The Atchafalaya Basin

Atchafalaya Basin map

Introducing the Atchafalaya Basin

by Charles Fryling

The Atchafalaya River lies at the southern end of the Mississippi Valley and is the principle distributary of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi receives surface water runoff from 40 percent of the land area of the continental United States, and it has the third largest river drainage area in the world, approximately 1,250,000 square miles. The waters of the Mississippi funnel through the state of Louisiana on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Atchafalaya River is about 130 miles in length. This is an interesting piece of trivia since the name comes from the Choctaw language meaning "Long River". For the volume of water it carries, it is one of the shortest rivers in the world. As the largest outlet of the Mississippi, from 30 to 50 per cent of the water flowing down the Mississippi is diverted into the Atchafalaya.

The Atchafalaya is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This control is accomplished by movable structures at the river's head and a series of levees running roughly parallel with the center channel of the river.

The minimum distance between the east and west protection levees is about 15 miles. On an annual basis the water elevation between these levees can change as much as 15 feet. The area within these confines is know as the Spillway or the Basin. It is in fact America's greatest river basin swamp, a magnificent wilderness, home to abundant wildlife, oil fields, endangered species, superb recreational and commercial fishing, trapping, and hunting. It is also the home of controversy, politics, and legal disputes.

Using the Basin for flood control

Following the disastrous flood of 1927, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to develop the Basin as a diversion route for high water headed for Baton Rouge and New Orleans. After an extended controversy over how to manage the Basin, Congress approved a Corps plan to save the Atchafalaya Basin for future generations. The plan should insure flood protection, preserve the Basin's unique wildlife and wilderness values, and insure public access.

To accomplish this it has been necessary for the government to purchase land and property rights from private owners. Lands are only being purchased from willing sellers. However, development rights must be acquired over all lands in the Basin. Proper implementation of this plan is the current center of environmental activism. If you're interested in preserving the Atchafalaya Basin, you should get in touch with an interested environmental organization and become active.

Landforms in the Basin

The Basin can be roughly divided into three general vegetative types, bottomland hardwoods, cypress/tupelo swamp, and coastal marsh. The bottomland hardwoods are located in the northern part. Here one finds the greatest diversity, including the American black bear (possibly the Louisiana subspecies). The central area is the home of bald cypress trees. This is the area that has the "swamp image" most frequently associated with the Atchafalaya.

The coastal marsh is yet another image. Here trees are not present and the area can feel very open. The tree line between swamp and marsh is frequently the location for special wildlife such as Bald Eagles. Alligators can be found in all areas, but are more frequent in the bottomland hardwood areas and in the coastal marsh. Lack of land for nesting limits the alligator in the cypress swamp.

Canoeing the Basin

To the canoeist, the Atchafalaya Basin is a navigation challenge and a fascinating experience. Because of changing water levels, floating logs, and aquatic plants, the smaller waterways of the Basin can change dramatically over short periods of time. Wind can blow large rafts of water hyacinths into an area and block easy movement.

In the high water of spring, the whole Basin is a waterway with few campsites and near-infinite possibilities for getting lost. Losing oneself is part of the excitement of exploring the Basin. One should not fear being lost, since all one has to do is go east or west and one of the protection levees that bound the area will appear. During high water one can travel through the trees, dodging branches and following one's instincts or compass. To learn a section of the Basin, first learn the larger watercourses bounding your area of interest and then explore the interior. You should be able to recognize the larger watercourse when you emerge.

Many of the waterways within the Basin are true bayous in that they can change direction of flow depending on river height and local rainfall. During low water times in late fall you are confined to the largest watercourses, or you find yourself changing from a canoeist to a muddy hiker-wader. Regardless of the season, the Basin is not the place for someone who is unwilling to appreciate MUD. Realize that this mud is the best topsoil of our continent.

Late winter and early spring is an excellent time for canoe trips in the Basin. Water height is generally high, allowing you to get in the back areas. The main watercourses have natural levees along their banks, and this creates shallow backwater areas within a braided river pattern. These back areas have the most attractive cypress trees.

Cypress grow in fine clay soil in back areas, and willow trees grow in the sandier soil along the larger watercourses. The high water allows a more flexible travel experience, but camping areas are restricted. If you are looking for land, check along the larger watercourses. The center channel has the highest land along its banks. Also look at some of the pipeline spoil banks.

If you are crossing the center channel give it a great deal of respect. During high water with winds out of the south, you may find standing waves three feet or more in height. Use of your life vest is prudent in all of the larger water bodies in the Basin.

Bring your camera

To the lover of wildlands and the life in them, the Atchafalaya is a bountiful feast. Bring your camera on trips into the Basin, but keep it in a waterproof container to prevent damage. Wading birds nest in the thousands. A list of the plant and animal species of the basin would take many pages: bobcat, mink, river otter, egrets, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (well, maybe), Wood Ducks; alligators, crabs, crawfish; cypress, willow, tupelo, and thousands more. In recent years, the population of nesting Osprey and Bald Eagles have increased, showing the benefit of banning DDT.

Hiking or wading the Basin

The hiker-wader will probably find the Fall season the most interesting. At this time it is easy to find land for camping. For the hiker, there are problems, even in the low water season. Often you need a boat to get to the general area you want to visit, but when you are there, what do you do with the boat?

Land ownership in the Basin is mixed. About half of the area is owned by the public in one form or another. In some areas you will find the land posted by the State Land Office. These public lands are generally open for hikers and campers. Private lands are also found within the Basin. Most landowners are very generous with their property and often allow visitors.

Get permission before entering private property. On all lands, public and private, visitors should respect the property and behave as if they were formally entertaining guests in their own living room at home.

Map and compass required

Topographic maps and a compass are advised for any trip into the Atchafalaya. The topographic maps of the Basin are invaluable sources of information. Unfortunately these maps are always out of date, especially in an area like the Atchafalaya were change is a constant. However, the maps will show you the pattern of land and water in the area you are planning to travel. The water courses may have moved from their map locations, but they generally continue to flow in the same direction.

Obtain current information. Many area newspapers publish water levels, and local convenience store personnel can often tell you what is happening in the area they serve. Also, outing shops in the state often maintain Basin information. For years I have been trying to keep abreast with conditions and I would be willing to share this information. (Charles Fryling, 225-766-3120).

Protecting special places: The Atchafalaya

The Sierra Club has been working to protect a "wet and wild" Atchafalaya Basin for over thirty years. Sierra Club activities were catalytic in leading the state to at last undertake development of the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway State Master Plan, completed with Sierra Club participation. The Master Plan will improve water quality in the Basin, prevent incompatible development, protect forested wetlands, provide better public access and more recreational opportunities in the Basin, and bring $250,000,000 new federal dollars into the state. Sierra Club members also helped obtain funds earmarked for land aquisition in the Basin.

A Sierra Club sponsored bill created the Atchafalaya Trace Commission and Natural Heritage Corridor, linking the communities surrounding the Basin while protecting the natural resources within the Basin. The Sierra Club helped obtain funding for the commission, which will begin meeting to develop and implement this plan. The Sierra Club Atchafalaya Heritage Festival held in Henderson, LA, showcased the unique cultural, natural, historical, recreational, and economic value of a wet and wild Atchafalaya Basin.
Atchafalaya related links

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Atchafalaya Basin Program Web site at:

The Atchafalaya Trace


Charlie Fryling: 225-766-3120

Dean Wilson: 225-659-2499

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