May 27, 2009
We arrived 20 minutes early at the ramshackle roadside headquarters of Munson’s Swamp Tours. It was not yet 10 AM and already the mercury was pushing 85 in the shade. There was a single octogenarian in the small, single-room building that was perched at the very edge of a bayou canal. He took our money and instructed us to wait outside.
Soon he emerged and locked up behind him, leading my brothers and I and a vacationing Parisian couple out to the boats. Captain Daniel, as it read on a placard that advised us that tips were both allowed and appreciated, would be our tour guide for the two hour ride. His skin was a beautiful leathery orange, I assume no longer capable of getting sunburned and he wore a light-blue short-sleeve Dickie’s one-piece with a pack of cigarettes in each chest pocket. He started the engine and I took time to notice that he not only had all ten fingers, but his arms were free of any really bad scars, other than the usual nicks and scratches that 80-something years on earth will help you accumulate. I was actually a little disappointed I wouldn’t be able to ask about the gator that got his thumb. However, I wasn’t able to ruminate on Daniel’s forearms very long.
Some swamp tours do their best to keep the natural balance of things in order. They believe that feeding the gators makes them reliant on humans, can be quite dangerous for people by attracting them and building expectations, and makes it more of an animal minstrel show than an observation of nature in it’s natural glory.
Such was not the case at Munson’s. As soon as Daniel started the engine, like Pavlov’s dogs responding to the dinner bell, two adolescent gators appeared, creating two V-shape wakes in their path. Business as usual for Daniel as he produced a 4-foot-long dowel with a small metal wire at the end and began banging it on the side of the boat.
“Come on boys. Gitch’yer breakfast now,” he said calmly as he skewered three or four pieces of raw chicken he had in a small bucket by his chair. He lured them to the side of the boat where we could all watch, aghast as he teased the gator, pulling the meat just out of its reach, until finally frustrated, it launched itself several feet out of the water and clamped down it’s powerful jaws. This spectacle would repeat itself many times over the next two hours, much to the delight of all on board.
We chugged along in the old motor boat, shaded by a wide awning and the thick clouds of smoke created by Daniel’s chain-smoking. The gators couldn’t keep up with us, but they tried whenever they heard our motor coming near. Foooowooooooowooooooowooooooowooooood.
Soon a raccoon appeared on the bank of the canal, not far from us. Daniel took the boat out of gear and slowly made his way to the side with a package of bread.
“Hey there Billy Joe. Come on now. Get it,” he said, tossing the bread like a Frisbee, just barely reaching land. “Come on. S’right there in front of you.”
Billy Joe ignored Daniel’s advice and started to follow our drifting progress through the marsh.
“No! I said it’s back there!” Daniel reiterated before tossing another piece of bread at the animal. Billy Joe found it this time and sat on his haunches munching away. Captain Daniel then, without explanation, pulled out small disposable camera, aimed it at the eating raccoon and clicked off a picture. I guess we were all taking pictures. Why wouldn’t he?
“Okay Billy Joe. Where’s your sister? Where’s Molly Rae? Go get Molly.” Billy Joe continued to sit, eating his bread.
“Okay,” Daniel muttered as he retook the helm, but Molly Rae joined us soon enough, as did several other unnaturally obese-looking raccoons and squirrels. They dragged their paunches along the banks, slowly following our strange, noisy, food-dispenser down the canal, Daniel tossing them bread at random intervals.
The gators continued to silently follow us at a respectful distance, like the crocodile stalking Captain Hook, always waiting for the perfect moment, when Smee is isn’t there to protect him.
It wasn’t long before we had an air escort as well. The Snowy Egret and Grey Heron showed their interest early on and would brave the water with their long beaks for morsels of chicken thrown within reach. Not to be ignored when food is being tossed about, we were also soon joined by an ominously large pack of vultures, hopping from branch to branch just above our heads. Whether they were attracted by the chicken Daniel continued to throw or were just anticipating the moment when the gators would be done rolling our corpses so they could swoop in and devour what’s left, I cannot be sure.
To keep the vultures at bay, Daniel kept tossing chicken onto a clearing on the bank and we enjoyed watching the melee that ensued. The grey heron joined the free-for-all and pretty much dominated. He took on all eight vultures like nothing. He’s got a much longer reach though, with that beak and that wingspan. No contest.
Captain Daniel particularly enjoyed tossing the chicken into the water, in front of the vultures, just out of reach. Vultures hate water and won’t go in, not even to get food. It was clearly torture for them to be unable to get at the easy meal. They watched the incoming shank of breast meat approach as they beat their chests with their wings and collided like outfielders going for the same fly ball. Then they would charge the shore only to stop short at the last second like Wiley Coyote slamming on the brakes as he speeds toward the edge of a canyon.
Meanwhile, the graceful heron shoves them aside, wades into the water and delicately scoops it up in his long beak. Suckers.
Two hours later we approached the dock at HQ again, with half of Louisiana's wildlife population in tow. It was like a fat version of Song of the South, or some weird backwoods pied piper situation leading all the overweight, salivating animals out of the bayou. I understand the virtues of the “take only pictures and leave only footprints” approach, but I must say it’s fascinating to watch nature when it’s been fucked with.
For more information on Munson's Swamp Tours, visit them on the world wide web at www.munsonswamptours.com.