Boy Scouts project could draw thousands to Atchafalaya

By C.E. Richard

On a bright autumn morning, we eased our canoes into still waters near Henderson, Louisiana, and paddled a few clumsy strokes before old muscle memories took over. Soon, we were gliding easily across the glassy black surface of the swamp.

Navigating our way through a graveyard of gray cypress stumps, I felt a familiar excitement rising. No matter how much time I spend in the swamp, it always feels like a new discovery.

I tagged along with Art Hawkins, the Executive Scout overseeing the Evangeline Area Council, and Ben Pierce, the director of the Boy Scouts’ newest High Adventure camp, Louisiana Swamp Base. Both men spend lots of time in the Basin, but it was clear that neither of them ever tired of it. Ben and Art were giving a brief paddling tour for a few scientists from The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge. They wanted them to get a feel for the wild areas not far from the place where Swamp Base is being built.

Dr. Melissa M. Baustian, a coastal ecologist with the Water Institute, had moved to Louisiana from the Midwest. She seemed especially excited to be out in the Atchafalaya Swamp that morning.

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“It’s just an amazing wetland ecosystem,” she told me. “And it provides important services to us humans. Many of them, we don’t fully appreciate.”

That’s why Melissa and her colleagues, geologist Ryan Clark and the Institute communication director Amy Wold, accepted the Scouts’ invitation to join them in crafting a robust program of education and scientific research for young people coming to Swamp Base.

Together, they are working to devise valuable “STEAM” learning experiences (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) for young people while they explore some of the 1.4 million acres that comprise the basin. They want Swamp Base to provide what Baustian calls “meaningful activities that get their hands wet and their feet muddy to really learn about the natural environment and cultural heritage that’s right in their own backyard.”

Active learning is a critical component of Swamp Base, which is constructing an extensive education and research center, deep in the woods, as part of its complex. When complete, the facility will be able to accommodate field trip groups of 70 students, from K-12.

At the start of the morning, there was much talk of future scouts and students learning scientific methodologies while collecting water and soil samples or gathering big data sets for calculating seasonal water levels. But, as we paddled further out, that conversation gave way quickly to simpler expressions of wonder. “Wow! Look! Isn’t that amazing?”

The Basin showed us many things remote from most people’s day-to-day experiences. Bald eagle nests. Puzzling animal tracks in the mud. Odd mollusks and strange, ancient fish. Derelict houseboats and artifacts of an older way of life in the swamp, left behind by the people who once dwelt there. I grew curious about the sight of green saplings, growing incongruously from the hollow spots in decaying cypress. Seeds of a different species sprouted new life from the detritus collecting in the bowls of the long dead stumps.

“They’re button bushes,” one of the scientists said. “They’re native.”

Proposed Swamp Base, which, if built, could attract thousands of visitors to the Atchafalaya. 

Proposed Swamp Base, which, if built, could attract thousands of visitors to the Atchafalaya. 

Less easy to identify were the big globules of gelatinous slime that clung to roots and branches just below the surface. We hypothesized about the kind of frog, or perhaps fish, that had deposited what we could only conclude were egg sacs. We collected a sample so that Melissa, a biologist, could get a closer look on shore and identify the species that laid them.

With a knife, she cut open one of the sparkling, translucent globules. Inquisitively, we all hunched around the specimen. Rather than squishy and wet, it had a surprisingly firm consistency all the way through. “Kind of like a big, clear gummy bear,” one of the men remarked. Inside, however, there was no sign of eggs. Or anything else recognizable. Scientists and experienced outdoorsmen alike, we were all stumped.

“I have no idea what this stuff is,” Melissa seemed delighted to concede finally, as she took photos to bring back to her lab for more study.

“So,” I asked drily, “Do you really think kids will find anything of scientific interest out here in the swamp?”

From a notion

Swamp Base began as an idea in 2009 as the Evangeline Area Council sought ways to celebrate the centennial of the Boys Scouts of America the following year. They’d heard about the grand plans of councils in big, metropolitan areas, and scouts here wanted to do something to distinguish themselves from the other 279 councils in America.

“We started asking ourselves, ‘What do we have here that’s special to our region?,” Ben Pierce told me. The most obvious answer was also the most overlooked: The Atchafalaya Basin Swamp.

The council organized a big one-day festival near Butte La Rose, complete with authentic local foods, Grammy-winning Cajun musicians, and an army of boy scouts with their sleeves rolled up, ready to work. In the course of a single day, they planted over 5,000 native cypress and oaks.

But one day just wasn’t enough.

“To really grow that love for a place, that understanding of it, to get people really invested in it, we needed something more than just one day out of the year,” Pierce said.

From the success of that day unspooled the far-reaching vision for a new High Adventure camping experience in Louisiana, adding Swamp Base to only four others in the U.S., including the famous Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico and Sea Base in the Florida Keys.

But no other place can deliver what Louisiana has to offer.

Evangeline Area Council Boy Scouts of America Executive Director Art Hawkins, left, and Louisiana Swamp Base Executive Director Ben Pierce.  (Tim Mueller photo)

Evangeline Area Council Boy Scouts of America Executive Director Art Hawkins, left, and Louisiana Swamp Base Executive Director Ben Pierce.  (Tim Mueller photo)

Swamp Base provides two treks through the Basin. In Trek One, Scouts spend five summer days paddling 61.6 miles through diverse ecosystems, including bayous twisting through the hardwood uplands in the north; dim, flooded forests of cypress; and finally the wide-open, freshwater lakes near the southern end. Along the way, they camp on remote wilderness islands, aboard houseboats, and in cabins at the 24-acre Island Outpost at Lake Fausse Pointe. Traveling in crews of eight or nine, with two adult leaders, the scouts are encouraged to catch their own food using traditional methods, including cast nets.

If Trek One is meant to test a scout’s mettle, Trek Two will push him to his limits. Considered the toughest camping adventure available to scouts, it’s 75 miles of paddling and four nights of primitive camping. Stopping at islands en route, the scouts sleep in jungle hammocks with only mosquito netting and a rainfly. They eat only what they bring with them and what they can catch along the way.

And, throughout it all, scouts learn about the unique cultures that inhabit the region, including Acadian, Creole, and Chitimacha Indian populations. They learn about wetlands ecology, about various species of indigenous plants and animals, water and soil science, and, perhaps most importantly, about conserving wild places.

When Swamp Base began operations in 2013, 140 scouts signed up. Within four years, that number had risen to over 1,200. Scouts have come here from across the country and as far away as Scotland and the South Pacific.

But with 4.75 million Scouts in the U.S. alone, Swamp Base is just getting started.

Thanks to a one-to-one match of state funds and private donations, the Evangeline Area Council purchased a 99-year lease on 450 acres along an ancient river delta near the town of Catahoula in St. Martin Parish. Managed like a state park, the property provides an ideal location for constructing what Swamp Base will become. Among other features, it will offer a welcome center with wildlife and cultural exhibits, a theater, and an outfitter’s shop. There will be a K-12 educational center, a university research center, dormitories, and a conference center open for use by public and private groups.

Recognizing that the High Adventure camp will only be in use by Scouts during the summer months, the designers have made sure that Swamp Base will serve the needs of schoolkids, university researchers and the general public throughout the other nine months of the year. Fully operating, Swamp Base is projected to attract 18,000 youth participants annually and create 70 full- and part-time jobs.

“It started off as a scouting project,” Pierce said. “But now? This is bigger than Scouts.”

Going big

A bit bashfully, Ben Pierce admits to some pretty sweeping ambitions for Swamp Base. He told me that he hopes many of the youth who come to Swamp Base will go home changed.

“Some of them will grow up to be business leaders maybe, or scientists, or teachers, or lawyers and legislators,” he forecast. “They’ll become influencers, and if they learn to love our swamp now, maybe they’ll be the ones to preserve and protect this place in the future.”

Under threat, the Atchafalaya Basin certainly needs friends. But can an arduous week in the wilderness really change lives?

Ben said it begins with changing minds. He points to a word-association game that starts every trek. Before they arrive at the Basin, he asks each scout for one word to describe their impression of swamps. Dangerous. Dirty. Disease-infested. Nasty.

“What they know of swamps comes from movies and television,” Ben explained. “To most of them, nothing good comes out of a swamp.”

After they’ve completed their trek, Ben asks the same question again, and their answers are very different. Scouts’ responses are jubilant.

“If we’ve done our jobs, the words they use now are beautiful, vast, majestic, and underestimated,” Ben smiled. His favorite response so far came from a woman in California who completed a trek and described this part of the world as “blessed.”

What began as a day of tree planting has become something of a crusade for these Scouts. They’re still planting trees— 53,000 so far—but they’re trying to grow something even greater.

“We’re the only council in the country that’s still celebrating the centennial,” Ben said. “What better way to celebrate the last hundred years of Scouting than by making a dedication to the next hundred?”

Baton Rouge Area Foundation