several Cajuns I meet later say that when they travel more than a few miles outside Louisiana, other Americans are often baffled by their accents. People ask if they're from the Caribbean, Quebec, South America. Not that your average bayou Cajun travels much, thanks to the region's history of poverty and isolated culture. An amazing number of people I meet over the next few days have never been in an airplane, never owned a credit card, never read a book, never seen a hill much taller than the thirty-foot Indian mounds scattered across the marshland, constructed from millions of discarded clam shells in a centuries-long process.
I ask Papoose what he was talking about on the radio with Goo Goo.
"De tide," he tells me. "Dere's gonna be a strong tide goin' out tonight and dat's good. It flushes de shrimp outta de marsh. But we got us a sout' wind kickin' up too, from de udder direction, and dat can hold de tide back some. So me and Goo Goo, we were tryin' to decide, wit' dese conditions, what's de best place to grab Mr. Shrimp. Maybe a bay. Maybe a bayou. Maybe a canal."
It's a lot more complicated, in other words, than just dropping the nets and gunning the engine.
An hour down the bayou, Papoose announces he's decided to head west along a canal and then push north up into uninhabited Bayou Blue to do some shrimping toward Catfish Lake. This is certified backcountry, accessible only by boat. He'll have me in Leeville, he says, perhaps around 2 a.m. Then he asks if I like Cajun-style venison sausage with red beans and rice.
I tell him I think I do just as pots begin to rattle atop the ship stove behind me.
I'm starting to feel seriously trapped on this fifty-three-foot boat-and the sensation is worth its weight in gold, like the liberating feeling a successful stowaway must feel. There may be many ways to visit the lower third of Louisiana known as Cajun country, home to descendants of French immigrants savagely expelled from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. But one thing is certain: with America's recent fascination for all things Cajun, considerable authenticity has been lost in the act of translation to mass culture. Overexposure has brought "nouvelle cuisine" gumbo to New Orleans restaurants and given rise across the state to unfortunate "swamp tours" whose often garish roadside signs promise rehearsed hospitality from good ol' boys with trained alligators that rush toward tour boats on command, chomping jumbo-size marshmallows tossed overboard. And with the popular rise of Cajun music, who knows if that washboard player you hear in Lafayette is a local or an enthusiast from the Chicago suburbs who's memorized all the French lyrics?
This is not to say that genuine, down-home Cajun culture no longer exists. It does. In spades. You just have to sidestep the scattered imitators along the way. Which was my goal, precisely, in roaming this far down the bayou and simply hopping on a boat. Just now, as Papoose pulls out the venison sausage and I grab my map to see just where in the heck we're heading, I realize I've tumbled into the committed traveler's ultimate dream: complete cultural immersion. This boat is a floating universe of Cajun bayou life and the only way off is to swim to shore through alligator-infested waters. For the next several days, I'll serve under the command of several Cajun captains, eating from the same enamel galley skillets as my hosts, talking about what they talk about, going where they go, doing what they do. And from them, soon, I'll learn firsthand of the troubling forces, huge beyond comprehension, now bringing their world crashing down upon their heads.
A few miles south of Golden Meadow, as all permanent structures gradually begin to disappear and the bayou steadily widens in its slow crawl toward the Gulf, I spy a strange sight. Off to the left, in the distant marsh, a cluster of about two dozen large oak trees stand leafless and dead in the water, their skeletal, gnarled branches attached to sun-bleached trunks that extend directly into the brackish waves. These oaks aren't swamp trees. They grow on land. Yet there's no solid land within five hundred feet of them. Farther downstream, there's another odd sight: a long stretch of telephone poles is submerged in water along the two-lane road paralleling the bayou. Why sink the poles in water, I wonder. Isn't there something inherently foolish, even dangerous, about stringing power lines over open water when solid land is just ten feet away?
But too many other sights intervene before I can put these questions to Papoose. Soon an imposing sunset finds us motoring up serpentine Bayou Blue, shrimp nets in the water. We're surrounded by a magical, wide-open landscape of golden-green marsh grass stretching as far as the eye can see, dotted only occasionally with the distant outline of other shrimp boats. A summer thunderstorm has come and gone, interrupting a sumptuous dinner with raindrops that seep through the old boat's leaky roof. Porpoises rise and fall in the bayou water around us, chasing speckled trout just as a rainbow plunges toward the eastern horizon and the sun sinks toward violently bruised clouds, billowy in hues of dark purple, indigo, and pink.
In the wheelhouse, Papoose scans the two-way radio and we overhear fishermen speaking Cajun English and French. We hear the twang of Texas oil workers heading out to offshore platforms and the exotic language of exiled Vietnamese shrimpers who've fished these waters since the 1975 fall of Saigon, drawn to America's own elaborate version of the Mekong Delta. Completing the ethnic gumbo are French-speaking Houma Indians, driven by European settlers over the centuries to the farthest ends of the bayou country where they now survive as expert fishermen.
Bayou people have a flare for colorful nicknames, and over the radio they go flying. I overhear a fisherman named "Gator" asking another named "Dirt" to come help repair a broken boom. Then "Rooster" wants to know if anyone wants to buy a sack of crawfish from his brother's pond. And "Tattoo" goes on and on, in self-righteous monologue, about how the politicians up in Baton Rouge are once again trying to screw the state's Cajun people out of their fair share of government services.
As darkness descends over our slow crawl up Bayou Blue, Papoose tells me he got his own nickname after being born extremely premature. His mother has a photo of him sleeping inside a shoe box, he says. So common are nicknames along Bayou Lafourche, he says, that phone books are useless to many people, since a man's real name may be completely unknown to his friends.
Papoose tells me all this with a chuckle, but he soon stops laughing as the first catch of the evening comes in. The jumble of armored tails and stalked eyes covering the back deck are Louisiana's famous "brown shrimp," Farfante penaeus aztecus, a staple crop for Cajun shrimpers from mid-May to late June. But tonight's first haul is extremely slim, signaling an unproductive evening ahead. Papoose's son Cody ices down the shrimp, then washes off the deck with a bucket tied to a rope and lowered into the bathwater-warm bayou, dark as tar just five feet below us.
Papoose leaves the wheelhouse and heads around back to inspect the catch. Doubling his disappointment, the shrimp are exceedingly small, eighty or ninety to a pound. "I can't even pay for my fuel wit' a catch like dis," he says.
I nod in sympathy, having heard this sort of talk many times before. I've worked on farms in the past and spent time with commercial crabbers. But Cajun trawlers, with their Latin disposition toward fiery emotions, seem particularly given to grousing. And no wonder. Given the vast array of factors large and small completely beyond their control, from cantankerous weather to calamitous markets to craven creditors to a history as an oppressed minority within the state of Louisiana, it's little surprise that the bellies of these men regularly ache with frustration and the fear of -*bankruptcy.
Yet Papoose's words that night ring with more than just the reflexive grumbling of a man having a bad night in an -*otherwise routine shrimp season. "We had a great May," he says, "but dis whole mont' of June has been rotten. Every -*year it just gets harder and harder to make a living at dis."
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