Jim Bradshaw: Admirers of the Teche have a long history
On the first Friday of each October, pirogues, canoes and kayaks of every description crowd the headwaters of Bayou Teche for the beginning of a 135-mile, three-day race down the bayou almost to the Gulf.
Some of the fastest boats and sturdiest paddlers from around the world will be among them, competing for cash prizes.
There will also be more than a handful of participants who are challenging only themselves and their ability to paddle that far in three days (or for their pirogue to make it without sinking).
The race was first staged in 2010 with the dual purpose of showing local people the potential of the bayou and of introducing the beauty of the Teche country to paddlers and eco-tourists from the outside world.
That second goal is the easy one.
Visitors have proclaimed the beauties of the bayou since they first discovered it.
Longfellow described it as a stream “o’ershadowed by oaks, from whose branches garlands of Spanish moss and of mystic mistletoe flaunted,” and that seems to be a recurring theme among others who have written about it.
In the spring of 1849, publisher William Dennett of the Franklin Planters’ Banner described its “venerable oaks whose giant arms stretch far over the still waters … their foliage ever green, and their locks of hanging, waving moss reminding one that these fathers of the forest have stood here for centuries.”
In the late fall of 1888, a student at St. Katharine’s College, a school run by the Sisters of Mercy in New Orleans, wrote in the school newspaper about a visit to the area.
The order had established a school in St. Martinville in 1881, and the student, identified only by the initials A.M.M., was “perfectly charmed” by St. Martinville and the bayou.
“Six hours ride from New Orleans … [is] a beautiful village lying on both sides of the Bayou Teche,” A.M.M. wrote, claiming a pen “too feeble” to adequately describe the beauty of the scenery.
“I once fancied that no landscape could be pretty without hills in the distance,” the account began, “but this beautiful Teche and the level plains of Louisiana have led me to change my opinion. When I see the beautiful green sloping to the water’s edge; majestic oaks hung with gray moss, and the lovely foliage, I forget the mountains, and give my heart up to the full enjoyment of the paradise around me.”
Small-town St. Martinville couldn’t match the “fine buildings” of New Orleans, A.M.M. continued, “but as it has been [so] well treated by Nature it needs not much of the artificial.
“The sugar plantations which surround this place are very fine. Miles and miles are covered with the green, corn-like leaves of the young cane, … In the midst of the cane fields are the high brick walls of the sugar houses where the cane is ground and goes through its various processes, from, molasses to the finest white sugar.”
In St. Martinville, “a grand old oak” shaded the Sisters of Mercy convent, and, A.M.M. recorded, “I sat under it several times, and when leaving took a few leaves as souvenirs, because I heard it was the tree under which ‘Evangeline’ stood.”
Aside from the beauty of the place, A.M.M. was attracted by the “exceedingly kind and hospitable” people of the Teche country — another aspect of the place that has been remarked upon regularly over the years.
“I often think of the sweet gentle friends I made and their kindness to me during my short stay in the ‘Eden of Louisiana,’” A.M.M. wrote 130 years ago
Visitors for the 2017 Tour du Teche will likely find Bayou Teche and the people who live close to it equally memorable.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.