The Mighty Vermillion

May 23, 2016

It was a cold and misty morning in Lafayette when our team rolled out of the Vermillionville parking lot. Outside the window moody clouds still hung in the sky, reminders of the downpour from the night before. We were on our way to Lake Martin, a wildlife preserve just east of the city. From Lake Martin our team would paddle 70 miles over four days, following the Bayou Vermillion all the way to the Intercoastal Waterway.
Our truck rounded a corner and we came to a stop in a muddy parking lot near the shore. We launched our vessels into the swamp. Five kayaks, three canoes, and a paddle board. Lake Martin was still and black, a perfect mirror if not for the rippling of our paddle strokes. One by one we oated through the stands of cypress trees, observing a wide array of birds lighting onto gnarled branches. Spanish moss hung lazily from the trees like curtains. The entire lake felt more like a forest in many respects. Instead of pine needles and grass this forest floor was made up of floating fields of lily pads and layers of foamy algae. It was truly unlike any place I’ve ever been. After about an hour of exploring we leisurely made our way back to the Evangeline Canal, and put into the Bayou Vermillion.

The Vermillion is a tidal river. Long ago high waters from the Vermillion Bay pushed their way northward until eventually intersecting with a southbound distributary. That is how the river was formed, and as a result its currents are sometimes subject to a change in direction based on rain, tides and wind. Aside from the clouds on the first morning the first three days of our trip we were met with nearly perfect conditions for paddling. Bluebird skies and gentle tailwinds allowed us to take the river at our own pace. We covered a truly diverse set of landscapes.
The first leg of the journey took us through lush marshland. The dark green canopies of the river’s banks meeting in the middle to form a tunnel of sorts. Occasionally large herons and egrets would fly out in front of us, stirred no doubt by the sound of our voices breaking up the heavy silence. As we neared Lafayette the untamed forests began to give way to rural homesteads and eventually industrial waterfronts and towering cement bridges. The river became a guide of sorts, revealing Lafayette from a different vantage. We followed it from the bustling city airport, to historic Vermillionville, to charming riverfront neighborhoods until eventually the sounds of the city subsided and we found ourselves in the wild once more.
On this trip it was those long stretches of isolation that were the most meaningful. Not isolation from people per se, because we were a group of nine, but that sense of escape that comes from leaving what is familiar and routine. With every turn of the murky brown river came some new experience. One afternoon after drawing together for lunch we decided to latch all our boats together and create a flotilla. What was once a fleet of canoes and kayaks had become one giant raft. A couple of the guys jury rigged a sail out of two oars and a tarp and the nine of us sat there, laughing in the sun, letting the wind push us further southward.
Another time I found myself alone on the river. As I paddled I could hear the unique grunting sound of egrets along the trees lining the east bank. Eventually I found a stream that seemed to be flowing from where I had placed them in the forest. I followed the water into a marsh and found myself in the middle of a nesting ground. Hundreds of white egrets and pink spoonbills lined the branches of lofty cypress trees. I watched in silence as they flew from tree to tree, feeding their young before meeting back up with team and continuing south.
Our last day on the river was by far the most challenging. From the first few paddle strokes it became apparent that there was a shift in tides on the river. Brackish water from the gulf met us head on, accompanied by strong winds. Our pace was slowed to a crawl as we struggled against the strong current. After battling our way to the Intercoastal Waterway we decided to put in at a harbor and call it a day. It was hard for me to leave having come only a few miles short of our goal, but it’s just another reason to come back to Louisiana and paddle the Vermillion once more.