Gateway to gatorland


POSTED: Sunday, December 13, 2009

It was one of Ronald Reagan's most famous quotes: “;I know it's hard when you're up to your armpits in alligators to remember you came here to drain the swamp.”;

The former president would have been right at home in Louisiana, which has 1.5 million alligators in the wild and 500,000 more in farms. And there's certainly no shortage of swamps, bayous and lakes—almost all with gators.

I'm recently back from three weeks of tent camping on South Louisiana's swamps and bayous to get familiar with their surfeit of alligators that's led to reinstating an annual one-month hunting season for those who own or lease wetland where the gators have become the top predator capable of taking down a black bear or a human being—the gator can run up to 35 miles an hour in short spurts.

The best “;swamping for alligators”; is around Slidell, off Henderson Lake in the Atchafalaya Swamp, and at Kraemer and Des Allemands. Outfitters will take you on day and night expeditions ranging in prices from $20 for 90 minutes in a small boat to $65 for an hour in an airboat.

Alligators are not crocodiles, although the differences are pretty meaningless to most of us. One way to tell a croc from a gator is to inspect their teeth, preferably from a distance. You can't see an alligator's lower teeth when its mouth is closed, because its lower teeth fit snugly into pits in the upper jaw. A crocodile's lower teeth are always visible.

Alligators have a broad snout; crocodiles, a thin one. Alligators are found in the southeastern United States and in some parts of China. Crocodiles, all over the world. Wild alligators tend not be wary of humans. Not so crocodiles, known for their bad tempers.





        Getting there: American Airlines has the most frequent flights from Honolulu via Dallas-Fort Worth and on to New Orleans. See www.aa.com. Tip: If you rent a car outside of the airport, you'll save a lot of money in airport lease and transit-tax fees.

Tour Notes: The most swamp tours in one place are at Henderson, La., on the levee road, west of Baton Rouge. These are fine for the cautious, but they limit themselves to Henderson Lake and connecting bayous and don't go more than a hundred yards into any swamps. That's the limitation of propeller-driven motor boats. Likewise, the tours at Kraemer, La., just edge into the swamp but tend to get good marks from average tourists who don't want too much excitement. Honey Island Swamp Tours runs boats out of its site on the edge of Slidell, La., on the northeast edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Its semiretired owner is a biologist who has been in business since the '80s. Call (985) 641-1769 or visit www.honeyislandswamp.com. The best in my book is Arthur's Airboat Tours in Des Allemands, La., about 30 minutes west of New Orleans on U.S. 90. It's the most expensive, but its airboats are fast, zoom through all manner of wetland and cypress groves and give the best introduction to the true swamp alligator. Guide Arthur Matherne, a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain, is a commercial alligator and crab fisherman, born on the bayou and a lifelong resident of Bayou Gauche. Call (800) 975-9345 or visit www.airboattours.com.




If you're really adventurous, sign up to go on an alligator egg hunt. Eggs bring $6-$20 each from farmers who raise gators for their hides and meat. Hide prices are depressed right now. Don't cook it very long or it gets tough. Best eaten with a piquant red sauce, it has a chicken taste.

A hunt team scouts for the raised-dirt nests by helicopter and notes their locations on a GPS. Then a three-man boat team moves in through the swamp. You have to do it when mom's out hunting food. Dig up the nest and be quick about it. If you hear a loud hiss, you're in deep trouble. Moms aren't wary of humans.

A gator sightseeing tour by small boat is the better decision. Most boatmen have conditioned big alligators to come to the sound of their boat to be fed marshmallows (they think they're eggs) and chicken parts. No female or youngster dare come into the territory where a bull male is feeding. The male would kill them.

Most boatmen give names to familiar gators. One of the females I encountered, Alice, is quirky and unpredictable. She tried three times to get into our airboat.

But generally, as I said, they are wary of humans. Experts say if you're approached by one while in shallow water, stand up tall and yell. Show yourself to be bigger. But what if you're swimming in deep water? “;Then you're screwed,”; said my guide.

Gators bite into their prey, do what's called a “;death roll”; and take you underwater to drown. If you're nice and soft like me, you're eaten right away. If you're tough, they leave you a couple of days to get more chewable.

Here's something helpful. If a baby alligator bites you on the hand or the arm, the worst thing you can do is try to pull away. Their teeth are like razors and you'll badly shred your flesh. No, what you do is tap the gator sharply on its nose. Its natural reflex is to open its mouth. Got that for your next gator encounter?

In a lake, bayou or river, you can usually see a gator coming your way. He likes to run on the surface, just eyes and snout protruding, and that makes a small wake. In the swamp, forget it. He looks just like a log or floating mud until the jaws open. In which case ... well, see the comment three paragraphs above!

People hunt alligators by hanging a piece of chicken overnight on a large hook on a tree limb several feet above the water. The gator leaps to take it, just as it takes birds. In the morning, the hunter shoots the gator.

The explosion of alligator population means you can't swim in some of the most beautiful Louisiana bayous.

Well, it's not just about the gators. There are the poisonous cottonmouth and water moccasin snakes, too.

But that's a travel story for another day.