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Down the Bayou Road

Down the Bayou - Mark Norder

By Mark Norder

There’s only three of us: Gordon, a diver we’ll meet up with at the motel; Malcom, the tender; and myself. Malcom and I are scheduled to leave the shop at 1000 Monday, but brake problems keep us there until noon. Several hours later, after picking up the rental boat and compressor outside New Orleans, we arrive at a Ramada Inn, just a few miles from Lac Des Allemands, the 12,000-acre, 10-foot deep, bayou-fed lake we’ll be working in.

At seven the next morning we meet the survey crew at the boat landing they’ve picked. Despite being told differently, we find that the ramp is too short, and we can’t launch here. “No problem,” says Leonard, the lead surveyor. “There’s plenty ramps around the lake.”

We hit eight or nine of them that day with no success. I am constantly on the phone with my boss in Houston, who is using Google to help find a location. We follow leads from the computer and the advice of locals on a frustrating search through small Cajun towns and open country for a ramp capable of handling both boats. Most are just too small, one is large enough, but still mudded in from Hurricane Ike. Another is nothing more than a slope of crushed oyster shells pressed into the muddy shoreline. Eventually we roll into the parking lot of a tin roofed restaurant and bait shop to find a ramp wide, long, and deep enough for our boats. As we’re backing the trailer down the ramp, a man in a dirty apron comes out of the kitchen. “You guys ain’t headed up the lake, are ya?” 

“Sure, why?” 

“Drawbridge broke,” he answers. “You’re too big to fit under.” 

Late in the afternoon, following another lead from a local, we stumble upon a useable ramp on a canal in Bayou Chevreuil, on the southwest side of the lake. Although too late to get any work done, we put both boats in the water to make sure we can, then load our dive gear and tie it all down. We also explore the canal a bit, before planning on an early start the next morning.

Finally, on the third day of this job, we get on site and in the water. We are on this muddy lake to identify sonar hits for the survey company we’re working with. This is being done, the surveyor tells me, because the oil companies are again going to drill in Lac Des Allemands and want to ensure that old drilling junk doesn’t get in the way of new drilling junk. There are two locations to survey, and we dive on the first one Wednesday. 

After we drop the hook, Malcom hats Gordon, who then climbs down the ladder into the five-foot-deep lake. Walking over to the target, his helmet plows a wake through the muddy surface. 

“Hey Gordon, just let us know when you find something.” I say as he nears the marker.

“Ya,” he replies, “Will do.” And he sinks from view.

“Nothin’ here but a coil of wire rope.” He tells me.

“Roger that. Let’s try another one.”

Standing up, he walks to the next marker and again disappears for a few minutes. He finds very little at any of the sites, mostly tree stumps and broken limbs. There is that one coil of rusted wire, plus a sledgehammer, a pile of roofing tiles, and an eighteen-foot-long piece of twisted pipe. 

This is pretty basic stuff, but I enjoy these small challenges as much as those found working on sophisticated offshore rigs. And although we are only 25 miles southwest of New Orleans, this location is as foreign as any I’ve been in since starting this little odyssey, possibly as foreign as any place I’ve ever been in the U.S.

What turns out to be my favorite, and at times most challenging part of this project is the run to the site each morning. Our boat has a hatch in the center of the windscreen leading out onto the small forward deck. Rather than sitting in the right-hand seat, I prefer to stand in the open hatch, reaching over with my right hand, tugging and pushing the wheel to steer the boat left or right. Standing there alone, feeling the wind, smelling the swamp air and watching the exotic scenery slide by, I get to appreciate both where I am and what I’m doing.

These early morning runs out to the lake are relaxing and I look forward to them each day. We unload the boat in the quiet dark and head out with the bayou deep in shadow, thick white mist blanketing the flat brown water. Not far from the landing, the canal takes a sharp turn to the east, directly into a bright sun easing over the horizon, blinding me as it reflects off the mist. Keeping the pointer of my hand-held GPS in the center of the electronic map is the only way to safely navigate until the narrow canal again turns north, back into shadow. This is how it goes for the nine-mile run from the landing to the lake where, once in open water, I bring the boat up on plane for the quick sprint across to the job site.

The late afternoon return is easier, and the high sun presents to us all that had been shrouded in shadow that early morning. We see cypress trees leaning into the canal, branches draped with moss, exposed roots fanning down into tea brown water; duckweed, water lettuce and hyacinth crowd the surface close to shore. We pass the wooden skeletons of old piers; the occasional tin roofed wood shack with hand lettered “keep out” signs nailed to nearby trees. Ducks skip across the water, while graceful, long necked great egrets swoop alongside our boat. And although I am, as I had been in the morning, forced to remain alert for sandbars and submerged tree stumps, I recognize this as precious time and that I am privileged to be here. 

Although we finish dive operations Thursday, we spend Friday morning hanging around our motel rooms, waiting on word from the surveyor. He’s gone back out to do one last sonar sweep, making sure nothing had been missed. At 1100 I get the call telling us to head home. 

A week later, back in my lonely motel room, with the holidays approaching and little work in sight, I find myself with a decision to make: United or Delta?