Exploring At Home: Bayou Style

As we drive up to the boat launch grounds Kate's eyes widen, "We have to ride in a canoe together?" She says this as if we have done this before (we have) and then argued (we did) like all couples. 

See, I lured Kate away from a morning of sleeping in late by promising adventure - and personal kayaks. Now, we see an afternoon of couples counseling that - as a self-proclaimed natural writer - I can only describe as "Ikea-esque". 

Today, Chad Almquist, owner and guide for Canoe and Trail Adventures, has graciously let us tag along with the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club on their Cane Bayou excursion. Between back and forth emails setting up the outing I imagined a grizzled, slightly overweight Cajun with outdated gear. However, I was pleasantly proved incorrect when I met Chad. He has a smile that is instantly inviting, a quick wit, and a very relaxed demeanor. Some people are made to take strangers out into new environments for a day and bring them back safely. Chad is definitely the guide you want at your disposal.  

At times hilarious, at other times very informational, the 70 year-old outdoor nuts, Chad, Kate and I begin cruising down the current-less waterway. "Bayou" defines a body of slow moving, almost still, waterway. Typically it does not have a defined inlet or source which differentiates it from creeks. Bayous also are not technically brackish although many people mislabel them as estuaries.. 

An afternoon spent two inches above water that contains snakes, alligators, gar, and numerous insects may seem odd to some, but for people looking for an escape from conrete New Orleans or a quick adventure to be back in time for a milk punch, this is it.

Kate, my forever trusting, lovely partner, and I made a day out of it even though we prefer different speeds to life. I have included a video of her longest consecutive paddling session below as proof to her sense of adventure.

On one turn of the bayou route we are told to steer clear to the left bank because Big Joe, the 12-foot alligator with one eye, is on the right bank. The description of Big Joe is enough to conjure up Cajun tales and folklore, but mostly alligators stay to themselves and Big Joe has clearly let more than his fair share of boaters pass by unscathed. It is a rush to be down on the same level as an alligator. They are massive, magical creatures. They have fought for millennia to stay on this Earth and definitely need to be protected.

Bayou Cane Outing Adventure Storytelling Map

By looking at the map above I will write more stories about our adventure in our backyard. From the illicit house one of Huey P. Long's administrators built from stolen goods and workers to the precious mussels the Sierra Club fought to prevent being dredged up in Lake Pontchartrain, there are numerous tales tucked inside the bayou.

It's always important to remember that although the sexy version of "exploring" is to traipse across the globe, hike up mountains, swim to the depths of the oceans, there is still so much to learn at home. 

My goal for 2017 is not to neglect what is right in front of me as I look to explore more. I will focus on learning more details about history, ecology, and culture in and around New Orleans, my forever home.


How to Be a Better Adventurer: The Beginning

I've learned to always be ready with a go-cup and an air mattress since living in New Orleans. People are part of the scenery in destinations. As if we are entertainers ready to make a trip a success or failure, our concierge skills are on point.

Calories, money, and people are constantly in an ebb/flow orbit around our lives. They are something to be appreciated while in our area and remembered in the background for they may arrive again, perhaps even on a rainy Thursday morning.

If you live in a highly visited area then you will know exactly what I am talking about when it comes to having visitors. They may/may not stay with you and you may/may not have a warning before they arrive. They arrive in the city and demand the attention their trip deserves. So, if you are the visitor, here are a few rules to make it easier on your host. Many times visitors are caught up in a reality pause. They are out and about, looking for adventure, and undoubtedly concerned with their trips on social media.

Follow a few guidelines.


1)   Pay Your Way

This is one of the hardest ideas for visitors to grasp but to me it is the most important one.  For visiting friends, family, and acquaintances going to a new place and seeing people you know is a God send. You have a local to tell you their favorite jaunts so you don’t get stuck in terrible, unfriendly venues and you also have a sounding board for ideas on activities and modes of transportation.

For locals, it is an interruption in their schedule. Not to say that they do not appreciate the time to see you, but they are probably pausing their own routine—dieting, budgeting, exercise, work, free time—to go out and about and spend time with people they care about.

One of the nicest and underutilized ways of showing a visitor’s gratitude to their “host” is by paying the way. Not all outings have to be paid for and you don’t have to be the biggest ego at the table and grab the entire bill to a 7-course pairing. Any small and unimportant purchase—beer, coffee, lunch, movie tickets—are well worth their weight in gold. They will put you over the top. And you may be paying forward for next time when the roles are reversed.


2)   Try to Get Your Bearings

Cities can be downright complicated. D.C. and their one-way streets, New Orleans and the chaotic “crescent” design of the city and streets, or Paris….which I may never understand. Not everyone is directionally gifted and to some maps don’t come to mind that easily. Whomever you may be try to get your bearings.

Maps collected from France, Spain, Morocco trip. 2015.

Know before you go. Learn some of the largest landmarks that you can pinpoint yourself around. This will become inevitable in a new city and very beneficial to recalibrate your directions. Being able to find the street names you are around; the basic, large landmarks (not “the post office on Magazine”); and how far you are comfortable walking are all musts.

Plus, thanks to maps on all smartphones now it is even quicker to decide how, where, and when you will get to everywhere you need to go.

In New Orleans, it can be very difficult to understand locals and their instructions. The Cardinal compass is tilted slightly and it seems everywhere is “north”. “Riverside”, “neutral ground”, and “sidewalk side” are all eclectic directions for this city. It helps to get to know the local terminology as quickly as possible.


3)   Understand the Customs. (This may just be a nod to the inefficiency of American escalators, but move to one side if you are standing still. In almost every other country there is a standing lane, and a passing lane. It’s genius.)

It is the smaller inconveniences that will stand out to locals. Many are unavoidable until you can recognize them or are told, however, this is another great way to learn more about the people of the destination. Think like an anthropologist are soon as you come into contact with an environment you are not accustomed to. A trip can be for a very short time, but it is amazing what you can learn if you just watch what other people are doing.


4) Be adaptable. This is more than drinking an Aperol spritz for the first time while in Italy. Adaptability is something every traveler strives for. A way to seem like the cool jet-setter, equally fine in first class as they are on a river boat in the Congo. However, as we know, travel does take us out of our comfort zones. It makes us crave our routines, the very thing we were trying to get away from for awhile. To be an adventurer means the ability to adapt not just for ourselves, but for those around us. I have met many people on the road, and some are better traveling companions than others. Why? Because they adapt and make things easy for themselves and me.

Jamaica, 2015.

One time I took an overnight bus from Bagan, Myanmar to Mandalay. I sat next to a guy from Romania and when the bus pulled into the city at 2:30am we ended up venturing around the city until shops opened up around 7am. It was a hell of a time trying to fight to stay awake by smoking clove cigarettes he carried from Jakarta. It could have been a dreadful situation. No hostels opened or accepting new travelers for the night. And in Myanmar places are literally boarded up until the breakfast hour.