If you’ve ever traveled Interstate 55 south to New Orleans, you have passed over that exotic, and almost mystical area between two of Louisiana’s major lakes — Lake Maurepas, and Lake Pontchartrain.
The mixed cypress and hardwood swamps bordered by brackish and freshwater marshes are connected by Pass Manchac, the winding waterway that connects Lake Maurepas with its much larger brother, Lake Ponchartrain.
Little has changed this area since Iberville passed through in 1699, en route to the French fleet anchored at the Chandeleur Islands. He and his brother Bienville split their forces at Bayou Manchac, just south of the site of present-day Baton Rouge. They were returning from their exploration of the Mississippi River as far north as the Red River’s junction with the “Father of Waters.”
In a fascinating coincidence, Iberville was told of another way to the Gulf of Mexico by local Indians. He followed Bayou Manchac to the Amite River, and down to Lake Maurepas.
Crossing Lake Maurepas, he crossed Lake Ponchartrain after passing through Pass Manchac, and entered Lake Borgne off the Gulf of Mexico by passing through the Rigolets.
He arrived at his fleet on the same day as Bienville, who had retraced their path down the Mississippi River and back out into the Gulf of Mexico to the Chandeleur Islands.
The body of land bounded by these streams and the Gulf of Mexico was known as the “Isle of Orleans.” This “isle” has played large roles in the history of Louisiana over the centuries.
But the wetlands of the Manchac Pass area remain wild and untamed even today. Louisiana has preserved these swamp and marsh areas in two large wildlife management areas — the Joyce WMA, a 27,487-acre area immediately north of Pass Manchac, and the Manchac WMA that is comprised of 8,000 acres south of the pass, with its eastern border the waters of Lake Ponchartrain.
Both of these areas are accessible almost exclusively by watercraft, and travel by motorized craft is limited to specific areas.
One of the most-popular duck-hunting areas (and one of the best in the entire Ponchartrain basin) is a 500-acre shallow pond known as “the Prairie” just off the shoreline of Lake Ponchartrain.
To reach the Prairie, the most-likely travel would be by boat from the North Pass Boat Launch. You would then travel east through Pass Manchac, turning southwest and following the shoreline of Lake Ponchartrain until you reached the canals and waterways at the southern end of the WMA and the Prairie.
It was exactly this route taken about 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 21 by Bradley Thompson and Todd Braddy of Amite, as they embarked on another of dozens of trips into this area the two young men had made over the years.
Both dedicated and skilled outdoorsmen, they have grown up hunting and fishing in the Florida Parishes — with deer and ducks being their favorite hunting quarries.
Riding in Braddy’s new Gator Track boat, powered by a 35-horsepower Mercury outboard, they expected nothing more than another pleasant day in the outdoors, hopefully killing a few ducks in the morning, and heading back home that afternoon for Christmas activities with friends and family.
Anchoring off a rock jetty along the edge of The Prairie, they tied the other end to the jetty, and walked down it to make their decoy set. They were on the backside of roseau cane that grew along the jetty, and set out about 15 decoys.
The weather didn’t cooperate to push ducks their way, and after an hour they noticed the tide was dropping fast and the decoys were changing direction — a bad sign. It was time to get out of there before they were caught in shallow water and rough seas.
Thompson began collecting decoys while Braddy walked back down the rock jetty to check on the boat. Thompson heard Braddy yelling at him to leave the decoys and come to the boat — they needed to get out of there before it got any worse.
The waves grew bigger, causing the boat to slip its anchor and slam up against the rocks of the jetty, where it was pounding, half grounded.
Managing to work the water-filled boat off the rocks and raise it on its side, they attempted to dump out some of the water. It was then they discovered the hole that ended any thought of using the boat for transportation.
Pushing the boat up on its side also gave them a measure of just how bad the wind was whipping up the lake — waves were crashing over the raised side of the boat, soaking them.
Leaving the boat secured as best as they could, they headed back down the rock jetty. They had heard shooting farther down earlier and hoped to flag down a fellow hunter for a ride out — but the shooting had stopped, and no one appeared.
They had left their cell phones in a storage compartment in the boat; when it was holed and flooded, the phones were ruined.
With no one in sight and the weather getting worse, it was apparent they might have to spend the night in the marsh.
The week before, hunting hogs with another buddy, Thompson had kept his friend’s cigarettes and butane lighter for him. Digging in his coat pockets, he discovered the lighter.
“We were glad to find that, I’ll tell you,” he said.
Walking into the roseau cane on the floatant marsh, they made a sort of shelter by weaving the tops of the cane together and gathered limbs off the dead cypress trees found everywhere in the area.
“It was a miserable night,” Thompson said. “A front came through and the temperature dropped — but it was the rain that kept up off and on most of the night that made it so miserable.
“The rain would just about kill the fire. We’d get it built back up with cypress limbs, just start getting warm, and it would rain and dampen it back down. This went on all night long.”
About 7:30 the following morning, a group of duck hunters appeared in their boat, spotted the campfire and motored to them, asking if everyone was OK.
“The first question out of my mouth,” Thompson grinned, “‘Does anyone have any Copenhagen?’”
The second question was “Can you fellows give us a ride out of here?”
The rest of the day was devoted to getting a larger boat and going back to collect the decoys and boat.
Years ago, hunting with friends on 1,200 acres of rough West Feliciana land, I noticed a habit common with these country boys.
When we went into the woods to hunt, they all considered a butane lighter as important a piece of equipment to carry as their rifles, ammo and knives.
As they said, if you fell down a ravine or out of a tree stand and couldn’t get yourself out of the woods, it would likely be most of the day before anyone would come looking for you.
As they put it, you likely could reach enough material to make yourself a fire — which would serve to keep you warm and act as a signal.
Of course, we all knew which stand each person hunted, and approximately what time everyone would come out.
I often hunted this property by myself. I always made it a point to tell my wife where I intended to hunt, and approximately what time she could expect me to call. I then had a reasonable expectation of someone coming to look for me before I passed from starvation — or boredom.
Thompson joked and made fun of himself and Braddy and the miserable night they spent in the marsh — and it gave me great pause in hearing his story.
Many trips in my younger days were made with not nearly enough gasoline for the outboard to cover an extended emergency. And I learned early on (with the advent of cell phones) to put the phone in protective cover after salt spray found its way into the “dry” storage of a boat and ruined an expensive new phone.
And I was reminded of my friends and their simple habit of always carrying a butane lighter with them in the woods.
We all can take a great lesson here and pack the boat with a space blanket, a simple first aid kit, a couple of butane lighters and the normal safety items required by the Coast Guard.
If you are hunting, pack a daypack with some simple survival items such as lighters, first aid kits, extra water and a survival whistle. The shrieking noise of one of these devices will carry through the woods or across the water a lot better than your voice — and will be instantly recognized as a distress signal.
And, most importantly, no matter how many times you have been to the area you are hunting and/or fishing, and no matter how simple, safe and accessible an area it might be, tell someone where you plan on going, and give them an approximate time you will return.
Then, sitting there shivering, watching the rain douse your warming fire, you will have the comfort that someone will be looking for you, even if it is likely to be the next day.