“Waterways tell the story of our history,” says Donovan Garcia of Jeanerette. “In the early 1900s, there were only 100 miles of paved roads, open roads in Louisiana. Waterways are what brought us to the area where we live, and paddling events show us why we should protect places like these in Louisiana. We are getting a backyard view of Louisiana.”
Garcia has been paddling the area’s waterways since he was 12, and the 56-year-old has been an avid kayaker since 1992.
“My first boat was a 12-foot pirogue I built with my grandfather,” Garcia says. “It took us a week to build it, and I still have it and the original paddle. I listened to stories from my family about paddling to fish or hunt and find food, and that’s what got me interested in paddling.”
Launching one of his 13 boats is also a breeze, thanks to his grandfather – Garcia and his wife live in his ancestor’s home along the banks of Bayou Teche.
“My wife laughs and says that I have too many boats,” Garcia says. “I tell her they are like shoes – you need one for every occasion. There are kayaks to fish in, paddle slow in and paddle fast in and so on.”
In addition to paddling Bayou Teche, Garcia kayaks on Lake Fausse Point, the Atchafalaya, Vermillion and Sabine rivers and the waters off Grand Isle year-round, and he belongs to Louisiana Paddlers, the Lafayette Paddling Club, Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club and several other out-of-state kayaking clubs.
“I would love to paddle the whole Mississippi River,” he says. “I envy those who have and are running around writing books about it.”
One of Garcia’s favorite things about paddling is the opportunity to make new friends.
“I’ve met paddlers from 15 different countries and 40 different states,” Garcia says. “I have never met anyone paddling that I would not invite to my home. Paddling brings out the best in people. You’re just out there talking and paddling side by side, and 17 miles of paddling passes in no time.”
Garcia’s next chance to make new friends will be at the Paddle Lafourche Event April 4-7. The trip, a weekend-long event, will begin at the headwaters of Bayou Lafourche in Donaldsonville and will end in Lockport.
“You make life-long friends at events like these,” Garcia says. “One year, 35 of the 100 people that entered Paddle Lafourche entered because I had told them about the event.”
This will be Garcia’s tenth time to participate in the paddling excursion, which he sees as the premiere paddling event in the area.
“This is a great chance to promote the area’s people, cultural, food and friendliness,” Garcia says. “My first Paddle Lafourche was my most memorable because I was so inspired. Now it’s just like a big family reunion.”
Registration for Paddle Bayou Lafourche with the guarantee of paddle t-shirt is March 21, and registration is on a first come, first serve basis due to the limited amount of paddlers allowed on the water each day. To register, call 1-800-259-0869 or email Kristy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We usually have about 165 kayakers,” says Kristy Monier, media relations and event coordinator with the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program. “Some just do it as a day trip, but many do it for the full four days. Kayakers come from California, Mexico, North Carolina and even Australia. Last year, we had two ladies from Paris who did not even speak English. We get lots of locals, too.”
This is the twelfth year BNTEP has hosted the event and, over the four days, paddlers will be provided with a place to sleep each night as well as food and entertainment.
“The kayakers will make stops at Madewood Plantation, Nicholls State University, Napoleonville and a private home on the trip,” Monier says. “Thursday night, we have arranged for a band to play at the first stop. We hope to have a storyteller lined up for Friday, and the Houma Indians will host a mini pow-wow and cook traditional cultural food on Saturday. The paddlers will also get to eat things like shrimp stew, gumbo and jambalaya.”
“Then they will get to paddle it all off,” she adds, laughing.
Cost for the event is $110 for those who will be providing their own boats and $190 if a canoe rental is needed. For those who wish to paddle by the day, the cost is $30 with a boat and $50 per day with a canoe rental. Friday’s lunch stop in Napoleonville will not be included in the cost, and paddlers will have three restaurants to choose from.
“This is a great way to see the area from the inside out and experience the nature we have here,” Monier says. “It’s not a competition – you paddle at your own pace. Paddlers love the camaraderie and meeting new people, and the bayou-side communities have also shown their support over the years by hanging signs and even sitting on their back porches and decks playing accordions and fiddles.”
For those unable to make the Paddle Lafourche event, brochures on the area’s many paddling trials can be picked up at local visitor’s bureaus, including the Cajun Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau in Morgan City.
“We get lots of phone calls, about two or three a day, regarding paddling trails in the parish,” says Carrie Stansbury, executive director of the Cajun Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We partner with St. Martin, Iberia and St. Landry parishes to promote Tour Du Teche in October, and we get even more calls then.”
St. Mary Parish is home to the Bayou Teche/Lower Atchafalaya River Paddling Trail, Cajun Coast Bayou Teche Paddling Trail, Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge Paddling Trail, Franklin Paddling Trails and the Cypremort Point Paddling Trail No. 2.
“We encourage people to stop by the bureau and pick up the trail brochure before heading out,” Stansbury says. “You need to plan ahead before you come for a trip, like around the hunting seasons at Bayou Teche and bring bug spray and lots of water during the warmer months.”
According to Stansbury, the Bayou Teche Trail is the crown jewel of the local paddling paths.
“This is the most cultural of our paddling trails,” Stansbury says. “The bayou runs from Jeanerette to Berwick in the parish and passes by Charenton, where paddlers can learn the history of the local Native Americans. The bayou was also used to transport sugar on riverboats before the war between the states, and there are many plantation homes along the waterway. It’s the most fascinating of the trails. For the nature lover, I would recommend the trails through swamps and marshes of the the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge.”
Happy (paddling) trails!
Garcia is pictured while kayaking the Bayou Teche Refuge Yellow Bayou Trail in December 2011.