The road to appreciating the magic and wonder of the Atchafalaya begins in Henderson
Would you be surprised to learn that one of the most exciting and innovative boy scouting programs in the United States is located in St. Martin Parish? You shouldn’t be, since the finest jumping-off point for discovering the majesty and mystery of the Atchafalaya Basin—America’s largest river basin swamp—is right here, in Henderson, Louisiana.
So it makes sense that Louisiana Swamp Base, the high-adventure recreational base founded by the Evangeline Council of the Boy Scouts of America, has attracted thousands of youths from all over the country to experience the unique environment and culture of the Atchafalaya Basin.
Now, thanks to a grant from the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (ANHA), Swamp Base is expanding its programs and its audience, adding a series of floating campsites to provide safe movable staging ground for visiting scout troops to set up camp. Even better, you won’t even need to be a boy scout to enjoy them.
Swamp Base: An Adventure and an Educational Experience
“When people think of Louisiana, and about our most iconic landscape, it’s the cypress-tupelo swamp we’ve got here in the Atchafalaya Basin that they’re thinking about,” says Ben Pierce, executive director of Louisiana Swamp Base.
Pierce explains that back in 2010, leaders from the Evangeline Council of the BSA, which encompasses the eight “traditional” parishes of Acadiana, were getting scouts involved in Basin conservation activities like planting trees and trash cleanup. While it was clear how much participating scouts enjoyed venturing into the swamp, leaders were surprised by how few had ever experienced it before.
“The Basin can be a hard place to know,” Pierce says. “Often people are scared to venture in there, even though it’s right here in our backyards.”
Leaders were thinking about ways to make the swamp accessible to a wider audience. “We thought, how do we get scouts more engaged? How do we give them something that can have a long-lasting impact on their soul?” What they ended up building was a high adventure program designed to make the Atchafalaya Basin accessible to scouts from all over the country.
Since the not-for-profit Swamp Base opened in 2013, more than 3,000 youths from 42 states have come to Henderson to discover the “real” Louisiana. During a five-day, 61-mile canoe trek through the Atchafalaya, scouts jug-line for catfish, ride airboats, spotlight gators, sleep on houseboats, and camp on islands. They learn to fish, navigate, use a blowgun, and understand activities that have impacted the swamp environment—from logging, to flood control, to oil and gas production.
Ultimately, Pierce says, the program aims to ensure that participants go home not only better appreciating the Atchafalaya Basin, but the ‘real’ Louisiana, too.
“Sure, we want our scouts to have a great challenge and an eye-opening educational experience. But we also want them to leave thinking that Louisiana ‘… is nothing like what I’ve been told on TV.’ We want to create a constituency of people who truly cherish this natural wilderness.”
Not Just for Boy Scouts
Using the $14,000 grant from the ANHA and matching funds given by a donor, Swamp Base is building two floating campsites that can be moved to different locations within the swamp depending on the season. Measuring 24 x 36 feet—large enough for a group of 12—each features basic cooking, cleaning, and toilet facilities, a frame to support mosquito netting, and a roofed area to protect campers from rain.
And while they’re intended primarily for use by visiting scouts, Pierce explains that ultimately, they will also be available for rental by the general public through Swamp Base’s for-profit affiliate, McGee’s Swamp Tours—offering overnight stays for campers and boaters, and potentially even a kind of “floating dancehall,” which could host a band, dinner tables, or space for dancing. Pierce expects to have two campsites ready to go by summer, 2021. There are plans to add more in the years to come.
No Scouts? No Worries
Since Swamp Base exists to introduce more people to the wonders of the Swamp, it’s no coincidence that it’s located in the town known as the “Gateway to the Atchafalaya,” where it occupies the former home of restaurant McGee’s Landing.
Up and down the Henderson Levee, multiple tour operators including Swamp Base’s for-profit affiliate McGee’s Swamp & Airboat Tours, offer visitors chances to get up-close and personal with the Atchafalaya’s waterways, landscapes, and wildlife. Outfits including Atchafalaya Basin Airboat Swamp Tours, and Mequet’s Swamp Tours offer guided trips into the swamps aboard boats that range from the self-propelled (kayak and canoe rentals & tours), to the family-friendly (comfortable swamp tour boats), to the high-powered (600 hp airboat rides).
At The Atchafalaya Experience, father-and-son team Coerte and Kim Voorhies offer photographers and nature lovers customized guided tours to visit some of the swamp’s most beautiful and secret spaces.
And for those wanting to keep the adventure going, Houseboat Adventures at Cypress Cove Landing can set you up on one of five fully self-contained houseboats, which they’ll deliver deep in the swamp, leaving you to spend the night with just the stars—and the glittering eyes of the alligators—for company.
Even if you prefer to keep your feet on dry land, Henderson’s swamp heritage is easy to enjoy. Restaurants including Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Crawfish Town USA offer menus that put the Atchafalaya’s bounty front and center, from catfish and rich gumbos and etouffées, to alligator bites and crawfish served every way imaginable. However you choose to experience the Atchafalaya, there’s no place like Henderson to begin your journey.
[Read more about the fascinating past and present of Henderson, here.]