The Louisiana Bayou is an enchanting place full of life, wonder, and amazement. Although beautiful, there is something haunting about it; almost unsettling. At first, it is hard to place that feeling of unease, but as you explore deeper, the world around you unravels; it lifts the veil briefly and then lowers it again. Come and walk with me through the swamps at Lake Martin, and I'll show you what I mean...
At Lake Martin - a "lake" which is more of a swamp or bayou than an actual lake, with a circumference of only 8 kilometers - you will find more than one large Swamp Tour operation. The lake itself is ringed by a walking/biking trail. The existence of these features strongly suggest that there is something to see here.
As we near the swamp, it is alive with noise, until we approach and those living things making all that noise fall silent, the way queens of gossip become tight lipped when their subject walks into the room. That's how it feels, like you are being watched, talked about, assessed.....
We embark on the hiking path - a narrow trail about 6 inches wide trampled into the grass - leaving behind the safety of the world we can see clearly around us, wide and open; leaving it for the allure of the mysterious, where strange noises are deafening in the silence, where man-eaters roam, and where you might imagine was the locale of Voodoo gatherings hosted by the likes of Marie Laveau or Dr. John centuries ago.
Soon, green becomes the only thing you see. The swamp is more saturated with the vibrant colour of life in one square foot than all of Nevada or Arizona. You're eyes need time to adjust to the solid wall of emerald the same way they do in the pitch black. The green hides the life within it: the lizards, fish, birds, and, of course, gators. Yet, the swamps are not just a place full of living things, they are life in all it's wonder, and they are also masters of deception. Not everything in the swamps of Louisiana is what it seems. If you didn't know any better, you might think you were in the dense jungles of India, Africa, or South America. As your eyes bring this strange world into focus, your other senses continue to rebel, struggling to make sense of the stimuli around you. At once, the place smells earthy and damp like a basement, but also fresh and clean, as if after the first spring rain. You hear a dog barking in the distance, its deep, low rumble menacing even from afar...and then, a chorus of rumbles as your brain begins to understand what it is really hearing. A city of bull-frogs croaking in unison, each trying to be the loudest, the most desirable mate.
We proceed carefully along the path, one eye on the ground, the other toward the swamp in hopes of catching a glimpse of something more powerful and terrifying than a bullfrog. Palms, tall grass, cypress, and vines creep across the footpath, trying tirelessly to erase the presence of the men and women who walk there. Looking out through the trees and vines, many stands of cypress trees grow tall amidst a lawn of bright chartreuse, shorn as short and precisely as a golf green. It's a beautiful scene and you are tempted to walk over to stand amidst the trees whose strange roots grow up into the air instead of down into the ground. You almost step forward and then realize that the grass is changing shape, rippling like the surface of a waterbed. You look again, harder this time, and the lawn has transformed. What you are really looking at is Lemna Minor, Duckweed, floating atop a body of water cleverly hiding the man eaters that lie below. This is why the roots of those trees rise into the air. It's a survival mechanism, the cypress are preventing themselves from drowning, saving their roots from the rot that comes with permanent saturation.
You step back with shock at nearly having stepped into nature's clever trap. Is your mind playing tricks, or is it the swamp? As you withdraw from the water's edge, a shadow descends, its weightlessness gripping your shoulder as fear grips your heart. You swing around to confront your ghostly assailant and blush at the realization that the spectre haunting you is nothing more than the long hanging tendrils of the grey Spanish Moss dripping from the tree branches above you. The tiny beads of sweat that had begun to form along your hairline retreat back into your pores, remain there prickling, waiting for something more horrific than silly old moss. All the trees here hang heavy with a widow's veil of grey, gauzy moss, curling in ringlets like the tendrils of hair of a child star from the 1930's. A muted grey, they look like mournful aging willows, or like the mouldy, tattered window draperies you might find in Miss Havisham's mansion in Dickens' Great Expectations.
Your nerves are getting ridiculous, really. You've been on many a hike: the back country in British Columbia's wilderness where bears and mountain lions make their home; the deserts of the South West where rattle snakes and poisonous scorpions cock their venomous weapons, ready to strike. This is no different, but it is different, and you can feel it.
Taking a deep breath, you stop to survey the landscape. It is lush and beautiful, the sun is out, the bright green a welcome change from the dusty beige colour of the deserts back West. As you look out over the lake as calm again as a lawn, a log to the right bobs in the water, rising slowly, its bark jagged and lumpy. It blinks at you with cold, lidless eyes. A pair of nostrils break the calm of the water's surface and there before your very eyes the log has magically transformed into a wild descendant of the dinosaur age. A gator with huge, strong jaws, and unnerving patience; laying in wait or perhaps sizing up it's next meal. It's at a safe distance, and you take several moments to stare at the changeling before you, beautiful in its reptilian severity.
After a while, we resume our stroll through this veritable jungle. We can see the road ahead, the one that connects to the trail and signifies that this hike is almost over. And, just as you think you've figured this whole bayou thing out, its unnerving mystery and sobering shadows, the trees give way to a field of cut grass, real grass this time, and hundreds of beautifully delicate pink flowers; Swamp Rosemallows. Here, the blue sky offers striking contrast to the green trees, and the Duckweed atop the water splits open, revealing the lake below; little pink petals flutter like butterfly wings around you as you take a moment to sit and appreciate the view, the sun, and the safety of this wide-open space.
Having spent over two hours walking the perimeter of this tiny swamp, you're finally now able to put your finger on the eerie enigma that is the bayou. It is like attending a magic show performed by nature itself; showcasing its talents at slight of hand. Again and again, it pulls the wool over your eyes and makes you question your senses, your sanity...
After having travelled much of North America, we have encountered many wondrous, magical places from the Redwood forests of California, to the ice blue glacial lakes of Canada's rocky mountains, and the intricate rock formations of the deserts in Utah and Arizona. Is the magic here just another example of that, or is it more than just human perception? Perhaps, the magic intrinsic in the culture that existed here 250 years ago - a dark, wild magic imported from places like Africa and Haiti, and which was married with the region's prevalent Spanish and French Catholic influences - a magic that is still practiced in smaller numbers today, has left it mark in the heart of the Louisiana bayou.
Maybe, you're not crazy after all.