The air at dawn is thick with humidity. The haze is a sheet of gauze softening the flat landscape, filtering the sun and damping the sounds of wildlife just awakening. The mosquitoes are out though, for this is the wetland of Louisiana.
Fed by three river systems—the Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau – 85 percent of Cameron Parish is coastal wetlands, open water or open range. The quiet is palpable with only the occasional truck heard in the distance. The largest parish in Louisiana, Cameron's population was decimated by Hurricane Rita in 2005 – less than a month after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans – and again in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. The 2010 census counted 406 residents, a 79 percent drop since 2000.
The wildlife abounds. Over a million alligators populate Louisiana along with untold numbers of birdlife, otters, nutria, minks and fish. Cattle graze on grasslands; rice and sugar cane fields still thrive although its once great sea-island cotton plantations are history. There are 26 miles of Gulf of Mexico beaches blissfully free of high-rise condos, hotels or even beach houses. Cameron Parish is nirvana for the outdoorsman.
Bobby Jorden is the manager and guide of Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours. A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Bobby has spent most of his young life in the marshes of Cameron Parish. Besides first-hand knowledge of the marsh ecosystem, Bobby has a degree in natural resource conservation management. Working for Grosse Savanne since a teenager, he was asked just a year ago to assume the management of their new ecotourism division. Bobby is also an award winning duck caller having finished three times in the top ten at the World Championships in Suttgart, Arkansas.
Fifty-five thousand acres of Cameron Parish is the property of Sweet Lake Oil & Land Co., the family owned parent company of Grosse Savanne founded 125 years ago and the inheritance of Laura Leach and her husband Buddy. Along with maintaining cattle, rice and drilling they created the renowned Grosse Savanne Lodge, beloved by hunters and fishermen, and ecotours on the restored fresh water marsh. Originally part of the 2,000 acres still in rice, they restored 480 acres of former rice paddies back to a marsh in 2000 for the enjoyment of guests. Tours by boat range from two hours to a full day and can be customized for special interest such as birding or photography.
The Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge has been responsible for the ten-fold resurgence of wild alligators – 100,000 in the 1960s to over one million today. The wild population is at its maximum sustainable numbers given the availability of habitat. Strict state and federal laws regulate both the hunting and farming of alligators.
Ben Welsh's alligator farm, Airboats & Alligators, is located on a partial salt-water marsh thick with green algae. It's a nursery for shrimp, eggs, crabs, redfish, otter and alligators. All parts of an alligator sold on the commercial market are utilized including their blood for certain antibiotic medications. According to Ben, and the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, alligator farming has been the salvation of the species.
Alligator eggs are removed from the wild and sold to commercial farms where they're incubated. It's a tricky process requiring that the eggs be maintained in exactly the same position as they were in the nest least the embryo detach from the interior of the shell and be destroyed. But in the wild the birth and survival rate of baby alligators is low due to natural causes and predators. By law the farms must return 15 out of every 100 alligators born to the wild.
Ben's marsh is saltwater creating a different ecosystem. His airboat, although noisy, skims across the landscape, but when he cuts the motor to observe nature silence envelops. If you don't have time for boating, a stroll on the wooden walkways of the Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge and a visit to the national park's visitor's center is an excellent alternative. A population of just over 400 may be tiny, and the location may be vulnerable to natural disasters, but the residents of Cameron Parish live in a wonderland of nature.
Discloser: the author was a guest of the Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau .