Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 1

To research my history of Bayou Teche I resolved to paddle the entire length of the waterway.  Friends found this humorous because they knew me to be an “avid indoorsman.”  But how could I not paddle it?  Had I not paddled it, someone, somewhere — at a book signing, during an interview — would inevitably ask me, “Have you ever been on Bayou Teche?” to which I would have had to answer, “No — but I drive across it every day on the way to work.”

The paddlers for stage one, at the Courtableau landing.
Back row: Jacques, Preston, and me; in front, Keith.
(Click images to enlarge them; photograph by author)

So I decided to explore the entire bayou and to do so not by motorboat (which seemed like cheating), but the old-fashioned way, by canoe — all approximately one hundred twenty-five miles of it.  It just seemed the thorough thing to do, if I were going to write a book about the Teche.  And this proved correct, because there was no substitute for seeing for oneself, from a canoe, where the Teche springs from Bayou Courtableau, meets Bayou Fuselier, zigzags at Baldwin, juts out at Irish Bend.

I would not canoe the bayou all at once, however, but in stages over many months.  And I would do so slowly, stopping to take ample notes, photographs, GPS coordinates.  This journal is based on that data.


Preston and Jacques heading into the Teche from the Courtableau.
(Photograph by author)

I drafted two friends to assist me in the trek, both recent archaeology graduates from University of Louisiana at Lafayette: Preston Guidry and Jacques Doucet.  Preston’s father, Keith Guidry, made up a last-minute addition to the team.  And while Preston and Jacques ended up sitting out several stages of the trip, Keith became my one constant: we, the two older guys in our forties and fifties, would be the only two members of the canoe team to complete the entire journey.

Ben Guidry filled in for brother Preston on a couple stages; and my fellow history enthusiast Don Arceneaux joined Keith and me for one stage.

I was the least experienced paddler of the group, but the others made up for my greenness. Together, an Arceneaux, a Doucet, three Guidrys, and a Bernard, we would seek an answer to the weighty question, “How many Cajuns does it take to paddle Bayou Teche?”


Aerial photograph of Stage 1, Port Barre to Arnaudville.
(Source: Google Maps)

Stage 1: Port Barre to Arnaudville

We began our trip around 9 a.m. on October 23, 2011.  The temperature that morning was cool (about 56 °F), but grew warmer in the afternoon (about 81 °F).  The sky was mostly clear.  We chose that day to start our trip because it fell shortly after the annual Tour du Teche canoe race. We didn’t want to get in the way of the racers and so let them go first.  Preston, Jacques, Keith and I put in at the public boat ramp at Port Barre [30.558367, -91.954874], on Bayou Courtableau.  Port Barre — the town whose speed trap the swamp pop band Rufus Jagneaux sang about in the early 1970s:

All of y’all know about Port Barre.
(If ) they catch you there it’s half of your hide.
You might as well gone to Tucumcari.
It costs you that to leave there alive.

In all fairness to Port Barre, the song was actually written about a speed trap in nearby Krotz Springs; but “Port Barre” just sounded more lyrical to the composer.

It was in Port Barre that the Courtableau Inn, a nightclub owned by my great-grandfather, Oscar Bordelon — first name pronounced OH-SCARE in the French manner — stood right across the bayou from the boat ramp.  In fact, it stood on the lot now occupied by the Squeaky Clean Car/Boat Wash.  It was there, in that nightclub in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, that my father heard Cajun musicians like Papa Cairo and Nathan Abshire.  Dad recalls slot machines lining the walls, even though the devices were illegal at the time.  But those were the days of legendary St. Landry Parish sheriff “Cat” Doucet, who tolerated gambling and certain other prohibited vices.


My great-grandfather's nightclub;
at far right you can see Bayou Courtableau behind the club.
(Source: The Johnnie Allan Collection, UL-Lafayette)

Within minutes of embarking we were paddling on the Teche itself.  At Port Barre the bayou is narrow, varying from about 75 to 95 feet wide (not much larger than a sizable coulée, our regional word for a ravine).  Dense tree canopies reached toward the opposing banks and pressed in on our canoes.  Before it was dredged around 1920 this stretch of the Teche was navigable only during high-water season (each December to June) or if a sizeable flood had recently occurred.

On the Teche near its origin at Port Barre.
(Photograph by author)

The current at Port Barre was swift and strong that day even though bayous are known for lethargic, even nonexistent currents.  With casual paddling it carried our two canoes downstream at a decent clip.  This fooled us into thinking we would make similarly fast headway the entire length of the bayou; but farther down the current slowed and, eventually, reversed, reducing our progress until paddling became a more laborious task.  By the fourth or fifth stage it took us ten or twelve hours to accomplish what we had originally achieved in roughly half that time.  But this lesson would not be learned for several months, finishing, as we did, a stage every month to month and a half.

Shortly after leaving Port Barre we spotted a coyote running along the east bank — our first sight of wildlife.  We soon saw a number of large bleached bones on the west bank, probably from cattle.  Right before that we caught a strong scent of cattle dung and must have passed a ranch (or vacherie, as our ancestors would have called it).  We would pass other ranches during the several stages of our trip.  On one occasion Keith shouted an insult to an insolently staring bull.  In response the bull took a step toward us and stomped a hoof.  That much is true, but the story became more elaborate with each retelling, and after several months Keith had the bull jumping in the bayou to pursue us.


Grazing land along the Teche south of Port Barre.
(Photograph by author)

There would be plenty of joking on the trip, including recurring riffs on Deliverance (explanation unnecessary).

One time that day Keith and I stopped our canoe beside a bridge to wait for Preston and Jacques.  As we floated there, someone threw a bottle from a passing car: clipping the rail, it shattered in its anonymous paper bag and splashed in the water beside me.  Who knows how much trash has ended up tossed in the Teche like that?

Not too long after seeing the coyote, Preston and Jacques spotted a water moccasin swimming in the bayou.  Surprisingly, It was the only snake we saw during the many stages of our trip. Likewise, we saw only one alligator, and it was dead.  Actually, make that two alligators, because we spotted a large one of our final leg of the journey.  I will describe that incident later.


An old car along the Teche.
(Photograph by author)

I noticed much less garbage on the bayou than expected, certainly a tribute to the efforts of the TECHE Project, Cajuns for Bayou Teche, and the Tour du Teche.  The largest quantity of garbage I saw that day lay inside the city limits of Port Barre, where someone used the banks of the bayou as a private garbage dump.  Outside of town, however, the garbage became less frequent.  Some of it was vintage, which gave it a certain respectability: no one wants to see a late-model clothes washer or automobile half-submerged in the bayou or protruding from its banks; but a rusty Depression-era clothes washer or vintage 1950s coupe are more interesting, and even appealing in their antiquity.


Another old car along the Teche.
(Photograph by author)

Paddling down the Teche that day we passed the mouths of a few Teche tributaries — so minor that my canoe team and I missed them entirely.  Or if we saw them, we must have disregarded them as mere ditches.  In any event, the first of these small waterways we passed was Bayou Toulouse, which flows into the Teche where the Union Pacific (formerly Missouri Pacific) railroad spans the bayou just below Port Barre.  The next tributary was Bayou Little Teche, formerly known as Bayou Marie Croquant.  Then came Bayou del Puent, formerly spelled Bayou del Puente — meaning “Bayou of the Bridge” or simply “Bridge Bayou.”  Bayou del Puente appears in historical documents as early as 1812, and the name strikes me as unusual because it’s Spanish and perhaps a remnant of Spain’s nearly four-decade rule of Louisiana (1762-1800).

As for Bayou Little Teche’s earlier name, Bayou Marie Croquant: its been rendered Bayou Marie Crocan or Bayou Maricoquant, and during the Civil War it was called the Barri-Croquant.  As one historian noted, a Union general “committed a minor error which was to baffle civil war scholars for generations,” namely “On all the Union maps, the letter ‘M’ in Marie Croquant was so blurred as to render interpretation all but impossible.  [General] Franklin read it as a ‘B,’ possibly thinking of Barre [as in “Port Barre”], and all Union correspondence thereafter refers to the bayou as the Barri-Croquant.”

Even the name Bayou Little Teche is confusing, because the uppermost stretch of Bayou Teche was itself sometimes called the Little Teche.  In 1886, for example, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer commented, “From here [Leonville] up the stream is called the Little Teche. . . .”

More confusingly, early nineteenth-century land maps sometimes referred to the Marie Croquant as the main channel of the Teche and showed it winding toward and under the town of Washington to become what is today Bayou Carron.  Worse, some historical documents referred to these same waterways as “Bayau [sic] Catereau or Teche” or “Bayou Grand Louis or Teche, or Carron” — indicating disagreement over what to call these tributaries, none of which, in any event, should be confused with the Teche proper that is the subject of this book.

Paddling along, we saw only a few houses lining the Teche between Port Barre and the next bayouside community, Leonville [30.473495, -91.98005].  Interestingly, this area was known during Prohibition as a hotbed of moonshining.  In fact, the entire triangular region between Leonville, Arnaudville, and the nearby unincorporated community of Pecanière was well-known for its bootlegging.  This being said, I have found no evidence of rum-running on the Teche itself during Prohibition.  The narrowness of the bayou would have afforded little if any secrecy and, thanks to the coming of modern roads, automobiles would have provided a faster, and more elusive, means of distribution.

On the outskirts of Leonville we encountered enough suburban-style houses to remove the illusion of paddling through wilderness.  We reached Leonville at 11:45 a.m. to the sounds of a church carillon (or at least it sounded to me like a carillon).

Just south of town, as my team and I headed back into countryside, we spotted a nutria rat on the bank.  With a flash of its pumpkin-orange teeth and long hairless tail, it scurried away to hide from us.  Within the hour, just below the Oscar Rivette Bridge [30.447948, -91.924641], we saw a large owl.  Five minutes later we passed under high-voltage transmission lines, whose audible hum and static made me nervous to sit between them and a body of water.


Keith and me (in front) on the Teche.
(Photograph by Jacques Doucet)

We observed pecan pickers here and there just north of the next bayou community, Arnaudville, as well as a large bird I recorded as an “anhinga.”  I’m no ornithologist, however, but it was large, sported dark plumage, and had black legs — perhaps not an anhinga, but a little blue heron?  We would see many brilliantly white herons, or egrets as they are also called, on our trips, often individual herons whose hunting we repeatedly interrupted, spurring him farther and farther downstream ahead of our canoes.


View of the Teche from my canoe.
(Photograph by author)

At 1:45 p.m. we arrived in Arnaudville [30.397596, -91.930761], our terminus for this stage of the trip.  We put ashore at Myron’s Maison de Manger (excellent burgers), right below the junction of the Teche and Bayou Fuselier.

On this side of the Teche and Fuselier sat the vacherie of my colonial-era ancestor, Lyons-born planter Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire.  It’s an extravagant name, but if he had been a big wheel in France I doubt he would have chosen to brave the south Louisiana frontier.  With its heat, humidity, mosquitoes, alligators, pirates, and potential for slave and Native American revolts, the French and Spanish colony was no paradise despite its idealized portrayals in literature (à la Evangeline).


Late eighteenth-century map of the Teche
("Teichte") showing location of Fuselier's vacherie (red arrow).
Waterway labeled "Fourche du Vermillon" [sic] is Bayou Fuselier.
(Source: St. Martin Parish Courthouse,
courtesy Don Arceneaux & George Bentley;
colorized by the author)

Fuselier de la Claire prospered in Louisiana, however, as did his heirs — but somewhere down the line, probably during Reconstruction, the Fuseliers lost their fortune and ended up marrying into my clan of subsistence-farming Cajuns.  The same went for the de la Morandières, de Livaudaises, and other formerly affluent French Creoles who by twist of fate became my ancestors.  A generation or so after marrying into the Bernards little remained of their previous culture, though my late Cajun grandmother recalled her elderly grandmother-in-law, the last de la Morandière of the line, speaking “that fancy French.”


My favorite photo from that day on the Teche, October 2011.
(Photograph by author)

A folksy hand-painted sign hung beside the bayou near the landing at Myron’s, erected by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter (or “encampment,” as they call it).  Placed for the benefit of boaters, the sign identified this as the spot where, in April 1863, Confederate forces fleeing General Banks’ invaders scuttled the supply steamboats Darby, Louise, Blue Hammock, and Cricket.


Sign listing steamboats that sank on that spot during the Civil War.
(Photograph by author)

The Official Records of the conflict indicate that the five vessels had been scuttled by the Rebels to keep them from falling into enemy hands. As a Union officer wrote in April 1863:
I was there [Breaux Bridge] informed that the steamboats Darby, Louise, Blue Hammock, and Uncle Tommy had passed up the bayou the day before — that is, the evening of the 16th instant — . . . having valuable stores belonging to the enemy. . . . I sent forward a man up the Bayou Teche to ascertain the position and condition of the boats. He reported next morning that all of them had been burned at the junction [of bayous Teche and Fuselier] as soon as the enemy learned of the arrival of my command at Breaux Bridge. . . . [At] the junction I examined the wreck of four steamboats. The water having risen after the rains of Saturday night and Sunday morning, 18th and 19th instant, I was unable to see any names on the boats, or the guns reported to have been left on the Darby. Their smoke-stacks and part of their machinery only were above water. From all the information I received I have no doubt of their being the Darby, Louise, Blue Hammock, and the Crocket. The Uncle Tommy is burned higher up in the Bayou Teche, and the wreck of this boat is high enough out of water to see her name. Cargoes of beef, rum, sugar, and commissary stores, cloth, uniforms, and large quantities of arms and ammunition were destroyed in these boats. Some barges took off portions of the cargoes of ammunition and arms from these steamboats before they were set on fire. (Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 15, Part 1 [Baton Rouge-Natchez], 343-44.)

Burning steamboats.
(Source: Harper's Weekly [1869];
colorized by author)

How many bullets, swords, balls of shot, and other Civil War artifacts sat right there at the bottom of the bayou, only a few feet beneath our canoes?  Similar thoughts came to me repeatedly as I descended the Teche.  I imagined bones, swords, cannons, revolvers, doubloons, and all sorts of other artifacts passing underneath me, perhaps within reach.  Who knows what the mud and muck of the Teche is waiting to reveal?

After 19 miles of paddling we were exhausted, and of the four of us I was by far in the most miserable.  My arms hurt as though I’d lifted barbells all day, and my palms stung with blisters and glistened with a metallic sheen from handling the aluminum paddles.  “Next time,” I noted to myself, “bring gloves.”  By the time I reached home, I hurt all over.  My bones seemed to ache to the marrow.  No matter in what position I sat or lay, I could not ease the discomfort.  This was my penalty for undertaking the trip without any physical preparation.  I swallowed some aspirin and slept horribly, but by morning the pain had disappeared except for vague aching in my upper arms.  Fortunately, this pain did not return after future stages.  I needed this first stage to break myself in.

The remainder of my canoeing diary will be published in my forthcoming book, Teche: A History of Louisiana's Most Famous Bayou, due out in 2016.  This book examines the Teche from its geological formation through its prehistoric and colonial settlement to the coming of sugar and cotton, steam-driven riverboats and sugar mills, and slavery.  It surveys the Civil War on the Teche, as well as the impact of floods, yellow fever, and postwar violence on the bayou.  Finally, it looks at modern efforts to redesign the Teche using dams, locks, flood gates, and other structures, and the recent push to clean and revitalize the bayou.  To receive an e-mail when the book is released, please e-mail me using the address in the margin at upper right (directly under the Facebook button). ~ Shane K. Bernard, July 2015

2 comments:

  1. Interesting reading! I'll look for your book next year.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Cajun scholar Barry Jean Ancelet tells me, much to my surprise, that "Teche" is a masculine word and therefore the title of my installments about canoeing the bayou should be "Sur le Teche" not "Sur la Teche." I have to say that "Sur le Teche" just doesn't look right to me ("Teche" seems feminine to me because of the "e" on the end of it), but Barry knows his stuff. So "Sur le Teche" it is!

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