Taking a flashlight tour of Bluebonnet Swamp

It’s very easy to take Louisiana’s natural beauty for granted, especially when you live in the city.

I don’t come from the deep bayous or rural prairies where my parents and grandparents grew up. I’m used to concrete, Olive Gardens, outlet malls. I’m too focused on interstate on-ramps and new burger joints in Mid City, pointed too directly down the freeway toward New Orleans to look around at the Maurepas Swamp.

But something’s changed, lately. Namely, a couple dozen cardboard boxes in my mom’s dining room, all the necessities of my life packed up for a fresh start in the mountains of northern Colorado. I’m weeks away from leaving Baton Rouge, possibly for good.

The closer it gets, the more I find myself clinging to all the local essentials I usually blow off for something more novel. My usual adventurous diet of pho, fancy sandwiches and craft tacos has been replaced with po-boys, blackened gator and chargrilled oysters. I’ve started tracing bayous in my periphery when I’m driving past them, paying closer attention to the screaming cicadas and frogs outside my house at night. I’ve realized that, for the first time in 27 years, I’m going to live somewhere that won’t have any of this.

225 staff writer Kaci Yoder investigates the creatures hiding in the swamp’s thick foliage.

That’s the type of mood I’m in when I pull up to BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp on a steamy Friday night in August: ready to give another kiss goodbye to something I love about my home state.

Though the swamp has been open as a BREC park for more than 20 years, and though I grew up not 10 minutes down Highland Road from it, I’ve never actually been. Since I was a kid, I’ve eaten onion rings at the Brew-Bacher’s across the street and checked out books from the library next door. But in all this time, I’ve never actually set foot in the swamp.

Tonight, I’m here for BREC’s recurring Flashlight Night. Yes—I’m exploring the swamp for the first time in the dark.

I’ll admit, I’m skeptical at first. From the parking lot outside the visitor’s center, you can still see traffic on Bluebonnet Boulevard and lights from the little law firms and offices. How much of a swamp can it actually be?

Still, I shrug my rain jacket on in case the day’s downpours make a return, and my photographer and I step onto the boardwalk path toward the nature center, which is nestled just inside the swamp.

And that’s when it starts: As soon as we round the first corner, we’re surrounded on all sides by arching trees and brush and muddy water. The sounds and sights of the city are snuffed out. No cars, no businesses, no streetlights. A few hundred yards down the path, there’s a small field with stacks of beehives off to one side, and on the other, there’s the nature center with its floor-to-ceiling windows and warm yellow light spilling out into the quickly darkening swamp.

It smells like Girl Scout camp: bug spray, wet ground, palmettos. Inside the nature center, it kind of feels that way too, with all educational signs and eager kids and friendly workers excited to help. One young woman walks by with a black and white snake coiled around her arm and asks if I’d like to pet him.

My reflex is, nope, absolutely not. But today is about reconnecting with Louisiana. I gingerly extend my hand. The snake placidly allows himself to be stroked with two fingers, as the woman tells me he’s a sweet, relaxed guy.

After a lap around the heated terrariums filled with snakes and turtles, we’ve got our flashlight out and we’re on the trails, which wind in three short loops through the swamp. The boardwalks quickly give way in places to packed-dirt trails, still soaked from the recent rain. We take the longest loop, but it’s not long before we’ve wandered off to other forks and into intersecting trails.

It’s slow at first as the sun just begins to go down, and we check tree roots and creek banks for signs of life. Bugs, mostly—tons and tons of bugs, contributing to that constant swamp buzz that keeps all sounds of the outside world shut out.

A family with small children passes us as we stop to take photos. Soon, we can hear the youngest ones screaming down the trail—they’ve caught sight of a huge turtle, by the sounds of it. The trees enclose you in tunnels throughout the trail, while bridges carry you over water teeming with hidden mysterious critters. The humidity is almost thick enough to drink, and my jacket’s sticking to me.

My doubts from earlier are long gone. We are well and truly in the swamp.

As night begins to fall, I find myself thinking back on how often I forget just where I live, that most places in the U.S. don’t have these lush trees and swaying moss and a ground of mud so full of living creatures it’s practically breathing. My flashlight illuminates spiderwebs between rough tree trunks, elaborate and glittering with movement. I’m terrified of spiders, but for tonight, we’re coexisting. We’re both home.

Of course, where there’s wilderness, there are also things that go bump in the night. The darker it gets, the more unsettled I become by the croaking and rustling in the trees. The snap of a twig a few feet away sends me running—and then tripping and falling on the boardwalk.

As I lie on my back laughing at my own clumsiness, slime in my hair, it seems ridiculous that I was ever scared. I come from people who catch catfish with their bare hands. I’m a swamp baby.

I pick myself back up and start tromping back through the swamp toward the parking lot, one last creature rumbling through the leaves under the boardwalk.

It’s surreal to step back out onto the pavement again, knowing what I just left behind. It’s almost impossible to believe this dense, green, living swamp is nestled inside the city I’ve lived in all my life.

Peeling my jacket off my sweaty arms as soon as I’m back in the car, I point myself home and think about how many times I could have visited this swamp over the years and just didn’t. I don’t have any regrets about leaving home, but sometimes I do wish I’d enjoyed Louisiana more while I had it.

Some parting wisdom, from a soon to be expat: If you’ve never been to the Bluebonnet Swamp, just take a couple hours to explore it. We live in one of the most naturally beautiful states in the country, but in the sweltering summers and sopping floods it’s easy to forget.

Don’t forget. Get a little lost under the cypress trees. Run from a big frog. And take care of what we have.

Flashlight Night at the Bluebonnet Swamp recurs every few months and invites visitors to explore the swamp’s trails after typical park hours with flashlights. The next Flashlight Night is Nov. 16. brec.org

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of 225 Magazine.