Atchafalaya – the name itself is something of a mystery. When exactly the swamp got its name is unknown, though it means long river in one of the local languages. What is known about this place of splendor and inscrutability is that it is the largest swamp in the United States and is the spiritual home of Cajun culture.
Louisiana is culturally rich, drawing from African, Caribbean, Native-American as well as European culture and the ecology of Atchafalaya is just as diverse and varied. If you want to pronounce it properly, try these syllables - ah-CHA-fa-LIE-ah – and you may be as close as you are ever going to get.
The swamp itself (known also as the basin) adds to the Louisiana mix, combining both a river delta where the Gulf of Mexico and the eponymous river come together and some of the most astonishingly beautiful wetlands on planet earth. While the wetlands are nearly stable the delta system itself is continuing to grow.
A pristine cypress and mixed wood swamp, Atchafalaya looks at times how you might imagine earth looking millions of years ago – the sight of a dinosaur would not be amiss here. Although you might not meet a stegosaurus the chances are you will see beaver, otter, mink deer and many other mammals. Alligators can also be found in the waters of the Atchafalaya.
As it is often heavily flooded the area is very sparsely populated which helps to place it in to the top ten wildernesses of the United States. Altogether the basin stretches out to twenty miles in width but lengthwise it is almost 150 miles. This area is just under 600,000 acres and as such makes it the largest swamp in the US and a place of national significance in terms of ecology and wildlife.
There are few roads that cross the Atchafalaya and those that do follow the top of levees. If you are in a car, however, the longest stretch next to the swamp is on Interstate 10, part of which consists of an eighteen mile long bridge built on elevated pillars, affording views of the basin.
However, the best way to experience the swamp is not from the side, but from within. Yet the damming of the bayous and activity by the US Army Corps of Engineers has led to a decreasing of the rate of siltation. The water moves much less than it once did and has meant that it is less aerated – much of it is now black instead of brown. Many ecologists see the shrinkage of the delta country as one of the biggest ecological threats to the US at present.
There are still people who make a living fishing the waters of the basin. It floods each years and these floods create the right environment for species such as crawfish to reproduce and grow. Yet in recent years the floods have not come at all – and when they have they have carried with them too much extra silt which buries the breeding grounds. The flow of water is controlled by human hand – and is doing damage.
It can also only be hoped that the currents of the river can keep the oil from that spill out in the Gulf. If the water levels of the swamp become too low in the fall then the oil could find a way in to it, bringing with it a devastation that the swamp has never seen before. It can only be hoped that this does not happen.
Magical is a term which is overused when describing places. However, there is no more appropriate a word than that for the Atchafalaya swamp. Whether this, one of the last truly great places of wilderness in the United States will still be able to transfix and fascinate future generations by its dual nature - serenity and strength - is yet to be seen.