Swamp People

Touring gator-infested waters on a Starcraft

May 2014 Feature Brady L. Kay

Just to clarify, on our gator tour we were only trying to look for alligators, not “choot ‘em” as Troy Landry from the History Channel show Swamp People often yells. The reality show focuses on the challenges of hunting gators and continues to grow in popularity, especially for those who haven’t spent a lot of time in the swamp. However, most Louisiana natives don’t seem all that bothered by the gators and for the most part just ignore them.

Walter and Dawn Lundin both grew up in Louisiana, so seeing an alligator isn’t exactly newsworthy to them, yet they were still willing to help me locate as many as possible on this early summer day. I had contacted the couple a few months earlier and they promised me a true Louisiana-experience aboard their Starcraft pontoon and I was excited to get a personal swamp tour from two people who know the area best.

The Lundins live on the Amite River Diversion Canal and on this day they had invited their close friends Keith and Dana Dials to join us on our gator tour. This couple recently moved to the area from Kentucky and seemed just as excited to find alligators as I was. Dana and Dawn met as teenagers, working together in nearby Baton Rouge, and have been close friends ever since.

Starting Our Tour

“In the early 90s this area was far from being developed and was just a swamp and forest land,” recalls Walter as we pull away from his house on the river. “But now it’s packed with houses all along the way.”

We started out heading southeast down the Amite River Diversion Canal and just across from their place—roughly 200 yards or so—is the Hilltop Bar, which is where we would conclude our tour that day. This bar is five miles by car, but a very short boat ride from their home. The couple often takes their pontoon when looking for a bite to eat at one of their favorite water-side stops instead of making the drive by car.  

We quickly met up with the Petite Amite River and passed under a golf cart bridge—the only land access to the houses on Three Rivers Island. Just over two miles later we met up with the Blind River. Walter is the captain on this day and you’d guess he grew up on this river based on his extensive knowledge of the region, but that’s not the case. Just before Hurricane Katrina, the Lundins moved from Baton Rouge where they had spent the majority of their lives and relocated to Saint Amant, La.

“We moved out of Baton Rouge to get away from the traffic,” explains Walter who works as an engineering manager in Baton Rouge. “Plus it’s actually quicker for me to get to work as well.”

Gator Hunt

Looking for alligators is a hobby, or at least it was on this day as Walter was very accommodating to circle around whenever anyone onboard spotted one. As we made our way through the Blind River by the time we passed the Blind River MM 11 sign our count was already at six gators.

Walter would do his best to slowly approach the gator lying on the log enjoying the sunshine so we could get a closer look. But eventually the gator would get spooked and jump back in the water. By Mile Marker 12 we were now at seven for the day and we were just getting started.

We reached the furthest point south we were going to go on the Blind River when we stopped at Our Lady of Blind River Chapel. It was built in 1980 by Martha and Bobby Deroche. Within the walls of the chapel are icons and statues donated by hundreds of worshipers.

“They have been brought here by people all over the world, from everywhere,” says Nathan Deroche, who now takes care of the chapel. “Everybody brought a little piece of something, and some people made some statues and things and placed them in here.”

Nathan took over the upkeep of the chapel when his aunt and uncle, the original builders, could no longer manage it. It’s a beautiful chapel and worthy of a stop if you’re ever in the area.
While off the boat I took the opportunity to get some photos of the two couples on the Starcraft while I stood at the dock of the waterside chapel. I was enjoying my time so far and knew the Lundins were two of the friendliest and nicest people you’ll ever meet. In fact, I’m sure the thought never entered their minds, but I was extremely glad when they came back to the dock to pick me up because I have no idea how I would have got back if they hadn’t. The camps or houses in this area are powered by generators and are only accessible by boat and I had already seen enough alligators to know I didn’t want to swim back. 

One Messy Bite

We back tracked a little and then continued to head up Blind River towards where it meets up with Diversion canal. By this time the sun was out in full force and the coolers were being opened frequently. As our captain sipped on his iced tea, he asked his wife Dawn for something to snack on. While keeping his eyes on the water he reached in the can of nuts, only to discover there was now melted chocolate inside as well so his hands came out covered. When he realized there was more than just nuts in this can he tried to quickly eat his handful, but ended up getting as much chocolate on his face as he did in his mouth. After he cleaned up it was time to break out the almonds—and just the almonds.

The snacks were good, but the group was ready for some real food so we made our way towards the Blind River Bar (BRB). It was established in 1983, but until recently it wasn’t a place you’d want to stop like it is today.

“We think of it as a Hooters on the water kind of place,” Dawn joked as we pulled up. It's only accessible by water and it’s perfectly located between two very busy waterways that intersect on this corner location so regular traffic is always flowing. On a busy weekend there is up to 16 employees working to keep the crowds happy, and each employee needs to be shuttled out to the location each day since it’s only accessible by water.

While we were waiting for our food, Walter pulled out a map to show us exactly where we were, where we had been, and where we planned to go. Then with the music thumping we ate our food and were on our way. The place is so organized that they even have “valet parking” where staff members will help tie off your boat when you arrive and help you get on your way.

Back On The Hunt

Leaving BRB, we went northeast on Blind River a little over a mile, entering Little Chene Blanc bayou. Little Chene Blanc is a narrow bayou where we had to go slow because of the shallow water and stumps. Little Chene Blanc led to Chene Blanc, which led us to the Chinquapin Canal

We passed under a low bridge into Old River and past Vals Marina—which is another one of the couple’s favorite restaurants—then under another low wooden bridge, finally reaching the Amite River.

As we pass the Amite River MM 22 sign I stopped to update our gator tally, which was at 17 and by now we really stopped trying. The 2008 Starcraft 220CR with a Mercury 90hp outboard is the Lundin’s first powerboat after owning just sailboats and it was the right type of boat for the day.

“We looked at everything before buying, but it was the Starcraft that we felt had the best price-point and the most value for what we were looking for,” says Walter. “The pop-up changing room, the layout and just everything about this boat.”

The couple had considered buying a used boat, but was unable to find any in the area.

“We looked for a used boat, but no one was selling a good used one,” says Dawn. “We even thought about going to Georgia to look since at the time the water was low on Lake Lanier and people were selling their boats at a good price, but in the end we just liked the Starcraft.”

The boat was purchased from Ronald's Boat Broker in nearby Gonzales, La., who was willing to work with them. Looking back now, if the couple had it to do all over again they wish they would have gone just a little bit longer.

“We’re limited to about eight people so it would be nice to have a 24- or 25-foot model,” says Walter as we continued to cruise on the 22-foot pontoon. “But when we bought it we didn’t know anyone and we thought it was just going to be us since our kids are all grown up now.”

Establishing Roots

The Lundins finished building their home in 2007 and the Starcraft pontoon quickly followed.  

“We started building two weeks before Katrina hit in 2005,” says Walter. “It took us 15 months to finish because all the construction workers were so busy after that hurricane so we ended up doing a lot of the work ourselves.”

But the couple has no regrets moving and just loves this area.

“I grew up in Baton Rouge, but now we avoid it if we can,” says Walter. “I don’t miss it at all.”

Along our journey there seems to be a common theme as we pass fish camps as well as larger homes that are now accessible by vehicles as well as by water. The area bleeds purple and gold. It’s clearly a Louisiana State University dominated state, where it seems nearly everyone has a deep love for LSU and the Tigers.

No Fear

We pass a few swimming holes where kids continue to go off rope swings and play in the water. I guess it’s true wherever you go; kids love the water and enjoy jumping in—even if they are infested with alligators. It has to be a local thing because I had no interest in going for a swim, even with the afternoon sun beating on our backs.  

We pass an island near a rock wall divider that is full of kids of all ages enjoying the rope swing. Just a little further up we round a private party being held and we spot kids throwing crawfish in the water while feeding the gators.

I gasp a little when we pass one child who is dangling his feet just above the water as he tosses food to a nearby gator. I couldn’t help but ask if he was worried about the gator biting his toes when going after a crawfish, but the kid just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. You gotta love locals.

Adding To Our Total

We followed the Amite River generally west, all the way until it reached the beginning point of the Diversion Canal at the weir. Walter makes one last attempt to find us some gators as we motor slightly north into Flat Lake, a lily pad-covered lake. As make our way down the bayou it eventually became too narrow for the boat to pass, forcing us to turn around. The area isn’t well-traveled and is postcard perfect when you think what a swamp should look like. We go under some low hanging branches, which tends to make Dawn a little nervous with the threat of falling snakes, but according to her husband it’s just all part of the experience.

Our final gator count is at 19 for the day as we approach the Lundin home after making a complete circle. After a day out on the water it’s time to cool off so we make one final stop before putting the boat on the lift at their home. We head across the water to the Hilltop Bar for some appetizers and drinks. It’s funny how we went from spotting gators to eating them, but around here they’ll fry anything.

“Eating and drinking in Louisiana really is a sport,” says Dawn with a laugh. “The people here love to have a good time.”

Besides the alligator balls, we also sampled Cajun-style fried Boudin balls and crab fingers (crab claws). Plus they insisted I try the gumbo, which was quite tasty.

Back In The Slip

Sadly this day must come to an end as we motor across the channel and dock the boat at their home. But just to prove that southern hospitality is not a myth, Walter and Dawn send me away with a full gift basket of Louisiana’s finest. From snacks to drinks, I was a little taken back by their generosity. And of course the gift basket also includes an LSU hat so I was instantly able to fit in with the locals.

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