Uncovering the simple charms of Cajun country

Gators, good eats and art highlight Louisiana trip.


Highlights

This culture takes nothing for granted and everything as a blessing.

People come to this part of Louisiana to see alligators, but it’s the heart of the Cajun people that keeps them coming back. Steeped in the swamps and marshland, this culture takes nothing for granted and everything as a blessing.

Here in Terrebone Parish, about 65 percent water or wetlands, locals build houseboats by hand and revel in crawfish boils on days off. It’s an intense way of life, and it’s not always easy, with hurricanes pushing through every few years and the landscape peppered with reptiles. Yet I’ve never witnessed a deeper love of life than I’ve found here.

Take Captain Billy Gaston, who worked for 38 years in the oil field before buying a swamp tour boat two years ago, launching A Cajun Man’s Swamp Tours and Adventures.

“I’ve been blessed,” he says, grinning. “I get to do something I really enjoy and make a living.” Six days a week, he loads up his pontoon with tourists and plies the waters of Bayou Black, educating his passengers about the ecology of the eerie cypress swamp and pointing out bald eagles and alligators, some of whom seem to be his personal pets.

“Contrary to what you see on TV, Cajuns do not live in the swamp,” he intones over the microphone as we glide away from Bob’s Bayou Black Marina near Gibson. “We live in subdivisions like everybody else. We have our camps out here in the swamp.”

By camps he means little cabins or houseboats from which he and his friends fish and hunt. During the trip, he tells us exactly how to hunt gators, hooking them with a line thrown over a tree branch (“Use a floppy branch, not a firm one”), as well as how to boil crawfish (“six minutes — do not overboil the crawfish”) amid descriptions of the bayou, its banks crowded with moss-draped cypress (good for making boats), tupelo gum (used to make duck decoys), live oaks and the odd maple. Nutria, deer, raccoons, wild hogs and other varmints live here, he explains.

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We see about a dozen gators, some lazing on logs, others swimming right at us. I’ve been on swamp tours that saw nary a gator, but that pretty much can’t happen with Gaston’s tours. He feeds the gators chicken parts, making them jump out of the water to fetch them. He sees a gator he’s come to know, hollers, “Come over hee-ya,” and it does, swimming right up to the boat, knowing a feast is at hand. Gaston explains that gators grow 10 to 12 inches a year until they’re 8 feet or so long. “Then, they just get bigger around.”

The tour’s not just about gators, though. Gaston feeds bald eagles, too, calling out, “Mama bird, come over hee-ya.” The majestic bird swoops, grabs a chunk of bread maybe 10 yards from the boat, then soars away. This is the closest I’ve ever seen these gorgeous white-headed birds. The entire boatload of us stands in awe. Gaston hands around binoculars so we can see eaglets in nests. We see other shorebirds as well, especially great blue herons – probably a dozen along the way.

The tour (adults $25; children under 12 $15) is typically two to three hours, but nearly four hours have passed when we cruise back into the marina. Gaston gets excited, and if you’re flexible, he’s flexible. Do bring snacks and drinks, along with a jacket.

Eating’s another prime attraction in Cajun country. Big Al’s Seafood Restaurant is a favorite — Gaston says he eats there all the time — and offers all that Louisiana’s waters provide: shrimp, oysters, catfish, crawfish and, yes, fried alligator.

But, again, it’s not all about alligator, even in the food realm. We discover a new favorite Italian restaurant — not just a Louisiana favorite but an all-time-and-place favorite; it’s that good — called Cristiano Ristorante in a little house in downtown Houma. Chef Lindsay Mason’s chargrilled oysters alone make it worth the drive to Houma. Bubbling with red pepper butter, these garlicky, deftly grilled (not rubbery) Gulf oysters are downright addictive. We follow up with short rib penne topped with fresh mozzarella. Divine.

The next morning, we take a drive farther south, about half an hour alongside Bayou Petit Caillou, past drawbridges, stilted houses and fishing boats until, near the little fishing town of Chauvin, we came to a site we’d never have found without local guidance: the Chauvin Sculpture Garden.

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This is the damnedest thing. Out here, in the middle of bayou country, sits this garden filled with about 100 strange concrete sculptures — really elaborate work such as a 45-foot-tall lighthouse, up which a man is hauling a horse by a rope as cowboys, jazz musicians and angels cling to the sides, seeming to struggle. Other statues include a longhaired seafaring man, some dark and forlorn-looking people and plenty of angels, some sitting atop … chickens, it looks like.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of it, so I Google it and learn that the sculptures, now owned by Nicholls State University Art Studio, are the work of Kenny Hill, a deeply religious bricklayer who pitched a tent in Chauvin in 1988 and soon thereafter starting making strange, concrete sculptures in his yard, declaring them a “story of salvation” and refusing to let them be photographed or publicized.

In 2000, he left — was run off, actually, by the parish for failing to control his property’s weeds — and he left his sculptures behind. After the university took over and opened the garden to the public in 2002, Hill said the work was about “living and life and everything I’ve learned,” according to the art studio’s webpage.

Cajun country. Gators, for sure. But not just gators.



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