Choupique Crawfish, Louisiana

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

My visit to Choupique Crawfish was a highlight of my trip to the South.  It is a drive-through takeout restaurant serving boiled crawfish and shrimp with potatoes and corn on the cob. After a busy day exploring the swamps of the Cameron Prairie and Lacassine refuges, I stopped for gas.  Across the parking lot I noticed a small building signed as Choupique Crawfish.  I walked in, curious to see what it was.  A fancily dressed young woman greeted me and showed me around as if I were an old friend.  She was accompanied by a young man and another woman, the owner.  The four of us chatted like family as they explained the operation and treated me to samples.  The crawfish are collected in large numbers from the family’s rice farm and stored live in large plastic and metal water tanks until they are boiled. The owner also teaches at the local school.  Customers can buy the crawfish live or cooked, and can reserve ahead of time.  To eat the crawfish, which are served whole, one must peel away the shell and tear the meat from the tail.  No one corrected my technique, so I assumed I was doing it right.

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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, LA: Click to enlarge.

The group wondered if I was fishing on the refuges, but I explained I was just hiking and watching the animals.  “I’m from Colorado and all this is very exotic to me,” I said.  When I explained that I didn’t know where to stay for the night, the young man tipped me off to Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  Before I left, the owner said “let me give you dinner,” and returned with a large box containing at least 10 pounds of crawfish with several potatoes and cobs of corn.  The young woman then handed me a box of beautiful cooked shrimp.  I camped near the surf, where I enjoyed this unexpected gourmet meal.

By the next morning I was still stuffed from eating the crawfish, and more than half of the box remained.  I offered my leftovers to a group of 6 senior citizens gathered for a picnic.  They were bewildered as to why I couldn’t handle 10 pounds of crawfish, plus the shrimp plate and sides, on my own.  “You must not be from around here,” a man said.  I confirmed that was true.  A grandmotherly woman told me that she had eaten a 10-pound box of crawfish by herself the night before, and still had plenty of room for a nice dessert.  She spoke in a tone that seemed to imply I was a sissy, a lightweight.  As one who usually out-eats my companions by a wide margin, I got a huge kick out of this group taking me to task.  The important thing was that they were happy to take the crawfish before it spoiled.

Houma, Louisiana: Cajun Country

I pulled into Capri Park, my camping spot for the night.  I was assigned a site on the bayou at the far edge of the trailer park, touted by the manager as isolated and peaceful.

I met a permanent resident, Chad Meau.  He offered me a ride in his boat anytime, explaining that “I’m retired, I don’t do anything.”  He looked rather young for retirement, but he had the tan for it.  Chad told me he did not own a car, because there was no reason to.  He could easily get everywhere he wanted to go simply driving his boat through the bayous.  Chad, like many people I encountered in this area, spoke with a strong Cajun accent.  He repeated his last name 3 times before I understood him.  When he found out I was camping in earshot of the water pump, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good luck.”

I spent the next few hours exploring the Terrebonne, a 30-mile stretch of bayou country extending south of Houma and ending on the Gulf of Mexico.  This area is known for its Cajun families that stretch back many generations.

Driving into the town of Chauvin, I stopped at the Lapeyrouse Seafood Bar, Grocery & Campground.  Sheila Lapeyrouse immediately greeted me with a smile.  The Lapeyrouse family goes back over a hundred years here, and Sheila was kind enough to tell me about her great, great, great grandfather’s original store and house, and where to this day I could see the ruins.  This establishment is a relatively new addition.  Her father still owns it, but she runs the operation as he no longer works full time.  In hindsight I wish I had camped here.

Sheila left the area at a young age to work for Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and was hired by Sam Walton himself.  She opened the Aurora, Colorado Sam’s Club near my hometown. After about 20 years with the company, she retired from a professional-level position and returned to Chauvin to run the family business.

Sheila presented me with a plate of fried fish, caught out of the bayou across the road that same evening.  It was delicious.  My next stop was the Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery some distance south.  This is another of the family businesses, and has been around much longer.  The store sells everything from groceries and cookware to hand tools and car parts in a cramped yet orderly and comfortable floor space.

I continued south to Cocodrie and the Gulf.  The town largely consisted of a sprawling complex of rustic beach houses on 20-foot high stilts.  These all appeared to be vacation homes, and most were adorned with names and mascots.  One could see a high water line on the stilts.  There were many “For Rent” signs and a few “For Sale” signs.

Upon returning to Houma I stopped at Boudreau and Thibodeau’s for dinner.  Here I discovered beignets, now my favorite dessert.  It is a pita-shaped pastry coated with a seemingly impossible amount of powdered sugar.  I never pronounced “beignets” to the waitresses’ satisfaction.

Cameron Prairie and Lacassine, Louisiana

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Louisiana is officially divided into 5 regions: Sportsman’s Paradise in the north, Crossroads in the central section, Cajun Country in the south, and Plantation Country and Greater New Orleans in the southeast. During a stop for gas in Crossroads, I met a taxidermist who was trying to research the prevailing prices for his services. He had just moved to the area from New Orleans, and could not locate any other taxidermists with which to compare. I observed this might be a good sign for his business, but he was preoccupied with finding a competitor. I told him where I had traveled and that I hadn’t seen any. He spoke articulately with an aristocratic tone and refined accent, and was a very friendly and polite man. His hair hung slightly past his shoulders and he was perhaps 5 feet 7 inches tall with a dark tan and lean physique. He wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a collared long sleeved shirt. This character, seemingly out of a movie, was my introduction to Louisiana.

Alligator, Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Double-click to enlarge.

Alligator, Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Located in Cajun Country outside of Lake Charles, the Cameron Prairie and Lacassine National Wildlife refuges feature sprawling swamps containing exotic birds, reptiles, and fish. I met a nice lady at the visitor center who tipped me off on the best places to see alligators and cottonmouth snakes. I saw very few other people during my exploration, and most of them were fishing. I found no snakes of any kind, but observed over 30 alligators inside an afternoon. One 12-foot gator and I stared at each other from about 2 feet away, until I stepped too close and he turned into deeper water with a sudden lunge and loud splash. He didn’t flee, but rather just put several more feet between us. In another area along a canal, 3 slightly smaller alligators were swimming together. One kept an eye on me while the other two faced the opposite direction into a flowing drain pipe, apparently waiting for fish. Turtles, some the size of serving platters, roamed the banks and shallows and moved surprisingly fast when I approached them.

Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Double-click to enlarge.

Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

Cameron Prairie was full of brilliantly colored birds. I watched a large crane-type bird through my binocular that was 3-4 feet tall. Its feathers were a bright purple color over its entire body, and I was amazed that such coloration existed in nature. I watched this bird for several minutes and finally saw it catch and eat something out of the water.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Cameron Prairie NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.

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Alligator, Lacassine NWR, LA: Click to enlarge.