It is November, a week before the opening of the deer season in the Atchafalaya Swamp deep in the Louisiana delta country. The winter rains have not yet begun and the land, covered with dead and dying leaves as varied as stars, is a mix of browns and shades of gold. The sun hangs low in the autumn sky, giving way to a full winter moon, bright and white. I have come to the camp in the swamp a week early to set things straight, clean up and eject the rats, snakes, plump spiders and other squatters. Selfishness has also brought me into the swamp early, for I very much like autumn here among the cypress trees and prowling bobcats and foxes. Autumn is a season the swamp wears beautifully, and I want to enjoy it for a time before the shooting starts.
I spent the morning cleaning out the wood stove and the afternoon following a deer's trail just to see through what country it would lead me. This evening was divided evenly between putting together a new bunk bed and new shelves and walking back into Big Bayou to watch the wood ducks rise with the moon and fill the evening with their plaintive whistle.
Although this place is called the camp, it is perhaps undeserving of the name. It isn't a shack, hut, cabin, lean-to or even a tent. Seen from a distance up the old logging road, it resembles a large sandwich bag, if anything. As structures go, the camp is simple, yet sturdy, secure and to everyone's liking. It is 12 feet by 12 feet and constructed of four old telephone poles dug in as securely as logs can be in the swamp's shifting, sinking earth. It has a roof of tin sheets taken from a deserted trapper's cabin now occupied only by honeysuckle vine and wild hackberry, and an old door frame made of young oaks that were splintered by lightning in a violent August thunderstorm. There is no bolt on the door, only a piece of wire hung loosely around a nail. The camp's walls are not walls at all, but long, wide strips of plastic nailed to the corner telephone poles and tucked under the sheets of tin. These walls are like windows through which the swamp enters in its every mood. This is a camp that truly puts a man in the woods rather than isolating him from them.
On cold winter mornings, fog seeps under the walls and the makeshift door, filling the camp like so much lacy spider webbing. Two discarded oil drums were used to make the double-barreled wood stove that sits on a platform of stones at the center of the floor. It is a hardy stove and can quickly burn out the chill of a December night and fill the camp with the warm and sweet smell of smoldering ash and oak. The floor is packed dirt that's swept every morning after the cook fire outside the door is lit and the coffee started. This is how it should be; the swamp is no place for linoleum. The camp's furnishings are modest, austere—an old brown card table, well-seasoned logs for chairs, three sets of bunk beds built from whatever lumber was available, cabinets made from old fruit and vegetable boxes, an odd assortment of pots and pans, tin plates, utensils, two Coleman cookstoves for times when heavy weather forces life indoors, three lanterns and fuel.
The camp sits in a small hollow in the thick swamp, perhaps three miles from the highway that leads to Krotz Springs and Baton Rouge, and half a mile from the small bayous known as Twin Sloughs. The old logging road that runs by the camp is now hardly more than a path. Young willows, poplars and oaks have already begun to reclaim it. The Atchafalaya River cuts through the swamp as it bends and twists toward the Gulf. Having a river nearbly gives the camp an added dimension of wildness and isolation. In Louisiana, boundaries between land and water are forever shifting—nothing is fixed or lasting. Land is always at once rising and being sucked under, vanishing. When the rains come the camp is quickly reduced to an island amid a hundred lakes and sloughs, a sanctuary from the rising water for ducks and geese and cold hunters.
Passing years have made the camp less of an intrusion into the swamp than it once was. Now it seems to be as much a part of the landscape as the red-bellied woodpeckers, duckweed, the wandering deer and the raccoon tracks down by the river. In the spring, jewelweed and wild orchids bloom at the camp's doorstep and foxes sniff at the plastic walls by night looking for a way in, a way to the bacon. In the hot, still days of August, when the swamp is dry, there are cypress knees behind the camp as old perhaps as the swamp itself, knees taller than a man. Down the old logging road is a thicket of dewberry where the deer stop to browse on their way to drink at the river. In February, the swamp is an endless string of lakes, ponds, sloughs, pools. It is a damp, wet world alive with the flash of thousands of wings and the sounds of chatty ducks and herons, egrets and rails. The woodcock's mysterious evening song, fields of yellow-backed Banana Spiders seemingly hung in midair on their immense webs, deer feeding in the open soybean fields nearby on frozen winter mornings—all this and so much more is given freely at the camp's door, an invitation to become a participant in the natural world rather than being merely an observer, a chance to feel the swamp's pulse as well as your own.
Tonight, the fire lit, coffee on, bedroll spread, I am content to listen to the barred owls bark down by the river and stare at the moon. Perhaps there will be geese tonight, tight wedges of them flying across the moon, pulling December and January behind them. That would be something, something indeed. If I see them, it will be a sign of winter. Tomorrow will be colder.