Echoes of Yesterday

Coureurs de bois are a vanishing breed.

Once upon a time, a man walked alone on a desolate pothole prairie in Southwest Louisiana, shrouded in the mist of a cold winter morning. A made-up tune he whistled hung on the frosty contrails of his breath, and didn’t carry beyond the lagoon he circled. The ground was squishy. One of his boots had sprung a leak and seeped through the sock to his foot. He ignored the chill. Such discomforts came with the fur-harvesting profession.

He was a coureur de bois, kindred spirit of the rugged mountain men, beaver trappers in the northern territories of yesteryear who blazed trails crosscountry, clearing the way for pioneers who came later and turned unsettled wilderness America into a populous nation.

He was a woodland fur trapper until a hurricane churned through the cypress and tupelo bottoms, scattering trees like match sticks and obliterating his trapline.

With the season just a month away, he was compelled to make a major career move. Exchanging leases, he bundled his snares, packed the rest of his camp gear and went south of the tidewater swamp, his home turf, to the unfamiliar coastal marsh.

Inspired by the exquisite sunrises and sunsets exclusive to wide-open spaces, given easy access to wild rabbits, ducks and fish to eat and fur animals to trap, he quickly adjusted to his new workplace — never mind there wasn’t a tree within a thousand yards in any direction to temper the winter winds.

Constant exposure to the sun tanned his complexion the color of saddle leather and aged his face a good bit past his actual 35 years.

The woodsman trudging the Louisiana marsh that December morning was a fur harvester of a different breed than the mountain men. His quarry was not the broad-tailed aquatic beast made famous by British manufacturers of beaver hats, but rather a timid little animal with a low-class name but a high-class fur coat, the muskrat.

Approaching the first in a long line of carefully placed snares, he beheld not a kitten-sized muskrat but a dog-sized animal he took to be a beaver at first sight but turned out to be a nutria, a fur animal he knew about but had never seen in one of his sets. Now there it was — all 20-plus pounds of it.

The time was 1940s. The South American-imported nutrias escaped from private zoos or were released from fur farms in the 1930s. Initially few in number and dispersed throughout nearly 4,000 square miles of wetland and coastal marsh habitat, it nonetheless took only 10 years for the nutrias to invade his lease on an obscure parcel, putting an end overnight to his endeavors.

Yesterday he caught muskrats around the potholes. Today nutrias. The muskrats had vanished.

Although he had no way of knowing it, the trapper’s introduction to the nutria was the beginning of the end of the muskrat’s long reign as king of the state’s marshland fur-bearers.

Neither did he envision the change in the trapping profession’s workplace from muskrat marsh to mink and otter swampland that would eventually force him and scores of fellow fur harvesters to find some other way to make a living and at best become sideline trappers for supplemental income.

Due to habitat interchange along with mounting social disapproval of milady’s fur garments and ever-milder winters reducing the opportunities to wear luxurious coats and capes, the fur industry took a big hit.

As if that weren’t enough, worse was yet to come as an offshoot of the introduction of nutrias to North America and specifically to Louisiana. The innocent-looking rodents multiplied like — well, like rats. They proliferated in the fertile deltas, accelerating deterioration already in progress from Pearl River in the east to Sabine River in the west.

Voracious eaters of marsh grasses and soil-binding reeds bordering bayous and canals, nutrias, among the world’s foremost invasive pests, are said to be contributing factors to the coastal zone’s present inability to buffer urban regions against Gulf storms to the extent it once did.

The loss of roseau cane fields, likely due to a combination of nutria invasion and saltwater intrusion, was very damaging. The vast estuaries between Mississippi River outlets to the Gulf — collectively known as the “Mouth of the River” — southeast of New Orleans were at one time buttressed seaside by dense jungles of roseaus 10 to 12 feet tall.

Those sturdy reeds and the flexible marsh they grew on were the first solid masses ocean storms encountered when they slammed ashore.

In theory and in fact, the cane barriers bore the brunt of violent weather, giving a little but not buckling. It was a brilliant piece of natural engineering designed to lessen the impact of raging winds and tidal waves, and it worked for centuries. To the benefit not only of fur harvesters, who require pristine habitat, but also of inland inhabitants, too often battered by high-category hurricanes.

But another force might be at work along the extreme coast, a geological alteration similar to the one upriver that has kept the Army Corps of Engineers busy (via the Old River Locks) preventing the Mississippi from diverting to the Atchafalaya River.

As we all learned in high school geography, eons in the past Gulf of Mexico swells rolled over the land Louisiana now occupies.

Unfortunately, the Gulf seems bent on reclaiming its lost territory — with success in some places.

To name one: In the Pass-a-Loutre region, brackish-water ponds and bays nestled in roseau thickets where duck hunters set up shooting blinds and freshwater fishermen caught largemouth bass in sight and sound of the Gulf surf 15 years ago are today part of the Gulf again.

Nutrias, it should be noted, are only one element of the ongoing erosion problem. There are the hurricanes, of course, and miles of economically vital man-made canals serving industrial interests — inadvertently opening up more grazing ground for the big rats.

Unlike the fragile prairieland they overran, vegetarian nutrias posed no direct physical threat to muskrats. They simply routed them, bulldozed their dens aside and uprooted the three-corner grass, bulrush and other marsh plants that sustained them.

Nutrias entered the fur market at a fairly handsome $5 a pelt for adults. However, they were difficult to skin out while traversing a soggy marsh as well as too bulky to carry in the rough from set to set on long traplines. As a result, they proved undesirable substitutes for diminutive muskrats.

No place more unwelcome than in Cameron Parish. At the Cameron Fur Festival, a standout in a state renown for spectacular culture celebrations, native muskrats had to share top billing with alien nutrias in the popular fur-skinning contests even though the latter had little crowd appeal other than awesome teeth and the odd physiology of the females, whose mammary glands are situated on their backs. Only the swaths of underbelly are valued by furriers.

Another example of fauna and flora once viewed as benign exotics brought over from foreign lands is the water hyacinth of Central America. Hunters, fishermen and pleasure boaters from Highway 90 to Interstate 20 are well acquainted with hyacinth, the plant with a Jekyll & Hyde personality — charming flower, big-time nuisance.

Hyacinths, like nutrias, are here to stay. Control rather than eradication is the viable option. Nutria control efforts have thinned out herds in the coastal sections considerably. And increasing numbers of alligators, who feast on the rodents, are making a dent in swampland colonies — good news for woodland trappers.

Marshes need decades of time to recover from major storms — swamps only years. While the days of supporting a family by harvesting fur animals full time are long gone, a number of people are carrying on the traditional Louisiana profession.

It’s natural for men and women with swamp water in their veins to set mink or otter snares on winter weekends off from regular jobs, earning enough money to buy another television or trade in the old outboard for a new one. After all, historically the Bayou State, thanks to the expertise of generations of coureurs de bois, ranks right up there with Russia as top producers of precious furs worldwide.

The bounty system instituted several years ago by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) is the flagship of nutria-control projects. Conducted statewide annually, the program has reduced their numbers in areas of the southwest marshes, for example, to the point where muskrats have made a comeback.

Wetland and, in some sections, farm crop damage by an overpopulation of muskrats is greater than that of nutrias.

This observation by the Fur and Refuge division of LDWF is bittersweet news in that fewer trappers are operating in muskrat terrain these days to take advantage of the imbalance. For one thing, muskrat specialists must walk the marshes, where it’s tough going physically and financially unrewarding, whereas nutria harvesters can tend traplines along coastal bayous and canals by boat, obviously faster and easier.

It would be unqualified good news if the incidence of more native muskrats than alien nutrias prevailed in all districts of the marsh. But the marketplace suggests otherwise.

For instance, in the 2003-04 fur-harvesting season muskrat sales totaled approximately $2,400; nutria, $150,000.

Despite significant advances in wetland restoration and pest-control technology, it’s disheartening to consider the probability that Louisiana’s marshlands, as robust as they are, will be painfully slow recovering their former glory.

Even if they do, not many old-time fur trappers will be around to walk upon the fur animal paradise and compare it to the way it once was, the way they remember it, with muskrat castles rising above the lush landscape here and there like miniature Superdomes.

Perish the thought! But the dire prediction of some ecologists regarding Louisiana’s coastal marshes is nonetheless food for thought.

It does not bode well for future generations of fur harvesters; neither does the distant future look bright for some inland heritages. In view of continuing ocean storms, the seers speculate that houses in towns and cities currently only a dozen or so miles from Gulf of Mexico shores will be — if they’re still there — beachfront real estate in less than a hundred years. Could they be as right as those who, once upon a time, foresaw the inevitability of a killer Katrina? Or a Rita?

Meanwhile, it’s ironic that Louisiana’s fur industry, at one time impacted negatively by foreign imports, now depends in great measure on foreign markets for its very survival.