From the shores of Louisiana: Inside the Atchafalaya water basin

Dean Wilson guns the outboard engine on his snub-nosed, 17-foot aluminum bateaux through thick water hyacinth. We are in the heart of the 1.4 million acre Atchafalaya water basin which is both his backyard and his preserve – he is its formal “keeper” – when I ask if he has ever in 20 years gotten lost in this maze of narrow channels and floating forests:

“Not lost, but one time I did have my boat break down. And I was in a place that only one man alive could find me. Luckily my cell phone worked and he was just leaving the house. Otherwise, I always know where I am.” Good thing, since there’s no way we could walk out of this morass of thigh-deep water.

We spend the morning racing at full-speed up the man-made canals – dug by oil companies to give them access to the abundance of natural gas that lies beneath – his one-year-old puppy Shanka standing on the side of the boat, or becalmed in the heart of an old-growth Cyprus forest admiring the hundreds-year-old trees and wildlife that uses them for homes. Barn owls hoot in the near-distance. The gentle swoosh of wings — herons, egrets and ibis — break the calm air. The occasional four-foot alligator slides off a downed tree or mud bank. And fish, mullets, leap out of the brown-but-clear water.

“Why do they jump?” I ask Dean.

“I’m not sure,” he answers, in an accent that is part Cajun, part native Spanish. “Because they are happy?”

%Gallery-95432%Dean came to live on the edge of the swamp 20 years ago. “I wanted to go live in the Amazon, and in preparation looked for a similar place to acclimatize, so I moved here. And I never left, never made it to Brazil.” Part Spanish (his mother), part Ohioan (his father), he fit perfectly into the patchwork populace of South Louisiana. Initially he lived on the banks of the swamp, first in a tent, then a trailer, living off what he could catch by hand, hook, arrow or spear, including fish, raccoon, mink, otter, duck. Moving into a small house surrounded by swamp he made his living as a commercial fisherman and hunter for 16 years before his passion – protecting the swamp, particularly its Cyprus forests – became his livelihood. For the last five years he’s been the official Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, associated with the 200 water watchdogs operating under the umbrella of the Waterkeepers Alliance.

Other than the oil and gas companies that covet any access they can get to the oil and gas rich swamp land, his biggest enemy were clear-cutters making their way into the swamp to take the protected, hundreds-year-old Cyprus trees to turn into garden mulch. Several years of investigation, which included sneaking around the swamps in camouflage, sneaking into lumber yards and lots of aerial photography, helped him force the hand of the big box stores – specifically Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, which were selling the illegally-gotten mulch – into stopping. Today taking trees from the swamps in Louisiana is limited to a small corner on the eastern edge, away from the Atchafalaya. His efforts are not always lauded; he’s been followed, shot at, had a dog poisoned.

“I still follow my share of trucks loaded with trees,” he admits, “so occasionally it still happens. But it’s much better than it was.”

Why protect a place most people consider God-forsaken, a region believed (wrongly!) to be home to only melon-sized mosquitoes and poisonous snakes? “Actually, I believe this is where God resides, in the heart of the swamp,” he says.