07 January 2010

Fishing the Atchafalaya

Allons au camp!

David Courville

Here in Louisiana, Spring happens early and quickly. By the beginning of April, the fig trees are leafed out, the peach and pear trees have set fruit, wild berries are ripe, irises are in full bloom, crawfish are cheap and we’re waiting for the flood, the annual flood of the Mississippi River. What we’re really waiting for is the flood’s recession…and the start of Camp season.
8,277 square miles of Louisiana are covered by water. There are 4000 miles of navigable waterway, 7,721 miles of tidal shoreline, 6000 square miles of marsh and a whole lot of swamp in Louisiana. There’s a lot of water here, but it’s not as accessible as you’d think it is. Once you’ve gotten to a place where you want to be in the marshes or the swamps, you can spend only a few hours there before you need to leave.
There are 1800 square miles of swamp in the Atchafalaya River Basin alone, the largest swamp in the United States, where most of the photos in this article were taken. The buildings in the photographs are called Camps. They are the solution to being able to spend longer periods of time on the water.
Before the Basin was leveed after the 1927 Mississippi flood, there were communities in it occupied with logging, fishing, crawfishing, moss-gathering, trapping, frogging, crabbing, etc. If there were camps then, they were more than likely work camps. Leveeing raised the flood levels of the Basin to a point where the communities were flooded on a regular basis and the residents moved outside the levees. About that same time, the outboard motor became commonplace, World War II moved a lot of people from the farms into towns and the Basin, now more accessible, was the target of newfound leisure time.
Camp Culture
As one Cajun carpenter put it, when asked whether the impressive structure he was building on the Pecan Island cheniere was a house or a store, ‘Iss not a house; Iss not a sto’; Iss a Camp!!’ Camps aren’t houses; they’re not cabins; they’re not a place to go to get away from people. They allow people to get together in a setting where personal space is shared with bugs that bite, snakes that bite, alligators that really bite and lots of other creatures not that bad. There are different types of Camp, but they all have one thing in common: active, independent-minded people who want to be ‘at the Camp’. Income level, for the swamp Camp builder has, until now, been a minor consideration.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Camps were relatively primitive. Few had electricity. Some had cisterns. A few might have had generators by the 1970s. Now, you’ll see generators, electrical lines, water wells, air conditioning, TV antennas and even satellite dishes at the Camp. Typical activities include hunting, fishing, cooking, eating, gambling, water sports – nowadays, with the addition of more amenities, Camps are becoming more house-like and more family-oriented.
Camp Etiquette
It’s a job just getting to a camp, much less building one. Because they are remote and relatively small, being invited to a Camp borders on being bestowed with an award. You bring your best attitude and you make a contribution of effort to keep the Camp clean and organised. They’re a lot like small ships.
There are two primary determining factors in situating a camp. If the camp is built to float, the site selection is more flexible. The Camp can be situated entirely on the surface of the water. Floating Camps tend to be placed in navigable areas outside the current of the river and its associated bayous. Man-made canals left over from oil-field activity are ideal because of the adjoining spoil bank which can be used for creating small yards, elevating generators, etc.
If the Camp is land-based, the site selection is limited to those areas which allow the camp to be elevated to a height above flood stage and the outdoor components to be on the water. These sites tend to be near an intersection of a bayou with a lake or river, or on the bank of a chute between lakes, where the spoil from dredged channels has formed a mound. On a larger scale, more Camps are situated in the lower Basin where flood levels are less extreme, or outside the levees, where the swamps are relatively protected from flooding.

Access: the procession
The procession from ordinary places to Camps defines the layout of Camps on-site, especially those that are land-based. Access is by boat, arriving at the dock of the Camp, from which there is a walkway to the Camp, often including a stair to the porch of the Camp. The walkway either traverses or bypasses the waterside pavilion, where most of the daytime activity at the Camp happens: fish fries, crawfish boils, swimming, fishing, crabbing and playing. On the water, there are fewer mosquitoes, there is usually a breeze, and there is the View.
The most difficult part of camp construction is building the foundation. It involves either the construction of a floating platform or the construction of a raised platform. This phase of construction requires the heaviest logistics: pontoons, poles, heavy timbers, etc. After the foundation is built, the remaining construction is accomplished with modular transportable materials (small pieces that fit in a boat):
– sheet materials like plywood, and metal building components
– roll materials like sheet metal and roll roofing
– lumber and boards.
Camps were and still are built from leftover or salvaged materials.
New weather
Recent hurricanes – Katrina, Rita and Gustav – devastated Camp populations, especially in the marsh along the coast. The coastal Camps have sprung right back up, larger and stronger and with them, so have land prices and the Building Codes. On the other hand, the Basin Camps managed the storm surges from the hurricanes and were somewhat protected from the winds. Unfortunately, accessibility to coastal Camps has become a financial hurdle, rather than a physical one. But the Basin and other swamp areas are the holdout for the middle-income Camp. Building codes aren’t enforced in the swamp, yet, and the sites are generally leased from the State for a reasonable fee.

Courville, David. 'Allons au camp!' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©David Courville and On Site review

Ice Fishing

Village Life
Paul Whelan

As soon as Lake Simcoe starts to thaw, the fisher folk decamp their ice huts and wait out the summer heat until the next winter freeze. Not all the huts get transported to land in time and some poorly-timed hut removals end up in the water as boating hazards. The ice huts are extremely straightforward structures which directly reflect the simple requirements of ice fishing. Most importantly, the huts have to be light so they can easily be transported off and onto the ice. Even during the fishing season the ice huts get moved around as fishers tire of their location and chop other more alluring holes in the ice.
At first and even second glance, the settlement pattern villages appear completely random. These villages do not have to follow urban planning conventions. All the careful rules that Canadians construct to regulate every aspect of our built environment are abandoned on the ice. This is somewhat due to the lack of jurisdiction. The federal government regulates navigable bodies of water. When this water freezes, the local townships and villages do not have any power over activities on the ice. This regulatory vacuum sets up some unusual situations. Local restauranteurs complain to the City of Barrie about the unregulated food (and alcohol) businesses that supply the ice huts. Beer, rye whisky and high cholesterol foods are an important aspect of ice village life. Alas the local authorities have no jurisdiction so the ribs and rye continue to nourish the villagers.
As always with humans settlements, there is an ordering pattern, but it is not based on the criteria that drive settlement on land. The ice is free and there is no shortage of prime real estate. Instead the first ordering principal is proximity to a public road so the huts can be dragged onto the ice. Public boat launches and marinas are perfectly suited. The second ordering principal is established by the fish themselves. While the idea of ice fishing may seem rustic, the fishers use sonar to locate fish which generally congregate in the deeper underwater valleys. This fish congregation is further encouraged by the release of live minnows as ‘seeds’ for attracting even more fish. The huts are scattered in response to water depth and winter fish habitat. This critical settlement imperative creates an apparent random hut placement on the frozen lake.
On the ice, sanitation is rudimentary. This particular ice village had a portable toilet. Ironically it is much cleaner than the more easily serviced toilet on shore. It might be possible that at minus 20°C and with a strong wind howling across the flat ice, the fishing holes may do double duty.

The huts themselves are tiny. They are designed to permit two or four people to sit in deck chairs huddled around one or two holes. There is often not enough headroom to stand. The design is driven by reducing the hut’s weight and heated volume. Even within these constraints there is some variety and opportunity for self expression. While ice fishing may seem a northern rural phenomenon, its popularity on Lake Simcoe, within walking distance of downtown Barrie, suggests ice fishing also has a powerful urban draw. Aside from an obvious love of fresh fish, what is the draw? Perhaps this is the ultimate thumbing of the nose at winter. The fisher people simultaneously experience the over-heated claustrophobia of an ice hut while floating on a wind-swept field of frozen water. After all, it is impossible to forget that first needle-sharp intake of breath when stepping out from the fug of a dimly-lit hut into the blinding light of a sub-zero day.

Whelan, Paul. 'Ice Fishing 2' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Paul Whelan and On Site review

the ice huts of Lake Nipissing

Weather-causing architecture
Steve Sopinka

Every winter, the waters of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario freeze solid. The result is a frozen icescape, 875 square kilometres transformed into new territory for snowmobilers, cross country skiers, snowshoers and ice fishers. There is something intriguing about the reclamation of the frozen water — even more captivating are the ice-fishing huts that begin to appear and evolve into an ad-hoc frozen shanty village. These structures capture the eye of the prefab enthusiast, the mobile-architecture buff, the Ministry of Natural Resources and, most importantly, ice fishers who are reminded that fishing comrades are ‘out there’ and they are not. On Lake Nipissing, weather defines an incidental, accidental architecture.

If there is an architecture that has almost no cost, is void of conscious architectural style and exceeds the expectations of its dweller — the ice-fishing hut could very well be it. Depending on your need for comfort and your ideas of how to outfit an ice-hut, your hut may or may not begin to look like your neighbour’s. The list of materials used is both long and unconventional: used lithograph plates, recycled wood pallets, metal flashing (and lots of it), discarded road signs and $1 trouble lights. Rigid styrofoam SM insulation is an interior finish. A converted greenhouse and an old garden shed have been given second life as ice huts.
Given their often slapped-together construction, their random assemblage of otherwise discarded materials into ad hoc shelter, does considering ice huts as architecture give them too much credit? Maybe the taxonomy isn’t important. It isn’t to the ice fishers – it’s all about the fishing – just ask any of the inhabitants. Try to talk architecture or even building, and the conversation inevitably ends up in a discussion about lures, ice augers and more importantly, the weather.

Maybe it isn’t about the fish or the architecture. The most compelling aspect of experiencing these ice huts is the visual transformation of water into ice – to see the massive frozen expanse that begins underfoot and disappears into the horizon. The formation of this newly constructed icescape, brought on by the change in weather, is what is most fascinating.
We talk about buildings being connected to site, integrated with their surroundings, symbiotic with the landscape. An ice hut integrates directly with the snow-covered ice surface of the lake, literally freezing to the ‘site,’ as currents and wind shift the ice. There is something strangely indigenous about these huts. They have become something familiar — an icon, a symbol, a retreat, a weather vane, a black dot in an otherwise uninterrupted landscape.

The heroic effort of constructing a small hut, transporting it out onto the ice by snowmobile, maintaining it and securing it from being blown away during a sustained wind storm lies in the larger idea of weather-causing architecture: an ephemeral building, upon a temporary landscape, within a unique season. The ice hut grows out of the collective phenomena of weather and architecture where these two entities meet in a typology of low-tech habitation full of simplicity and honesty.

The idea of transformation, mobility, temporality and resourcefulness, combined with weather, over time, equals one ice-fishing season on Lake Nipissing. Land artist Andy Goldsworthy has said that ‘a landscape doesn’t have to involve land – time is a landscape’.

Why does an ice-covered lake in Northern Ontario accommodate some of the most honest, dynamic, and vulnerable architecture to have evolved directly out of the weather? It is both out of necessity and functionality, but also is underpinned by the seasonal climate change that reclaims of a body of water and establishes static boundaries usually unassociated with such undefined and expansive territory.

The ice huts demonstrate and reveal value as objects, as shelter, as a means to survive and simply as a way to connect with uncommon ‘ground’. The weather, the economy and current architecture trends all have something in common, but the ice hut has a life of its own. It is sustainable by default. It has the potential to weather the climate and recession with resilience.

Sopinka, Steve. 'Weather-causing Architecture' On Site review, no. 21 Spring 2009
©Steve Sopinka and On Site review