An Unsinkable Shelter on a Barge in the Bayou

After the author loses her home in flood, she builds an unsinkable shelter on a barge and shares her experiences on the bayou.

| July/August 1982

The author builds an unsinkable shelter on a barge in the bayou after losing her home in a flood. 

Raccoon feet tickety-tacked out of the back room as Calvin and I entered through the hole where the front door used to be. The guilty flick of a retreating snake's tail seemed to say, "Pardon me . . . I didn't think you'd be coming back," as it slipped down a crack in the six-inch layer of dried gunk covering the kitchen floor. By July the weight of that mud had broken the boards and pulled them away from the walls, finishing the demolition job started by the flood waters of February. As depressing as my last view of our home had been—with its roof poking bravely above the brown swirl of overflow from the Atchafalaya River—it couldn't compare with the desolation I saw upon coming back to view the aftermath.

The high water shouldn't have been unexpected. Our now ruined house had been nestled deep in the Atchafalaya River Basin: 1.5 million acres of wilderness which, shortly after the devastating flood of 1927 terrorized settlements along the Mississippi River, had been designated an Army Corps of Engineers floodway. By the early 1930's floodgates were in place at the junction of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers above Simmsport, Louisiana, and retaining levees stretched along each side of the Atchafalaya to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. From that time on, the dangerous bulk of the Mississippi's spring rise could be diverted away from the cities by pouring it into this spillway.


A land of fertile abundance, but cut off from the rest of the world by the river and its bayous, the Atchafalaya Swamp was too wild and forbidding for human habitation by any but the few people who loved it for its very isolation. For such individuals, the rich soil, plentiful fish and game, abundance of fur bearers, readily available cypress timber, and ever-present black moss were actually secondary in importance to the precious solitude.

My ancestors were among that group of ornery and independent swampers who left the confines of civilization to build their own schools, churches, stores, houses, and even a post office in the dense, green swamp. By the time the Army Corps of Engineers began its epic earth-moving, channel-changing project, that community—named Bayou Chene—was 150 years old . . . and right smack in the middle of the proposed spillway.

Monroe Wilson
7/24/2009 3:17:59 AM

Gwen and Calvin prove simple living can be comfortable but more rewarding than any money could provide. The rewards of careful forethought and creative labor will provide you the most precious memories, but also most important also resources for future projects.

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