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Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp

FOR ME, EXPLORATION HAS ALWAYS STARTED AT THE END OF CIVILIZATION. In most places, you have to step back from the neon signs and golden arches and step completely out of the concrete jungle to find the wilderness. Generally, if I have even a single reception bar on my cell phone, I haven’t gotten far enough. Most populated places in America attempt to incorporate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces” – finely manicured lawns and picnic benches meant to convey a sense of nature and openness. In the Great South, it is the opposite. Here, small towns carve a sense of civilization into vast expanses of wilderness. Even the larger suburbs seem strained to keep creeping wilderness at bay.

Slidell is a New Orleans suburb located under a canopy of loblolly pines on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area saturated with rivers and bayous, where small gravel roads lead to neighborhoods of stilt houses deep in the swamps where you wouldn’t think neighborhoods would be or could be. It’s a plain so low (3 feet, to be exact) that the term “terra firma” doesn’t really apply. And unlike most places in the country, here you can be both surrounded by nature and a stone’s throw from a Waffle House.

Slidell is bordered to the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from its headwaters in the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds region of central Mississippi and empties into the Rigolets and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. The Pearl is home to the Honey Island Swamp, one of the most beautiful and least weathered riverine swamps in the United States. It takes its name from tales of abundant wild honey made by renegade bees that had escaped their beekeepers.


We had made no hotel reservations. There was nothing on the route. We had no other plan than to travel lonely roads and explore forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly along Highway 190, trying to figure it all out. I soon saw that graves weren’t the only items stolen by Katrina’s floodwaters. A large tugboat stood just off the highway, miles from any open water. I went out to take pictures and was instantly attacked by swarms of what looked like oversized flying ants. These little monsters came in pairs and I was amazed that they took the time of their birthing ritual to sink their teeth (or fangs, or pokers, or whatever) into my forearms. My only option was to run until I was close enough to take a few photos, then sprint back to the car. It’s amazing how fast an out of shape 30-something can run when chased by hordes of devilish two-headed insects.

A few miles and several more beached boats later, we stopped on a clamshell lot in front of a swamp museum on the shores of the Pearl. A wooden walkway led to the shore where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and the two captains had finished their rounds for the day. The swamp tour activity was good before Katrina they told me. The guides at Honey Island Swamp are now lucky to have a full boat per day, and it would have been a waste of time and gas to only take us on an after hours tour. As we were turning around to get back to our car, another tour boat passed and offered to take us on board.

Oh, the swamp. Something I’ve seen in many movies but never experienced myself. It was incredibly quiet for an area so rich in wildlife. The setting was right out of the ship launch scene on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland – except this particular ride scene was probably taken directly from here. Old, dilapidated boathouses lined the shore opposite the launch pad, and I half-expected to come across a fisherman strumming “O Susanna” on his banjo before plunging into a waterfall in the world of pirates outside. sword. But it was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina had come here. Rows of abandoned boathouses floated along the shore. Opposite the boat launch, a medium-sized boathouse sat on a much smaller outbuilding. A smaller boathouse floated next to the first, seemingly untouched by the storm.


“I’m going to turn on the air conditioning for a bit,” said Captain Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tours. “Oh well,” I thought. “I die here!” Turns out he just meant he was going to drive the boat real fast. He felt good though. After speeding along the main waterway for about a mile, Captain Neil stopped to enter a narrow channel leading to a swamp he called Dead River. A swamp is a system of shallow lakes that parallels the main waterway of the bayou. The Honey Island Swamp is a 70,000 acre maze of these swamps.

“Watch out for the giant cut grass as we go,” Neil warned, pointing to thick patches of tall broad-leaved grass that brushed the sides of the boat as we drifted. “It’ll cut your fingers pretty badly.”

Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first set out on a canoe alone at the age of 10 and owned his first motorized flatboat at the age of 12. in their head.”

It caught my interest. I asked him later to elaborate.

“The swamp is a place to get lost – sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. If you run away from life, the swamp will easily comply with your request and take everything you have passed and hide it in its waters and under its canopy of trees. .”

We were about a mile into the Dead River maze before I realized I hadn’t been bitten by bugs since we left the car. Not even a mosquito, which surprised me, considering we were on an open boat at the bottom of the swamp. In fact, other than our toddler’s repeated attempts to jump ship, it was the most peaceful boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is a strangely beautiful place. The gnarled knees of bald cypresses seem to float on the murky surface. Calm, dark waters combine with impenetrable wildlife and moss-hanging tupelos to cast a haunting yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a wetland that exhibits temporary or permanent flooding of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water”. Neil defines it as an “underwater forest”.


Neil killed the engine as the quagmire opened into an oxbow or billabong lake, created when a wide bend in the river is cut. I noticed a small green tree frog perched on the railing next to my elbow. Although the swamp is densely populated with wildlife, it takes a keen eye to spot most of it. Once I saw this frog I started noticing them everywhere. The swamp is like a 3D book Where’s Waldo. The best way to spot wildlife is to think of one type of animal and walk the banks until you see it.

We don’t have a lot of critters in Utah. I sleep on forest floors and dive into lakes and rivers without hesitation. My Texas-born wife nearly went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me wade into the Provo River for a swim. In Utah there is a noticeable lack of animals that can hurt/maul/kill you compared to the Deep South. The most dangerous creature for hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake – and even it will give you a warning just before it strikes.

What bothers me about this bog is the wildlife you can’t see – the creatures that hide beneath the rusty surface of the water. Neil says swimming in the swamp is no more dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have alligators, snakes and sometimes bull sharks in the river. Yet, like most animals in their natural ecosystem, the animals are more afraid of humans than humans are.”

Well, I guess that’s just the occasional bull shark mixed with alligators and snakes. I feel so reassured!


Somewhat of a political anomaly, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives a van with an NRA sticker. His love for exploration and adventure has blossomed into a passion for this delicate ecosystem, and he’s been guiding swamp tours for over a decade. Days after Hurricane Katrina nearly stripped the life of the swamp by ripping out its canopy and flooding it with salt water, Neil ventured out to inspect the damage with Tampa Tribune reporter Ben Montgomery.

“It’s amazing,” he told Montgomery. “In all my life, I never would have guessed. Here we go. All of that.”

“It was the first time I went back to the swamp after the storm,” Neil told me on the phone two years later, on the second anniversary of Katrina’s arrival. “It was heartbreaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you I was in tears.” A few hours on a boat with Captain Neil reveals his zeal for this place.

Back in open water, we saw our first alligator. Once we spotted one, we started seeing them everywhere. As they passed, alligators were swimming towards the boat to fish for the marshmallows that Neil was throwing at them. He even reached out to pet the one he calls Big Al.

In the swamp, you see a lot of things out of the corner of your eye. A frog or a snake here, an alligator or a boar there. Stories abound about an elusive creature affectionately known as “The Thing”. Of the many reported sightings, no intelligible photo has ever been taken of the beast. But there are many believers. The Honey Island Swamp monster is more than a myth for anglers and swamp dwellers. Over the years, several investigators have produced plaster casts of the monster’s supposed footprints. Neil owns one of these casts. He preferred not to talk about it during the tour, “because I would like to have some credibility”. His official position? “I believe in the Honey Island swamp monster and therefore it exists. If God didn’t exist, he would have to be invented.”

We did not see this mythical creature that day. But then again, we may have only been taken to the “touristy” areas of the swamp where the beast is less likely to hide. Looking at a satellite image of the swamp, I’m amazed at how little we saw. Next time I go there, I intend to convince Neil to introduce me to the most secret caves of this mysterious and wondrous place.

Neil tells me that he takes people on extended private tours, but he asks clients to sign a “sign your life away” waiver.

“Because when you’re this far out in the middle of nowhere, no one can predict what may happen.”

Sign me up, Neil!

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