Does The Mississippi River Flow Into The Gulf Of Mexico Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp

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Dispatches From the Gulf Coast – The Honey Island Swamp

FOR ME, RESEARCH ALWAYS STARTED AT THE END OF CIVILIZATION. In most places, you have to step away from the neon signs and golden arches and step out of the concrete jungle entirely to find the wilderness. Generally, if I have even one band of cell phone reception, I haven’t wandered far enough. Most populated places in America try to integrate wilderness into civilization in the form of “green spaces” – manicured lawns and picnic benches that are supposed to convey a sense of nature and openness. In the deep south, it’s the other way around. Here, small towns carve a sense of civilization into the vast, untamed wilderness. Even the larger suburbs seem strained to keep the creeping wilderness at bay.

Slidell is a suburb of New Orleans that lies beneath the pine canopy on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It’s an area saturated with rivers and creeks, where small gravel roads lead to shy housing estates deep in the marshes, where you wouldn’t think such estates could or could be. It’s a lowland 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 deep in the wilderness and within easy reach of the Waffle House.

Slidell is bordered to the east by the West Pearl River, which flows from its source in the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds area of ​​central Mississippi to the Rigolets and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Pearl is home to the Honey Island Wetland, one of the most beautiful and least altered riverine wetlands in the United States. It got its name from stories of an abundance of wild honey produced by rogue bees that escaped their beekeepers.


We didn’t book a hotel. There was nothing on the itinerary. We had no plan other than to drive the lonely roads and explore the forgotten corners of this subtropical wonderland. We drove slowly along Hwy 190, trying to pick everything up. I soon saw that graves were not the only items stolen by the Katrina flood. A large tugboat loomed just off the highway, miles away from open water. I went out to take a few pictures and was immediately attacked by swarms of what looked like oversized flying ants. These little monsters came in mating pairs, and I was amazed that they took time out of their breeding ritual to sink their teeth (or fangs, or stingers, or whatever) into my forearms. My only option was to run until I got close enough to snap a few pictures and then run back to the car. It’s amazing how fast an out-of-shape thirty-year-old can run when being chased by hordes of two-headed devil insects.

A few miles and a few more stranded boats later, we pulled into a clamshell parking lot outside the Pearl Shores Marsh Museum. A wooden walkway led to the shore where we met two swamp tour captains, both with heavy Cajun accents. It was early afternoon and both captains had finished their rounds for the day. The swamp tour business was good before Katrina, I was told. The Honey Island Wetland guides are now happy to have one full boat a day, and it would be a waste of fuel and time to only take us on an after-hours tour. As we turned around to go back to our car, another tourist boat pulled up next to us and offered to take us on board.

Ah, the swamp. Something I have seen in many movies but never experienced in person. It was remarkably quiet for an area so rich in wildlife. The setting was right out of the boat launch scene on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland – except that particular ride scene was probably filmed straight from here. Old dilapidated boathouses lined the shore across from the pier and I half expected to pass a fisherman blaring ‘O Susanna’ on his banjo before falling down a waterfall into a world of wily pirates. But this was the real deal. It was obvious that Katrina was here. Rows of boathouses floated abandoned along the shore. Across from the launch, a medium-sized boathouse rested atop a much smaller outbuilding. A smaller boathouse floated past the first, seemingly untouched by the storm.


“I’m going to turn on the air conditioning a little bit,” said Capt. Neil Benson, owner of Pearl River Eco-tours. “Oh, good,” I thought. “I’m dying here!” Turns out he just thought he was going to drive the boat really fast. It was good though. After racing along the main waterway for a mile or so, Captain Neil stopped to turn into a narrow channel that led to the falls, which he named the Dead River. The slough is a shallow tributary system of the lake that parallels the main waterway of the bay. Honey Island Wetland is a 70,000 acre maze of these waterfalls.

“Watch the giant slope as we go,” Neil warned as he pointed to the thick patches of tall, broad-leaved grass that brushed the sides of the boat as we passed. “That’ll cut your fingers good.”

Neil Benson grew up in the swamp. He first set out on his own in a pirogue at 10, and had his first motorized boat at 12. “I know some people here who are quite strange. Everyone who lives in the swamp is running from something – either the law or the voices in their heads. “

This piqued my interest. Later I asked him to explain.

“A swamp is a place where you can get lost – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. If you’re running away from life, the swamp will easily grant your request and take everything you had from the past and hide it in its waters and under its treetops.”

We were about a mile into the Dead River Maze before I realized that no one had bitten me since we left the car. Not even a single mosquito, which surprised me, considering we were on an open boat deep in the swamp. In fact, aside from our toddler’s repeated attempts to jump off the boat, this was the calmest boat ride I’ve ever been on. The swamp is an eerily beautiful place. The gnarled knees of bald cypresses seem to float on a cloudy surface. Calm, dark waters combined with impenetrable fauna and moss-covered tupelos create an unlikely yet enchanting spell. Wikipedia defines a swamp as “a marshy area characterized by the temporary or permanent inundation of large areas of land by shallow bodies of water.” Neil defines it as an “underwater forest”.


Neil cut the engine when the slough opened up into a dead lake or billabong, created when a wide meander of the river was cut off. I noticed a small green frog sitting on the handrail next to my elbow. Although the swamp is densely populated with wildlife, it takes a trained eye to actually spot most of it. When I saw that frog, I started noticing them everywhere. The Swamp is like a 3-D Where’s Waldo book. The best way to spot wildlife is to imagine one type of animal and scan the shoreline until you see it.

We don’t have a lot of critters in Utah. I sleep on the forest floor and dive into lakes and rivers without a second thought. My wife, who was born in Texas, almost went into cardiac arrest the first time she saw me go into the Provo River for a swim. There is a significant lack of animals that can hurt/maim/kill you in Utah compared to the deep south. The most dangerous critter for hikers in Utah is the rattlesnake—and even it will give you a fair warning before it attacks.

What disturbs me about this swamp is the wildlife you can’t see – the creatures lurking beneath the rusted surface of the water. Neil says that swimming in a swamp is no more dangerous than swimming in any other river. “Yes, we have alligators, snakes and the occasional bull shark in the river. However, like most animals in their natural ecosystem, the animals are more afraid of humans than humans are of them.”

Well, I guess it’s just the occasional shark mixed in with alligators and snakes. I feel so confident!


A bit of a political anomaly, Neil is a serious environmentalist who drives a pickup truck with an NRA bumper sticker. His love of exploration and adventure has developed into a passion for this sensitive ecosystem, and he has been leading wetland tours for over a decade. A few days after Hurricane Katrina nearly stripped the marsh of its life by tearing off its canopy and flooding it with salt water, Neil ventured out to survey the damage with reporter Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Tribune.

“This is incredible,” he told Montgomery. “I never would have guessed that. It’s gone. Everything.”

“It was the first time I’d been back in the swamp after a storm,” Neil tells me over the phone two years later, on the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. “My heart was breaking. I’m not an emotional person, but I have to tell you I was in tears.” A few hours on board with Captain Neil reveals his zeal for this place.

Back on the open water, we saw our first gator. After we spotted one, we started seeing them everywhere. As we passed, alligators would swim toward the boat fishing for marshmallow cookies that Neil would toss them. He even reached out to pet the one he calls Big Al.

In the swamp, you can see a lot out of the corner of your eye. Here a frog or a snake, there an alligator or a wild boar. There are many stories about an elusive creature affectionately called “The Thing”. Of the many reported sightings, no intelligible photograph of the beast has ever been taken. But there are plenty of believers. The Honey Island Swamp Monster is more than a myth to fishermen and swamp dwellers. Over the years, several investigators have made plaster casts of the monster’s alleged footprints. Neil owns one of these castings. He preferred not to discuss it during the tour, “because I would like to have credibility”. His official position? “I believe in the Honey Island Swamp Monster and therefore it exists. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

We did not witness this mythical creature that day. But then again, maybe we’re just being led into “tourist-friendly” areas of the swamp where the beast is less likely to prowl. Looking at the satellite image of the swamp, I am amazed at how little we have seen. Next time I’m down that way I plan to convince Neil to introduce me to the more secretive caves of this mysterious and beautiful place.

Neil told me he takes people on longer private tours, but requires customers to sign a “sign your life” waiver.

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

Sign me up, Neil!

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