- Historic Sites
A journey aboard a 70-year-old steamboat through an engineering wonder that relatively few people have seen and a landscape where many of the human outposts will, sooner or later, drown.
April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
One can’t speak of anything of consequence in coastal Louisiana without understanding that under every piece of history is water.
Beyond the debouchure of the Mermentau River into Grand Lake, the canal narrows. The ICW avoids the hundreds of lakes lying along its course as if they were islands because its builders, the Army Corps of Engineers, believed it more economical to maintain a ditch dug through what passes there for higher ground than a channel dredged through a shallow lake. The canal often runs for a dozen miles between a series of bays and lagoons lying just beyond a scrim of tall grasses or trees, the open water invisible to anyone at canal level. If you’ve ever been down an English lane between hedgerows, your line of sight entirely contained, then you have an idea of passage here. Happily, my cabin was on the sun deck, high enough above obscuring foliage to open to vistas I couldn’t have seen from a small boat.
The challenge for a voyager along the straight-edged runs is to avoid going numb to the miles of apparent sameness; this is a land for people who do not grow bored in crossing the Great Plains. I like places that challenge a traveler to be patient and to look ever more closely, but, still, it’s true that I began to anticipate bends where I could hope for a sudden change of any kind.
Then we came into an area of what seemed impossible names —Joe Island, Outside Island, Dog Island, Isle Pevley—where no piece of earth appeared to rise more than a couple of inches higher than anything else, yet the rises must have been just enough to qualify as islets, at least in former times. I heard that the names indicate relict islands and that their disappearance and mergence into the landscape reveal the prodigious draining that has happened. Vertical inches count here as do vertical miles in the Rockies.
Verticality appears also in the two kinds of locks and dams on the ICW: those to maintain the water level and others to prevent seawater from salinating the freshness of the bayous and marshes. Except for locks near the Mississippi at New Orleans, the rise or descent in those lowland chambers seems minuscule, but again, inches make huge differences.
Vermilion Bay, a large inlet off the Gulf, is so shallow that 5 miles offshore it’s only 9 feet deep. Barrier islands nearly turn it into a lake, yet here too the canal keeps behind a spongy strip of land. At the east side of Vermilion Bay rises Weeks Island. After three days among the watery flats, I thought Weeks, although surrounded by land, looked indeed like an island, rising as it does 170 feet above the bay. It is a landmark in a terrain where height belongs to trees, grasses, and oil derricks. Weeks is a salt dome that supplies both industry and American tables.
In the last light of our next to last day, the Delta Queen made a right-angle turn and, in the shadow of the big rise, proceeded up a drainage canal leading to a site called the Port of Iberia, which has rather new wharves intended to make the inland Caj un town of New Iberia into a seaport. The route, narrower than the ICW, nearly lets trees in close enough to brush the boat, and, the year before, a squirrel had dropped onto the sun deck of the Queen . A nutria made a waddle across an opening in the scrub and so excited people watching below the pilothouse —they took the rodent for a beaver—that the captain came out to see what the stir was about. He said the year before he’d seen there a Florida panther, now among the rarest big native mammals in the nation. We’d come into another stretch of De Hartog’s “nightmarish country,” but aboard the high deck of the old steamboat I found it merely delightful night country.
Given the pervasive rot resident in such a wetland, even in a cool season, the air was crisply fresh and free of the scent of vegetative decay. In the tall marsh stood occasional fishing and hunting shacks atop stilts, all of them closed up, and everywhere lay an aura that seemed to suggest that humans were temporary intruders that no amount of engineering could ever make otherwise. Water there was but biding time before resuming its long dominion, and the place was neither a paradise lost nor a nightmare country but a vast quagginess challenging its creatures with too much wetness as the Mojave does with too little.
New Iberia, several miles from its port, lies along the Bayou Teche, something too small for the Delta Queen to ascend, so the next morning I took a shuttle through the sugar cane fields into town, one of my favorite places in Louisiana. I idled along Main Street, where I bought a book on alligators by Edward Mcllhenny, a conservationist and son of the inventor of Tabasco sauce. In a small grocery-café, I sat down and read this: “The deep booming roar of a twelve foot male alligator is a sound that once heard will never be forgotten… . Often when near these reptiles as they bellowed, I have felt a very distinct vibration of my diaphragm caused by the trembling of the air. …” I would hear no gators in December, a time of hibernation.