Taken by Jeri Melancon of Platinum Portraits by Jeri
In between Jazzy Jewels and lush foliage of the swamp forest that surrounds The Cajun Village lies an old pirogue. Similar to a canoe, but specifically adapted to the Louisiana swamps and marshes, the pirogue has been an intimate part of Louisiana’s outdoor culture for hundreds of years.
Louisiana is known for its swamps and coastal marshes. However, these waterways are incredibly shallow, preventing normal boats from entering them. Thus, when the French arrived in 1719, they had to ditch their large oceangoing vessels in favor of something more suitable to the waterways of Louisiana. They would have used dugout canoes in the beginning, similar to what the Native American tribes in the area used. Over time, the design of the dugout canoes began to morph into something lighter and faster that required less construction time than a dugout canoe: the pirogue.
When the Cajuns arrived in 1763-64 at the end of the Seven Years War, they headed for the swamps, marshes, and bucolic prairies of south and southwest Louisiana, searching for a habitat that was both peaceful and secluded, much like pastoral setting of Nova Scotia. Having found the setting that they were looking for, the Cajuns settled down in south Louisiana. Unfortunately, roads were essentially non-existent at that point in time; another transportation artery had to be found in order to connect one Cajun community to another and from there to the outside world. The lazy bayous and marshes were perfect for this, and the pirogue was the perfect means of transportation for the Cajuns. It allowed them to hunt, fish, connect with kin down the bayou, explore the serpentine and mysterious waterways, and it could also take them to the larger outposts of the French, such as New Orleans. The pirogue quickly became one of the, if not the most, essential tools a Cajun man could have. Not much has changed in the last 250 years in that respect either.
The design of a pirogue allows it to move through the very shallow water of marshes and be easily turned over to drain any water that may get into the boat. A pirogue has “hard chines” which means that instead of a smooth curve from the gunwales to the keel, there is often a flat bottom which meets the plane of the side. It is propelled by paddles, but can also be pushed with a pole. In Louisiana the boats were constructed of cypress, but unfortunately suitable natural lumber is no longer readily available. Plywood is the common material for modern pirogues. Many modern duck hunters and fisherman in the swamps of south Louisiana use pirogues made of fiberglass, some of which are outfitted with small outboard motors or even “Go-Devils”, a motor with a pivoting drive shaft for use in very shallow waters.