I’ve been on Lake Martin several times in motorized boats, and even walked its shoreline on occasion, looking for nesting birds and alligators. In all my travels around Louisiana, Lake Martin is one of my favorite places. Even without a boat, you can watch sunrises and sunsets, filtered through moss-draped cypress trees, punctuated by the occasional flock of ibis flying overhead. But this was my first experience paddling the lake in a kayak.
I joined a group of about a dozen other paddlers, some of them experienced, but others about to slip into a kayak for the first time on this sprawling body of water. Stacey Scarce, an experienced guide with outfitter Pack and Paddle of Lafayette gives everyone a short introduction to the art of paddling. The instructions are brief and simple, “I’m pushing with my right, pushing with the left. I’m not pulling, I’m pushing.” We all strap on life jackets, ease the kayaks into the water and climb aboard.
Within minutes, Stacey points out a bald eagle, high in the branches of a cypress tree. My fellow paddlers grab cameras and smart phones and begin snapping pictures. Stacey coaches us, “If you want a better shot of any bird you never go towards them. You have to go at an angle so they don’t feel threatened when you’re coming towards them.”
Lake Martin is part of the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve, a 20-thousand acre cypress and tupelo swamp famous for its nesting birds, that draws photographers from all over the world. Our late afternoon paddle is quiet and comfortable in a light breeze. The lower angle of the sun creates interesting shadows and a golden cast on backlit Spanish moss and white egrets. “I love kayaking in the Louisiana swamps,” explains Stacey. “In my opinion, kayaking is the best way because you can see things that you can’t see when you’re flying by in a boat.”
Our kayaks come to a stop, the water reflecting the nearby trees. Stacey signals for us to keep quiet and listen. “You heard that snorting,” Stacey asks? “That’s a pig frog. Now you hear the click, click, click? That’s a cricket frog. cricket frogs are about this big” she says, holding her fingers only an inch apart.
We enter an area at the east end of Lake Martin that’s shaded by trees. We weave our kayaks around tree trunks and cypress stumps.
The water is covered with a bright green carpet of duckweed. What at first looks like a log is actually the head of a four-foot-long alligator. The reptile slowly moves away from the parade of kayaks.
We pass an area with a sign that says it’s a bird nesting area, closed to any humans. In the distant treetops, we spot nesting ibis, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills and egrets. With binoculars or a long camera lens, you can watch as parents feed their young chicks. As we paddle back into the open lake, a pair of osprey hover over their nest. We’ve been rewarded with some amazing sights in our trek around the lake. “Lake Martin is great for beginners or seasoned kayakers,” Stacey explains, “because you can come out here solo and know that you’re safe. And watching the sunsets here, too, are amazing.”
As the sun dipped below the horizon filled with Cypress trees, the sky lit up with a brilliant orange color. In the distance, we could see the silhouette of a distant small shower. It was a remarkable farewell.
This South Louisiana waterway is home to the beginning of Louisiana’s Cajun culture. The very first Acadians settled along this winding bayou in 1765, and over the centuries, their French-speaking families and communities have expanded throughout the region.
“The same meaning that the Mississippi River has to the New Orleans area or Baton Rouge, Bayou Teche has to the Acadians”, explains Cory Werk, who owns Bayou Teche Experience. His operation provides the kayaks and paddles and launches its customers for an easy trip downstream to Breaux Bridge.
Bayou Teche is a 135 mile long scenic bayou that starts at Port Barre and snakes its way through Cajun country on the way to the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City. If you drive through southern Louisiana, you’ve likely crossed it. But the bayou is hardly noticeable as you speed along Interstate 10. Corey says the beauty is on the water, “Whether it’s giant live oaks that are towering above on the bayou, or the large cypress trees that you can weave in and out of with your kayak in the swamp. There’s no place in the world that has these opportunities that Acadiana offers”.
The bayou gets its name, teche, from the Chitimacha word for ‘snake’. The Native American tribe that fished, hunted and lived along this waterway for centuries. A bayou-side monument in Breaux Bridge recounts the legend of how the Chitimacha fought and killed a huge snake. And where the snake lay and decomposed created the outline of Bayou Teche.
Cory calls his trips “active tourism”, padding through Cajun country and then taking time to stop at a shop or restaurant like Poche’s Meat Market near Breaux Bridge. Owner Floyd Poche explains what draws visitors to his diner. “The specialty here is probably the boudin cracklins and the plate lunches. Probably backbone stew and smothered rabbit and a few items like that really put us on the map”.
Back on the water, the steady one-mile-per-hour current of the Teche gives paddlers a gentle push, through a canopy of trees, behind the backyard of homes, past farms and cattle, and close to wildlife that live near the water.
A great white egret seems to play leap frog with our kayak. “They see you, they fly down a hundred feet, they forget about you, you re-appear and they fly down again”. Cory says that pattern can repeat itself for a mile or more.
As the sun dips below the tree tops, the light changes and the shadows grow longer. Afternoon turns into evening. Cory echoes something that I heard in my paddle on Lake Martin, “and what better and scenic way to experience it than in a boat that’s quiet and peaceful. And when you’re paddling at this pace, you take in things that you normally wouldn’t see if you were travelling at a faster rate”. I agree. We reach the iconic bridge at Breaux Bridge after the sun has set. The twilight lingers, and it’s the perfect ending to our journey along Bayou Teche.