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

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