Feeding Alligators in the Louisiana Swamps.
I had planned the trip for months. Espen, my son, was going to be on spring break from school over Easter, and I wanted to take him somewhere that he would remember forever. Little did I know it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience for both of us.
We were vacationing in Louisiana for ten days. The plan was to see the swamps and southern mansions, but then have a few days in party city New Orleans. It wasn’t my first time in the city but the previous visit had only been a two day business trip many years before. We’d already missed Mardi Gras the previous week, but it was actually a better time to travel as there were less tourists, and hotel costs had gone way down since the festival visitors had left.
After driving ten hours from Dallas our first stopover was just outside the city of Lafayette for lunch, eating alligator for an appetizer and trying to be “Cajun” like the locals. Unfortunately the deep fried dish emanated a fishy smell and, as we thought, tasted just like chicken.
That evening our room at the Holiday Inn, soon to become famous in the movie “In the Electric mist” with John Goodman and Tommy Lee Jones, became our basic lodging for the overnight stay in New Iberia. The town being already famous for the classic movie filmed nearby called the Buccaneers, made in 1958 and starring those icons of the screen Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.
The next morning we set off early towards the town of Gibson driving down Highway 90 east until we came to our booked air boat ride across the swamps; Air Boat Tours in the little town of Des Allemandes. I had always wanted to take an airboat after seeing them on the TV show Miami Vice back in the 70’s in England, Crockett and Tubbs fizzing through the Florida Everglades at warp speed.
The ride was to last one hour but Captain Arthur Matherne, an ex coast guard and our “pilot”, as we’ll call him for want of a better word, said “who knows when we’ll get back” winking to my son. Espen, who took him seriously, started to get worried. “Don’t worry Captain Arthur said, “I’ll have you back in time for tea” trying to mimic my English accent but failing miserably.
Captain Arthur spoke, but we barely understood him at all as his accent was so thick. A cross between French and Texan, his Cajun patois was unintelligible at best. We just smiled and nodded, hoping that he wasn’t giving us any warnings of things not to do!
Finally there would only be the three of us instead of five, the other couple who booked never showed up. Arthur gave them five minutes longer than the scheduled time, but then we were off. My heart was pumping as we raced from the dock, praying silently inside that Arthur wouldn’t have a heart attack during the trip and leave us stranded. Espen’s face had the biggest grin; I could see he was loving every minute of it at this point, not worried about the possible impending doom as I was.
The noise of the roaring rotating blades was deafening, even wearing the ear phones the captain had given us. The rest of the airboat looked like it could fall apart any second and had been hand built. Arthur had reassured us on the quayside, when we asked him, that it was a well known brand and serviced frequently. The engine sound reminded me of a helicopter ride I once took.
We found out that our “decrepit” airboat was known as an “Air Ranger”, one of many built by the American Airboat Corp., based in Orange, Texas, and known as “The World’s finest and safest airboats”. Ours was a sixteen foot diamondback with a 496 8.1L engine and even a Honda generator for the lights on the top. I had nothing to worry about, or so I thought.
With the strong wind blowing in our faces, we weaved uncontrollably, it seemed, through remnants of tree stumps at speeds of around 60mph. We rode over lily pads and marshland which easily disguised the deep water below. The salty marshland spray stung my face at the high speed but the pain was worth it.
I drew in the ocean smell of the Gulf of Mexico, not five miles away, through my nostrils as I breathed quickly, but it was the acrid smell of the swamp that I would always remember. The exhilarating ride continued for miles as we approached the delta where Arthur said we would see the alligators.
There was no way we could talk during the trip because of the engines, but could just about hear Arthur shouting at us and pointing “Nutria” and “there”. Nutria were essentially like giant rats that lived in the swamps, and. apart from the wild birds, seemed to be the only animals who could survive in this watery wasteland. They seemed very skittish, diving into the undergrowth and water as soon as they saw or heard our boat, but then they are the Alligator’s primary diet, so no doubt instinct kicked in.
“Nutria” Jack shouted over and over, pointing in every direction, until finally he cried the word we wanted to hear “Gator”. He repeated it again and again, until suddenly we realized they were all over the place. There they were. Small, large, medium, every size from three feet to ten. Some of them with their eyes just above the water, and others just lazing under clusters of cypress trees and bushes hoping to surprise a nutria. Having always been fascinated by these modern dinosaurs, it was just exhilarating to see them in their wild habitat.
We sped through the water spotting dozens of alligators in every direction, and I started to think to myself “wow is this all it’s going to be?” That thought was very soon going to be the furthest from my mind.
Arthur stopped the engine in a clearing surrounded by Cypress trees that looked like a scene from a lost world. The captain took out a few chicken pieces from his cooler and slapped the water with his hand. It was then that we saw it. Out of the swamp, rising like an ancient dinosaur from the depths, a massive fifteen-foot alligator, with its head the length of my arm, bared its teeth and snapped up the first piece of meat.
I couldn’t believe how big this monster was, and it was only a few inches from the end of my shoe. I noticed Espen move back on his seat and grab something tight just in case he might fall, and I put my camera on continuous and fired away three shots per second. Arthur told us “This ‘gator ain’t dangerous, I comes by twice every day and feeds him, he’s just like a puppy dog”. With that he leant down and stroked the alligator on top of the head and laughed.
I’d seen both Jaws and Alligator, the movies, back in the eighties, and all I could imagine at that point was this giant of the deep leaping out of the water and swallowing the captain in one bite, leaving us to fend it off with just a stick until we were both devoured ourselves. Luckily, it was not to be, and, in the end, the most dangerous thing in the boat was my imagination.
Another couple of pieces of chicken later and the Cajun Godzilla slunk away back to its lazy habitat, while we started the airboat up again and headed to the dock. Espen had been quiet this whole time. I looked at him and his mouth was still open. “Dad”, he said, they are never going to believe this when I tell them at school what just happened!” I grinned from ear to ear.
I was beaming because we had shared a father son moment. Sure I’d been to his baseball games and watched him play football, but this was something special. In that moment, feeding that huge alligator, we had experienced something unique, something most other parents weren’t able to have with their children. Our bond at that point was inseparable.
On the way back to the dock we never stopped talking about how close that alligator came to us, reciting over and over the length of its head to our body parts, how it could have eaten us whole, and how we’d been out in the wild and survived. To Captain Arthur it was just another day at the office, but for us our lives had changed forever.
Back on the quayside we jumped into the car and drove back to New Orleans in the early evening in silence, overawed by the experience. Past over ground cemeteries and the sound of cicadas, we headed north to the Big Easy. I must admit I was happier back in the city chomping on beignets at Café du Monde or riding the old paddle steamer Natchez down the Mississippi, but our ‘gator experience was one I would never forget.