Sprawling over a million-acre swath of southern Louisiana, the Atchafalaya River Basin is the largest swamp in the United States and one of the country’s most ecologically varied regions. Its wetlands, bayous and marshes are home to 300 species of birds, 90 species of fish and shellfish and 54 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the great American alligator. It owes much of its haunting and mysterious beauty to the towering, moss-draped bald cypress trees that thrive in its swamp waters.
For hundreds of years, the Basin’s human dwellers—from the Native Americans who harvested its timber to the present-day Cajuns who hunt alligators in its murky depths—have subsisted on its many bountiful resources. In the second half of the 18th century, the region became a refuge for several thousand French colonists who had been expelled from Acadie, part of present-day Nova Scotia, for refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown and church. Known as the Acadians, the settlers adapted their way of life to the changeable nature of the Basin’s wetland environment, where water levels fluctuate depending on the season, by favoring houseboats and campsites to more permanent homes. Many began growing sugarcane and other crops in the fertile bayou soil, while others made a living as loggers, hunters, trappers or fishermen.
The Acadian community grew and prospered, eventually giving birth to the distinctly Louisianan “Cajun” culture, known throughout the world for its food, music and unique dialect. Today, the Cajuns make up a significant part of southern Louisiana’s population, and many continue to embrace the lifestyle and traditions of their ancestors.
In spite of the region’s natural bounty and unmistakable splendor, swamp living has never been easy for the Cajuns and other residents of the Atchafalaya Basin. For instance, the disastrous Great Flood of 1927 decimated many communities, sparking a mass exodus that dramatically reduced the region’s population. But to many people born and raised in the cradle of the lush and majestic Atchafalaya, the dangers and challenges they face are an accepted–and even welcome–part of life.