Cover Story

Return to the Basin

by Mary Tutwiler

More than 25 years after his debut book, Louisiana's premier nature photographer comes full circle.

Wildlife photographer C.C. Lockwood is a long drink of water. In his khakis and sandals, his summer blond hair softening to fall's caramel tones, yesterday's sunburn weathering his face, he looks like a man who could walk out his back door in St. Francisville and disappear into the woodland without a trace. Which is what he does regularly, spending weeks at a time exploring the largest freshwater swamp in the United States, the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Fort Smith, Ark., native arrived at LSU in 1967 as a college student, at a time when the Basin was under threat of being drained. There was a proposal on the table by the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Atchafalaya River to hold three times its volume, creating an even greater spillway for flood control of the Mississippi River in times of high water. In low water years, the Atchafalaya River would drain its swampy basin, allowing development in the area between the levees. Lockwood, a country boy from a land of clear water creeks, had a political and environmental awakening. "The Corps was going to use public money to basically drain the land for the large landowners in the basin," he says.

He first set foot in bayou water in 1973 and began photographing the wild beauty of the basin. Interstate 10 was completed the same year, opening up a view of Henderson Lake to travelers. Lockwood put together a photography show in 1975 that gave many people in the Baton Rouge area their first glimpse of the wilderness at their back door, but he didn't think it was enough. Working with a coalition of environmental groups, crawfishermen, hunters and swamp dwellers, he made a 16-mm movie that caught the attention of National Geographic and helped turn the tide in stopping development of the basin. Atchafalaya: America's Largest River Basin Swamp, Lockwood's first book, came out in 1981 and won the Louisiana Literary Award for Best Book of the Year.

Between 1973 and 1981, Lockwood virtually lived in the basin, developing an abiding love for the wildlife, landscapes, and the people whose lives were inextricably interwoven with the swamp. In subsequent years, he has gone on to publish nine books, covering subjects from Mike the Tiger to the Grand Canyon and Yucatan Peninsula. Five years ago, he felt the call to reexamine the places he loved in the Atchafalaya Basin and explore and record the changes that have occurred in the last 25 years. The result is his new book, C.C. Lockwood's Atchafalaya. Recently, The Independent Weekly had the opportunity to chat with Lockwood about his latest work and his continuing fascination with the basin.

Tell me about your first encounter with the Atchafalaya Basin.

When I first went out in the Atchafalaya ' as much as I knew about wildlife, and I wasn't afraid of any wildlife ' sticking my foot in the bayou the first time to wade across, I wasn't used to water you couldn't see through. It was muddy water, and the Ozarks had clear streams and lakes you could swim around in and look at the fish. After I crossed a bayou a couple of times waist-deep I lived through it, and I adapted quickly.

Getting lost never crossed your mind?

My definition of lost is not being here right now. If you're lost, you're gone. You hadn't come back. I got turned around a few times, but in the early days I'd go on five-day canoe trips, and I had plenty of food and I would be exploring. A couple of times, especially in the '73-75 years of the high water, when everything looked the same, I would not exactly know where I was for a few hours or even a day, but it's only 18 miles wide, so if you go east or west, eventually you're going to hit the levee.

Won't you hit islands and ridges if you paddle due east or west?

Portaging ' that's what I did regularly because I always wanted to get back to places, to see what was across that spoil bank or levee. I'd drag my canoe, or I'd drag my bateau with a small motor. So that's part of the way I work, and part of the way I enjoy being out there is to really explore. And so the hard work of pushing your canoe through mud or over a levee was no problem.

I would think that would stop a lot of people.

It does. Most people who call me and want to go in the Atchafalaya want a guide because they think that they can get lost. During low water, the maps are good; if you stick to the main bayous, I don't see how you get lost. But what I do is nothing. Think of the early explorers like Lewis and Clark pulling 2- and 3-ton boats all the way up stream from the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. And they didn't have maps. That's work there.

Do you bring a lot of gear with you?

More and more as I get older. I can still picture those first days in my little Grummond 15-foot aluminum canoe. I painted it camouflage brown and green. I had a good old Coleman metal ice chest. I put three cardboard partitions in it and put some foam rubber in the bottom. I kept cameras in one, lenses in one, the film and filters in the third, and that was my waterproof container. It made it through rain, mud, dew and everything. I had a little orange semi-waterproof bag that I had a blanket and spare clothes in, then I had an army surplus pad and a $19 pup tent made out of canvas. I'd carry a jug of water and a small ice chest of food for my five-day trips. And a tripod of course. Today I have more comforts. I've got a better sleeping bag, a better tent, a better pad, so the gear just adds up over the years. I've got a 16.5-foot canoe and a 16-foot bateau when I use a motor boat. In the bateau you can carry everything you want. I prefer to paddle. You see more, you're going slower, you get some exercise, you're quieter, and you get to hear the sounds. But if you've got to get a long way, the bateau is pretty necessary.

I heard you're a Luddite when it comes to digital cameras.

I'm switching to digital, but the Atchafalaya book was entirely shot in film. And at the time I did it I was going to ignore digital, but I've finally succumbed to the modern world. I've been experimenting with digital the last six months which ended in our Grand Canyon week-long trip, and I successfully made it through on chips and batteries. I was eight days away from electricity on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I'm going to keep shooting digital for a while.

How much has the nature of the basin changed over the last 25 years?

The landscape changes are pretty obvious. The accretion [build up of land as sediment from high water settles in the lakes and bayous of the basin] has got a lot of different species of trees growing in the shallows. But to me the big change is the social change. It was a deep dark secret swamp only used by the Cajuns, crawfishermen and commercial fishermen who lived nearby and a few still lived in it. And an occasional bass fisherman who mainly stuck to the canals back in the '60s and '70s. They were the hot spot for catching fish. I was afraid for my life a few times back there. Some of these local fishermen, I'd be way back there and they'd see I had long blond hair well over my ears back then, paddling an aluminum canoe although it was spray painted brown and green. They'd look at me, they'd never seen anybody without a fishing pole, taking pictures. I don't know if they didn't want anybody back there or they didn't trust me. And they'd hardly ever say hello. And as friendly as most Cajun people are in the towns, a few of them kind of scared me out in the swamp.

Until I did a small article in the Baton Rouge Advocate about Alcide Verret, he was the friendliest man I ever had met, and then they started recognizing me and said, 'Oh, he's the guy who put Alcide's picture in the paper.' Then I quickly became friends with all of them. And they were coming into the modern age. They were moving out of the swamp because they had outboards, and they could have air conditioners and TVs in their houses, and when the water came up and down it was kind of unreliable to build something in the Atchafalaya. And as they got TVs and magazines and newspapers, they came into the modern age a little behind the people who lived in the cities. And then I guess through my work and many others, with boat ramps being fixed up by Wildlife and Fisheries, the Atchafalaya Basin Commission and the public hearings on saving the basin, it got to be well known, and today you could see a jet ski or all kinds of stuff out there that to me, doesn't quite fit in with the swamp.

How do you feel about the Atchafalaya Basin Program's projects today?

We're still fighting to get the water right. There's a lot of dead water out there that some of the people I interviewed really talk about. The east-west spoil banks are really a problem. We started talking about them in the '70s and '80s. The oil companies just had carte blanche up until then to do whatever they wanted. When they were realigning the river, they had 18 dredges working out there at one time and no rules. They filled up lakes and put spoil wherever they wanted and really changed the hydrology of the basin.

If you've ever watched water run in a rain, it's going to go where it wants to go. We could build levees and dams, but if we just disappear for 50 years, the water will find a way through and it will go back to its best flow. That's why I don't exert too much energy to try to get this project to get the water to go this way or that way, because I say just knock down some of those blockades and it's going to clean itself out. If you do it engineeringly, you're always going to affect something else at least in the short term. I don't think we're really smart enough to make it as well as nature could; nature always did it better.

Your previous book, Marsh Mission, was conceived as an effort to get national attention focused on coastal erosion. It came out a week before Katrina hit. What is your thinking now about the coast?

Marsh Mission was a public awareness project. After Katrina it became moot. If you're stupid enough not to know how important the marsh is, what more can I do? We made a stab at it.

A lot of people have given up because they think the sea level is going to rise 3 or 4 feet. But that's going to take 100, 150 years if it rises that much, and I think it's worth it to shore up the barrier islands. Before Katrina, I had this perfect environmental dream of knocking the levees down below New Orleans and letting the river spread out, and to keep the shipping, use more dredges to keep the Mississippi open. But the natural process couldn't do it in 2,000 years. After the hurricanes, I'm totally for the pipeline sediment transport. There's something like 70 million cubic feet of sediment they dredge for the shipping each year. For a few dollars more they could pump it over the levees instead of back into the current and out into the Gulf. And just grin and bear the little sand piles that will be kind of ugly for a few years. But they'll blend in over time, and save it. The Dutch pump sediment 200 miles. We don't even have to do that, just 10 to 40 miles in Barataria or into Breton Sound. We could really do a lot for the fish and wildlife habitat and definitely help out the hurricane protection for New Orleans. If a governor of Louisiana got it going and started restoring the marsh in a positive way with a plan that worked, he or she would have the greatest legacy of any governor past, future or present ' ever.

There are a lot of angry, frustrated people working to get help for the coast and for water quality in the basin, as well as the public right to use the basin for crawfishing, fishing and hunting. But you manage to keep your serenity. Your new book has a Zen-like calm to it.

I've always been a peaceful person. That's why I ended up in this profession. My favorite part of my job is actually being out there, exploring, taking pictures ' the longer the trip, the better. The first day's always hard, getting dirty the first time.

The problems with water rights are going to intensify as the population grows. The land is going to get more scarce, and the people that do own it are going to keep the lawyers busy. There was so much space out there and so few people out there, you could go anywhere you wanted. Except maybe on a few deer hunting weekends and on some highly managed deer clubs. But they're definitely going to have fights over every single right out there. It happened a lot sooner in some of the coastal marsh parishes with duck clubs blocking off canals and even bayous and saying, "This is my land, you can't pass through." It's going to happen in the Atchafalaya. When I grew up, we'd go knock on a farmer's door in Arkansas and say "Can we go shoot some quail?" and he'd say, "Don't mess up my land or litter or anything," and come Christmas, we'd drop a box of Whitman's chocolates on his porch for letting us go quail hunting a few times. Now it's all leased up, and you've got to belong to go on private land. It's definitely a function of more people fighting over the land. The land's not going to grow any, and we've got more people.

Landscape-wise, habitat-wise, the basin will eventually change. Those willows will eventually die and oaks and stuff will grow, and it will be a great hardwood bottomland, which will be a very important ecosystem. The area below Morgan City will probably turn totally into a cypress swamp, and the marsh will move on farther out the bay toward those barrier islands out there, and we'll still have those interlocking habitats out there. But to me, as long as it's undeveloped, if it's a little bit more hardwood bottomland, a little less swamp, I'm still glad we have it.

C.C. Lockwood's Atchafalaya book signing
3 p.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
Barnes and Noble, 5705 Johnston St., 989-4142