FORT POLK, La. — As spring eases into summer with its sun-filled days and warm temperatures, Louisiana offers a wide array of activities for those who find themselves stationed at Fort Polk.
Some points of interest highlighted in the Guardian recently included the Wild Azalea Trail between Fort Polk and Alexandria, Jungle Gardens and the Tabasco plant on Avery Island, and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Bird Sanctuary in nearby Orange, Texas.
One activity that is truly a unique Louisiana experience is a tour of one of the state’s swamps.
If you want to experience Louisiana, with its sweeping Spanish moss, towering bald cypress trees and up-close and personal views of alligators, then take a swamp tour. Swamp tours can range from just a couple of people in a boat to 15 or more “adventurers” exploring the state’s backwaters.
A quick Internet search for Louisiana swamp tours can lead to a plethora of options.
While tours can be found along the I-10 corridor, one of the nearest is Champagne’s Swamp Tours, located a little more than two hours away on Lake Martin, just south of Lafayette.
Tour guide Bryan Champagne, a true Cajun, said he makes it a point to educate everyone about the intricacies of a Louisiana swamp. In addition to historical information, such as a lesson on the difference between a swamp and a bayou (a bayou is running water, a swamp is not) and the fact that Lake Martin swamp is home to 205 species of birds and is the largest nesting area of wading birds in the state, Champagne said he also likes to mix in a dash of Cajun humor.
“Alligators love dog meat more than anything else,” Champagne said on one of his tours, his Cajun accent taking a moment for non-natives to get used to. “Don’ bring you dog if you go duck hunting out dere; you bring you dog out dere and he ain’t comin’ back. It be better to bring you mother-in-law.”
Champagne also offered this advice on how to escape an alligator if chased while on land.
“Dey can run ‘bout 30 mile an hour, but dey have to run straight, so you zig-zag,” he said. “If you cain’t zig-zag, bring someone wif you who runs slower den you.”
Champagne said what he enjoys most as a tour guide is pointing out the beauty of a Louisiana swamp. At Lake Martin swamp, visitors can see a cypress tree believed to be more than 500 years old — in place before Europeans settled the area; multitudes of birds, from double-crested cormorants and ibises to king fishers; Tupelo gum trees, adorned with Spanish moss, its tendrils sometimes tickling the surface of the dark, murky water; and water hyacinths and swamp daises that add splashes of color to the landscape.
And — the main reason Champagne said many people visit Louisiana’s swamps — lots of alligators.
From large 12-16 foot gators, to babies barely a foot long, Lake Martin swamp teems with alligators, and Champagne does his best to get tour members as close as possible to those relics of an era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Sometimes, the behemoths will ease their way into the water as Champagne’s boat — a 16-foot, flat-bottomed, customized skiff — approaches, and sometimes they’ll stand their ground, almost daring a person to reach out a hand and touch them.
“You be wantin’ to keep you hands in de boat,” Champagne warned tourists. “If dey grab you and pull you under, you a goner fo’ sho. If you too big to eat now, dey stuff you under a log and let you ferment for a while. Den dey come back with some Tony Chacheres and finish you off.”
Most swamp tours allow about two hours to drift on Lake Martin swamp’s calm waters. For those who want a repeat performance, Champagne recommends a return trip for a night tour. He said there’s nothing quite like coming up on a 16-foot alligator in the dark.
“You can see dey eyes staring back at you,” he said, a grin splitting his face. “It can get pretty spooky.”
To reach Lake Martin swamp, take I-10 exit 109 in Breaux Bridge and turn south on La. Hwy 328. Turn right on La. Hwy 336-1, then left on La. Hwy 31. Go about 3 miles, then turn right on Lake Martin Road. The boat landing is at the end of the road.
Tour rates are $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. In addition to night tours, there are also sunrise and sunset tours, custom tours and group rates. To learn more about Louisiana swamp tours visit www.louisianaswamptours.net.