April 30, 2011 11:06:00 PM
There is nothing quite like the feel on your skin of a spring morning in New Orleans. The air is soft, enveloping, almost aqueous. It caresses. Aromas from the night before waft down pitted streets and between crumbling buildings. The fragrances are complex and varied, and as far as the nose is concerned, the intersection of Bourbon and St. Peter in the Quarter is a different planet from the banana warehouses of Tchoupitoulas or sidewalks beneath the genteel live oaks of the Garden District.
Friday, a week ago, Good Friday, I had the good fortune of being in New Orleans. With nothing on the agenda until evening, our plans for the day were to leave the city and drive south to Venice, "The End of the World" to get as close as we could to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
After coffee and a stale pastry from a shop on Magazine Street, we -- myself, wife Beth and daughter Tanner -- made for the river bridge, which would take us to a path through the strip centers of Algiers, Gretna and points south.
After Belle Chasse, the cheek-by-jowl commercialism gives way to fruit stands, nurseries selling citrus trees and the occasional lawyer''s sign offering help with BP claims.
Soon we were driving between two levees: the Mississippi River was to our left, the coastal inlets of the Gulf to the right.
Below Port Sulfur we diverted to the levee where riding down the one lane of gravel we enjoyed a view of the vast river where rusting hulks of moored tankers larger than you would think possible sat dormant while herons, osprey and a duck with bright orange beaks and feet frolicked in dense shoreline vegetation.
200 shrimp boats
In Buras we turned into a boat harbor where about 200 shrimp boats were moored. There we found Kim Champlin and Aaron Brown swabbing the deck of a 32-foot fiberglas fishing skiff. The men are shrimpers and were planning to go out that evening -- "Fishing is better at night," Champlin would tell me later. "Everything works off the moon."
The girls were hungry and Champlin directed them to the Black Velvet Oyster Bar -- "best place after my house" -- where they found fried oysters.
For Champlin Hurricane Katrina was a curse and the BP oil spill a blessing ... of sorts. As another fisherman told us that day, everything south of the donut shop in Port Sulfur was under water after Katrina. "It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off," he said.
Champlin said the area was under water for 15 weeks, and we saw very little on this watery peninsula that wasn''t new construction. Like Champlin, most of the residents now live in prefab modular homes. He lost his home and boat, but with the insurance money he was able to replace his home and buy a metal-hull skiff, which, put into use during the BP cleanup, earned him enough to buy two fishing boats, one of them the two of us were standing on.
Champlin, 53, is of medium build and height and has a leathery face browned and furrowed by sunlight reflected off water and the blinding white of his boat. On this day he is unshaven and wearing a tan "BP Clean-Up Team" baseball cap, T-shirt, red sweatpants and the white rubber boots that appear to be standard issue for Gulf fishermen.
Fell in love with it
Seventeen years ago, Champlin went out on a fishing boat with a friend. He left a tug boat captain and returned a fisherman.
"I fell in love with it," he says.
"My family has been here four or five hundred years, as long as the white man has been here," he says.
Life is simple here and options few in this part of Plaquemines Parish. Most of the men fish, work on the water or repair and make fishing boats. Another shrimper we met said he was the fifth or sixth generation in his family to earn his living from the sea.
"All we know how to do down here is work," he said.
Times are tough for the shrimp fisherman now, Champlin said. Prices are low and the quality of their product is in question.
"My wife won''t eat ''em," he said, "and they are how I make a living. But I ain''t going to stop eating them."
Only eight or 10 of the boats in this harbor are fishing. For now they''re all living off the BP money, Champlin said.
In years past a shrimper could make $100,000 in a year; that''s before paying for diesel, food and a deck hand. Another shrimper we talked to coming in from a 48-hour trip said he brought in $3,100 worth of shrimp, but after $700 for fuel, $50 for food ("You can''t eat right and you can''t sleep right," he said, "but the scenery is different every day.") and paying his hand, he netted $1,600.
Prices are down -- $2.70/for 10-15/lb. count. They were $3.50 to $4 three years ago -- and once the May season opens, those prices are expected to drop to as low $1 a pound.
No evidence of oil
Champlin says there''s been no evidence of oil on the shrimp he''s been catching.
"The river was high and that saved us; the river kept pushing it to the side. If the river had been low, the oil would have come in here.
"If the oil hadn''t sunk, we could have cleaned it up," he said.
Champlin also worries about the shrinking wetlands, which in earlier times served as a buffer against the forces of nature. He says the integrity of the land has been weakened by mining and oil drilling and the waters of the Gulf have been steadily eating away the wetlands.
See that out there," he said, pointing to a broad lowland south of the marina. "You used to could walk across that. Now you would sink."
"We thought the oil spill was going to be another Katrina. We didn''t lose our homes, and we all still have our boats."
Still, the question of contamination remains, and many, like Champlin''s wife, are avoiding Gulf seafood. Until that doubt is removed, prices will be low, fishermen say.
"It''s over when I see the price at the dock going up," said Champlin.
Leaving Buras we continued the short distance to Venice. The levees end and the water comes up to the road; we stopped to pick an exotic wildflower later identified as a hymenocallis caroliniana, a water spider lily. We passed two women from Alabama. One was throwing marshmallows to a group of alligators; the other taking pictures.
Soon there was nothing but bayou and the Gulf. While it may not be the end of the world, it was the end of the road.
As we headed back to the Crescent City, we all agreed it had been a well spent day. The land and the wildlife on it were beautiful, and seldom are you able to see people whose lives are so entwined with nature. One can only hope that we will some day come to our senses and begin taking better care of this fragile planet. For their sake and ours.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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