Participating in service projects has always been very appealing to me. After all, the participants usually gain more than they give. Last year, I missed the deadline to go down south with Penn State’s Habitat for Humanity Club during spring break, so when the opportunity arose this year with my Christian fellowship, Navigators, I immediately signed up. There were approximately 132 volunteers and 32 cars that traveled down to New Orleans, LA this spring break, and it was an extremely rewarding experience.
On our free day during the week, a couple of us decided to go on a swamp tour in Slidell, LA. We were greeted by southern accents and friendly tour guides as we walked into the Honey Island Swamp Tours Cabin to pay for the tour. It was a very beautiful, sunny day in Slidell — a much-needed and eagerly-welcomed change from the bitter cold of State College, PA. We all filed into a little motor boat and our tour guide, Ed, started the engine.
He explained that a swamp is just a name for a flooded forest. If there are no trees, then it is not a swamp. It was interesting to see the water line on all of the tree trunks. We passed some damaged houses along the banks and our tour guide showed us just how high the water level rose when Hurricane Katrina hit five years ago. It was very sad to see.
Everyone became very excited when he mentioned that the swamp’s largest male alligator, measuring at 14 feet, was out basking in the sun the last time he checked. Sure enough, the alligator was still there as we rounded the bend. It was crazy to be able to observe the massive reptile in its natural habitat. We learned that he was absorbing the sun’s rays to boost his metabolism so he could gorge on prey for nine months straight. The only reason we stayed calm was because the alligator didn’t flinch a bit. Everyone whipped out their cameras to photograph the scaly giant.
As our tour continued, Ed pointed out several other alligators in the water. He even lured them closer to us by throwing them marshmallows, explaining how they think they’re eggs, and he even fed one a hot dog! He told us that these were female alligators, measuring about 7-8 feet long, and when one of them swam right up to the boat, Ed warned, “Don’t lean over the railing, she’ll jump!” It was terrifying to see one up close.
Ed sped through the swamp on the boat at around 15 mph and because of his many experiences; he could spot a snake in a bush from a mile away. He pulled the boat closer to the plants every time he spotted a snake, and it took everyone else much longer to differentiate between the snake and the sticks, since it was camouflaged. We found one snake with a bump in its body and Ed told us that it had just eaten a frog. I was amazed at how accurately he could recognize things in the swamp.
As we continued floating through the swamp, Ed told us more about the trees and pointed out the oldest ones in the swamp. There was one that was completely hollow on the inside, so we could see straight through it at a certain angle. I was amazed at how everything worked together in nature. As we ventured into a more woodsy part of the swamp, I caught a glimpse of a dark brown, furry creature. At first I thought it was a little bear, but Ed jumped up and said it was a wild boar! We were all so amazed and all the cameras started flashing at the wild creature. I felt like I was playing PokEmon snap, and the boar was a rare specimen so we had to work extra hard to capture it. Ed told us that he never sees boars at the swamp and that one must not be used to humans yet. He said we were probably the first and last tour to see the boar!
With the exception of the wild boar, it was interesting to see how the animals, though still very much wild, had adapted to humans. None of the animals seemed to feel threatened by our presence. I can now say that I was a foot away from a wild alligator! I really enjoyed the tour because we were able to visit the animals in their natural habitat instead of watching them through glass in a zoo. Although we still invaded their habitat to run swamp tours like the one I went on, I learned that nature is very forgiving and the animals quickly adapt and learn that we are not a threat to them.