Atchafalaya

Charenton, Louisiana, shares its name with a Parisian asylum—apparently, the sanity of anyone who chose to move there was suspect. Maybe, that’s what drew me in. Charenton is within the Atchafalaya Basin. I wanted to know how it felt to nose my canoe into the country’s largest floodplain forest and the wildest area remaining in the Mississippi Delta, so I got the boat wet as often as I could. The place feels the closest thing we’ve got to a jungle in the Lower 48: seductive mazes of dark backwaters, big trees, low ground. In morning, fog rises from the bayous, jubilant blackbird flocks from the roosts. At night the swamp growls, shrieks, hoots, becomes a place that feels not just foreboding, but forbidden—in a good way.

Traveling alone through Louisiana has, at times, felt forbidden too—in a less good way. Daily, I’ve fielded unsolicited comments from older men that are usually some twist on “You by yourself? Oh honey it’s not safe for a woman.” or “You can load that kayak [sic] by yourself?” Women competent outdoors are attractive (“There’s nothing sexier than a girl with a gun!” is another one I’ve heard) but it’s not quite right for her to be in the outdoors on her own. It’s a different culture than I’m used to. Charenton, Louisiana…is MY sanity failing me, for thinking it was okay to be here alone?

Charenton, Louisiana, through the eyes of the boat launch peanut gallery: “Well, ’round here it’s not too bad…folks still practice civility and order…I drive the levees every day, keep an eye on things.” The levees. Levees are a part of the extensive flood control system that keeps the Atchafalaya from getting too unruly and jeopardizing human endeavors—but prevent, too, the natural cycles of water from flushing through the floodplain like they once did. Order. Control. Ownership. These themes have been strong in so many places I’ve experienced this year.

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