<i>Editor’s Note: The Quackers are three awesome ducks from the canals of Venice who are on a mission to educate the community about the dangers of global warming and the importance of practicing sustainability, all while surfing the most gnarly waves possible.</i>

“Just follow the Mississippi flyway and you will be there in no time,” my uncle said as we packed to leave Albuquerque for Opelousas, La. I guess he forgot we had never traveled via any flyway. He tried explaining the route using the old landmarks he remembered. I just wasn’t getting it. Finally I pulled my trusty Auto Club map from my back pocket and had him highlight it. It turned out to be a piece of cake.

Our first impression of Opelousas was of wonderfully dense vegetation, stately trees draped in Spanish moss and seemingly endless meandering waterways called bayous.

Opelousas, named after the Native American tribe that inhabited the area, is well known as the home of Cajun and Zydeco music, great food and is the birthplace of the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.

Our Tante’ (aunt) Lillie and Tonton (uncle) Pierre welcomed us with a huge party.  Quackers came from all over Louisiana, each family bringing a different delectable dish for the table. For hours we feasted on boiled crab, crawfish, shrimp and a mountain of catfish.

When no one could eat another mouthful, Tonton Pierre strummed a chord on his guitar and shouted, “Laissez les bons temp rouler!” That means “let the good times roll!” Mimi picked up her violin and Antoine his accordion. The beat of the music was irresistible.  Everyone, young and old, jumped to their feet dancing.

Richard became immersed in the music. He sprang to his feet and grabbed the only instrument left, the washboard and spoons. He closed his eyes, furrowed his brow in concentration and began to bob his head to the beat. Soon his wings were flying back and forth as he scrubbed out a driving rhythm on the washboard. The entire Quacker clan applauded and laughed with delight.

 At the end of the evening Tonton Pierre brought a tear to everyone’s eye as he sang his hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Jolie Blond.”

The next day we loaded up Antoine’s pirogue (flat bottom boat) and took off for the Atchafalaya Swamp. Atchafalaya means “Long River” in Choctaw. It is the largest river swamp basin in North America.  

As we traveled, Rusty’s main topic of conversation centered on wrestling an alligator. I suggested the services of a good therapist, but he just rolled his eyes.

We launched the pirogue into moss covered water. Sunning turtles slipped from logs as we passed. Bald Cypress and Tupelo trees shaded the swamp giving it a serene yet mysterious feeling.

 We took turns poling through the swamp, always keeping an eye out for water moccasins and alligators. It was during this time that Rusty’s dream of staring in a WWE sponsored alligator wrestling event was abandoned due to an uncomfortably close, face to face encounter with a passing eight footer.

Poling through a curtain of Spanish moss, Antoine said, “All that live here rely on the Atchafalaya for a sustainable living. We have done this for generations without devastating its riches. It is the area’s lifeblood. It is a complex relationship that benefits all who love and protect it. The tremendous diversity in habitat and species provides not just for wildlife but for all who live here.”

We could see why so many of our relatives lived or wintered there. It is magnificent.

Mimi explained that what we were seeing was a mere shadow of what it once was. The past several decades had turned it into an artificial flood control system surrounded by 25 foot tall concrete levees. This had left the Atchfalayla choking on silt.

Happily, she told us of a $250 million state and federal project in the works to restore the Atchfalayla. The idea was to make it work as it once did, like a mega sponge. For centuries the basin soaked up the Mississippi River’s annual floodwaters and distributed them throughout its rivers, bayous, lakes and marshland. It brought necessary nutrients to fish and wildlife and laid down natural levees of soil where oak trees could grow. Many had worked long and hard for this project. 

A chant went up for shrimp po-boys and dirty rice. How could we come this far and not see New Orleans? Wanting to keep everyone happy, we went to “Rock and Bowl” on Carrollton Avenue. Where else could you eat, dance and bowl? It was a rockin’ good time.

We bought a few postcards, T-shirts and Mardi Gras beads then strolled through the French Quarter. We finished our evening at Café du Monde sipping cups of café au lait and plate after scrumptious plate of beignets. Still licking the powdered sugar of the beignets from our faces, we headed for home.

Phyllis and the Quackers can be reached at phyllis@phyllischavez.com.

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