Photo: Louisiana gulf coast

The 2010 BP oil-rig spill hit Louisiana’s coast but largely spared its inland web of marshes and bayous, including serene Oyster Bayou.

Photograph by James P. Blair, National Geographic

By Andrew Nelson

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

(Score: 24)  Fact: The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico damaged much of southeastern Louisiana’s coastline. Also fact: Much of the Pelican State’s western coast was spared, thanks in part to a fortuitous combination of geography and gulf currents that kept most of the tar balls away. Here, the coastal wetlands that define the region have remained a haven for both wildlife and the state’s unique Cajun and Creole cultures.

Stretching to the Texas border, this watery landscape of bayous and cheniers—earthen ridges composed of sediment deposits and live oaks—ironically owes its survival in part to big hurricanes like Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008: Repeat batterings discourage development. “Western Louisiana’s coast is low, wet, and difficult to get to,” adds John Andrew Nyman, associate professor of Wetland Wildlife Ecology at Louisiana State University. “This has helped keep the region’s culture and natural environment relatively intact.”

Challenges abound, however. Assaults by everything from nutria, an invasive South American rodent that chews up marsh grass roots, to channels that were cut through the wetlands by the oil and gas industries, have affected the natural balance here. But, says Nyman, “Louisiana’s wetlands are resilient. They’ve endured and remain one of our greatest treasures.”

Exhibit A: The 180-mile Creole Nature Trail into “Louisiana’s Outback,” a wetland landscape comprising five nature refuges and sanctuaries teeming with vegetation—moss-draped live oaks, sheltering marsh grasses—and punctuated by windswept cheniers. Paths thread along swamps, through pasture lands, and into legend; the 18th-century pirate Jean Lafitte allegedly hid his gold somewhere along the Calcasieu River here. Located on major migratory flyways, this “outback” supports large populations of herons, ibises, and other waterfowl. The state-run Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge is a center for alligator research, and the reptile is frequently glimpsed along the trail.

Then there is the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the United States. A primeval waterscape and river delta extending over 595,000 aqueous acres, it serves as a critical habitat for the endangered Louisiana black bear and is treasured for its bottomland hardwood forests, cypress-filled bayous, meandering marshes fringing the Gulf—and spirited Cajun culture.

“Many Louisianans rent houseboats and spend the weekend afloat in this ‘Lost World,’ fishing and relaxing,” says Pelican State native Emery Van Hook. On Sunday nights, you’ll find them mingling on the deck of Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing, a dockside dance hall and bar near Breaux Bridge sporting a deck that literally bounces from the stomping feet of revelers moving to Cajun and zydeco bands. In nearby Lafayette a similar blend of entertainment is dished out at landmark restaurants like Randol’s, where local couples and families kick up their heels between plates of fried alligator and crawfish étouffée. The Cajun expression of delight, “Ca c’est bon!” (“That’s good!”) neatly sums up the experience of this world built on water.

New Orleans-based Andrew Nelson last covered Miami (April 2010).

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