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Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin ‘feels like a national park’

A tour guide hopes to raise awareness about America’s largest river swamp
Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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BELLE RIVER, LA (WVUE) - Gerard Perrone races the light, departing the Belle River Boat Launch before the sunrise in one of the most isolated spots in the continental U.S.

“Feels like a national park,” Perrone said of his destination in the Atchafalaya Basin.

“That’s what’s kept it wild,” Perrone said. “It’s not that easy to get to. It’s not that easy to enter into.”

The Atchafalaya stretches from north of the I-10 west of Baton Rouge through cypress and tupelo swamp and into marsh, before pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Such an overlooked, world class ecosystem.”

The New Orleans native took a detour on his way to discovering this place.

Following Hurricane Katrina, he moved to Oregon.

“Funny thing is I left home in search of wilderness and found that I couldn’t appreciate this until I came home,” Perrone said. “Maybe the most exotic place I’ve been was right in my backyard.”

A photographer, his love of nature and art drew him to America’s largest river swamp.

“I haven’t found any other wilderness that once you enter into it that you have this place to yourself.”

However, humans have left their mark on the basin, beginning with the Old River Control Structure which sends 30 percent of the combined flow of the Mississippi and Red Rivers down the Atchafalaya.

Buying a boat, and gaining access to the basin, was a game changer.

“I think I was like a lot of other people in New Orleans, who vaguely knew it was there and hadn’t experienced it.”

Perrone has started offering swamp tours.

Rather than the two-hour excursions to spot a hungry alligator from a tourist boat, he envisions multi-day trips with two or three passengers taking a deep dive into the basin.

“It’s not all easy to see at first glance,” Perrone said.

You’ll see the abundance under the water just as it gets nipped up by that bird feeding just for that moment.”

He aims to tell the story of a place where humans have left their mark.

At the river’s source, the Old River Control Structure channels 30 percent of the combined flow of the Mississippi and Red Rivers down the Atchafalaya.

Humans have left their mark in other ways, from canals and levees that interrupt the natural flow of water, to the oil and gas facilities which dot this working coast.

“We may be one of the last generations that’s going to experience this the way it is now,” Perrone said. “We’re talking about literally in the next 30-40 years. These changes are going to be more dramatic.”

His boat converts to a sort of floating camper, complete with a tent and canopy, and storage to last for five days.

He enthusiastically details the state’s plans to restore some of the basin’s natural flow, including small diversions to feed fresh water into marsh near Morgan City.

While the long term threats including rising seas and sinking land, the Atchafalaya Basin today is one of the few parts of the Louisiana delta still forming land today.

“How special it is for us to still have a chance to experience this and our kids to possibly experience this.”

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