How's Bayou? Well . . .

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By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2001

Alligators have a sweet tooth. That's the first thing you learn on a Louisiana swamp tour. The airboat captains who zoom you around the bayou at 35 mph always take a bag of marshmallows along, to lure the skittish reptiles out of the depths and into your viewfinder.

Other alligator fun facts:

• If you're being chased by one, run from side to side, because alligators have a hard time changing direction.

• An alligator can still take a chomp out of you an hour after it's dead.

• Alligators are not only not endangered, they pop up on menus all over New Orleans. Just like everything else, alligator meat tastes like chicken.

New Orleans is wonderful, but you can only take so much Bourbon Street. If you're visiting the Big Easy this fall, save half a day for an alligator tour. It's a great antidote to mango daiquiri madness and all that jazz, and a fascinating glimpse into a murky, primeval world of beady-eyed reptiles, 450-pound catfish and century-old trees veiled with Spanish moss.

And don't worry, the average urban weakling can handle this trip fine. No hip boots or pith helmets required -- just hop a bus for the half-hour ride through the N.O. suburbs to Bayou Country. Once there, you strap yourself into a flat-bottomed airboat with a propeller as big as a refrigerator and hold on tight. Just remember to keep your limbs inside the vehicle.

Actually, the tours are about much more than alligators -- they're an environmental eye-opener. Even if you don't spot a gator -- and unless you're visiting in the cold winter months, you will -- you can't help but be moved by the eerie beauty of the swamp and its fragile ecosystem. Of course, you feel more than slightly hypocritical zooming around this pristine environment in a boat whose engine is so loud you're required to wear protective earphones, but by then you're having too much fun to care.

RrrrroooooooaRRRR! We're zooming through the marsh at top speed, hanging onto our hats. Birds skitter up from the tall grass as we plow through. It's better than any amusement park ride. Suddenly we're racing a chicken-like bird with green wings. It's neck and neck for a while; then the gallinule whirs off, victorious. The swamp is full of bird life -- white egrets, mallards, blackbirds, teals, pintails. Duck blinds dot the landscape (marshscape?).

In the bayou, the captain takes it down to a dull roar as he putters along looking for gators, strewing marshmallows like some demented flower girl. Sure enough, one, two, three of the creatures poke their heads out of the water, their jaws clamping down on the sugary treats. Did you bring any other food for them, someone asks. "That's what I got you for," the captain replies in his Cajun drawl. "We got 16 people on this boat -- who's gonna notice if one or two don't come back?"

"Bayou" means slow-moving water, and the Bayou Barataria flows languidly from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. It's a freshwater swamp, up to three feet deep, lined with 90-year-old bald cypress trees, palmetto palms, live oaks, white oaks and tupelo gums. Louisiana wild irises and black-eyed Susans add splashes of color. Down below lurk largemouth bass, freshwater catfish. . . and plenty more gators.

Ready for more alligator facts?

• Rotten chicken makes the best alligator bait.

• It's not unusual for alligator fathers to eat their young.

• The babies in an alligator litter are either all females or all males, depending on the temperature of the mud the eggs incubate in. Hot mud results in males. No comment.

Most New Orleans hotels can arrange alligator excursions. I used Louisiana Swamp Tours (888-307-9267, www.louisianaswamp.com), whose two-hour airboat tour of the Bayou Barataria, with hotel pickup, costs $65. Hats and sunscreen are essential.


© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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