A 'Toon For The Big Stuff

Cleaning up the upper Teche

Published in the September 2011 Issue Published online: Sep 08, 2011 Feature Story and Photos by Gini McKain

Backyard CleanupIt all starts with the desire to better the environment, and then progresses from there if you have a love of something in nature. In the case of Blake Couvillion, president of Cajuns for Bayou Teche who got the opportunity to have a house along the Bayou Teche, it was the natural and right thing to do. Realizing that the Bayou is such a piece of Cajun history near Lafayette, La., he decided it might be nice to clean it up after years of neglect and bring it back to the way it should look.

What once was the mighty Mississippi River thousands of years ago, became a 125-mile-long waterway in south central Louisiana, after a natural process of deltaic switching. It's caused from silt and sediment deposits happening to any large river which occurs over thousands of years, and fluctuating weather cycles, while changing the river topography. This type of alluvial deposit is still occurring today as large snowfalls and heavy rains up north have ensued during early 2011, flooding the Mississippi and its tributaries in spring, as it went down to Memphis, Vicksburg and into large parts of Louisiana.

The word `Teche' as in the Bayou Teche, was named by the Chitimacha Indian for the word "snake" because of its meandering twists and turns like the reptile. It's steeped in folklore, but in the upper reaches of its headwaters at Port Barry down to the small community of Parks, the Bayou is significantly quiet and picturesque, except for trash that was once placed as `erosion control' or recent resident `unawareness' to what it does to the water quality, much less to its appearance. Some items that had been picked up were 20 to 30 years old.

In Couvillion's original efforts to clean up his `backyard' while in his 14-foot jon boat, dating back to 2007, he became keenly aware of his boat's shortcomings for salvaging the large trash found along the banks. Subsequently, in 2009, the casualty claims adjustor saw a used pontoon boat in his business travels and made the purchase. The boat had previously been used for years as an excursion boat on the Atchafalaya Basin, so it was basic in design. He bought a new 50hp Mercury engine and found a used trailer so he could transport the boat to different locations for his cleanup. The front railing was put in the back, leaving the front deck clear and wide open.

"I'm not out to pick up the small things now, like bottles and cups, or small bags. That can be done with paddlers or jon boats, which can get into the cracks and crevices," explains Couvillion. "I'm currently looking for the bigger items like washing machines, freezers, refrigerators, hot water heaters, ice chests and Full Loadtanks. I can put the `big stuff' on my boat. That's where the pontoon boat is invaluable."

The pontoon boat is a lot more stable and can hold three to four people to help gather or wrestle the lodged-in or partly submerged items and then have the others help lift it onto the deck.

"I changed the deck to marine grade plywood for endurance, so the items can then be pushed to the back to organize the space for more `stuff,'" adds Couvillion. "I also put a small steering wheel at the stern for more room, plus a metal truck toolbox to hold anything I might need to help lift or move the items we want to put onboard. A stainless steel sink sits in another back corner to store any electronics or things that need to be away from water."

The biggest advantage to the pontoon is he can pull it up to the bank, pull junk and other items up onto the deck, and then slide it back without fear of tipping or endangering anyone while they are concentrating on how to safely put a beaten up, rusty, slippery tank or freezer on deck.

Articles that also help the volunteers in the endeavor are sturdy "must-have" gloves, shovel, rake, over 20-foot long heavy rope, and a big dip net. A heavy-duty dip net helps pull the big plastic bags up out of the water, without breaking the bag and spreading whatever is in the bag-like dirty diapers-over the deck or back into the water.

"A three-prong grappling hook, whether store bought or homemade and a sturdy spear or big, heavy pry bar can help," says Couvillion. "You can spear the freezer with the pry bar and then pull the item out with a rope attached to the spear. It may be enough for you to pull it out or at least dislodge it. Volunteering for this job is not for the faint of heart, and you need some muscle, but it is very satisfying once you see what you were able to accomplish."

In the start of the cleanups, Couvillion and his crew would go out as often as possible, while getting the various communities involved in coming out and helping. Now he does it quarterly, with the "Keep Saint Martin Beautiful" litter abatement program that helps him dispose of the trash.

"The fall is a good time to clean up, because the leaves are coming off the trees and you can see the trash better," says Couvillion. "Otherwise, the trash may be behind branches in the water with the leaves covering the debris. For us, the fall cleanup will be important because the Tour de Teche is scheduled for October of 2011. We want the Bayou to really look presentable for this paddle race."

Couvillion strongly believes that the more presentable the area, the more people will use it, and it may just stay cleaner because people have an interest in it.

Not to have his boat sit idle between cleanups, Couvillion uses the pontoon to transport house materials and even a shed to his river basin camp. But it is the pride of seeing a beautiful scenic Bayou look more pristine that brings him to the Teche time and time again. You will see him on the Bayou come this early October during the Tour de Teche paddle race, greeting all who come to enjoy the cajun way of life. To learn more, visit www.techeproject.com.

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