February 16 2009 by Mike Mason
Just how close can you get to a real-life alligator in the wild without being eaten? The answer is: very, very close. Just a little bit closer, it turns out, than the point at which you wet your pants. When you go to New Orleans (and you should go to New Orleans), eat beignets and gumbo in the French Quarter, stay up late listening to some great, dynamic jazz, go to the aquarium--do all those things that people say you have to do in New Orleans. You do have to do all those things.
But don't miss the chance to walk around a swamp filled with real-life alligators. Take your children, too, because the Barataria Preserve that is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve will teach them things they should know about Mississippi environments and wildlife, and the 'gators prefer bite-sized meals. The Barataria Preserve is only one of six separate sites that make up the Jean Lafitte National Park. Separate components of the park include the Chalmette Battlefield, important to the War of 1812, the Wetlands Acadian Center, and the Acadian Cultural Center-Lafayette, all of which are worthwhile. But, in the Acadian Cultural Center-Lafayette, you won't come face-to-face with a very large reptile with very large teeth.
The Barataria Preserve offers twenty thousand acres of classic swamp, open to strolling, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking, which means serious outdoors-people will not lack for distractions here. "Classic" here means hot, wet, and lush. If you go in the summertime, as I did, it won't be more than twenty-five seconds before you'll either be very glad you have mosquito repellant, or very sorry you don't. All that lush, muggy space means that the preserve is seldom crowded, and because of the extensive network of boardwalks, bridges, and footpaths, you can walk with your two young children for twenty minutes through steamy, dense swamp and begin to wonder if anyone would be able to find you in time if the Honey Island Swamp Monster came out of a bog and took after you.
Rule number one in the preserve is: pay attention. If you watch look carefully, you'll be very surprised when that rotting log bites off the lower half of your right leg. The smaller alligators can be more startling than the large ones. Baby 'gators seem to like lounging on the boardwalks themselves, so that you can come near to stepping on them or running your hand over them if you let your mind wander too far from your immediate environment. You want to pay attention for other reasons, too. There are more than three hundred species of birds in the preserve, and a wide variety of other interesting animals such as armadillos and muskrats.
The preserve is well-staffed, and guided tours by foot and boat are available. Tours even operate at night, when the tone of the preserve seems especially conducive to a Swamp Monster attack.
Don't be put off by the directions to the preserve that often say it's "outside Marrero". I've been to the preserve, and I still don't have any idea where either the inside or the outside of Marrero is. The preserve is within five miles of the French Quarter, an easy drive on highways 90 and 45. Besides, the park operates a visitor's center just a couple blocks from Jackson Square in the middle of the French Quarter. In addition to the kind of thing you would expect, like displays and artifacts, the rangers at the visitors center offer walking tours of the French Quarter starting at 9:30 every morning, and they sometimes do the unexpected, like giving out twenty-five free walking tour tickets according to an age-old, New Orleans tradition--first-come, first-served.
And take note of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum right close to the park's visitor's center. As I understand it, when faced with amputation, many of the British and American soldiers who fought in the war of 1812 went looking for alligators, rather than face the saws and axes on display in this museum. The surly grin you find on an alligator's face in the park won't seem nearly so jagged after you look over the Pharmacy Museum's "surgical" tools.