BIG IN THE BAYOU
Thanks to word of mouth and some smart marketing, reservations at Louisiana’s Swamp Base are pouring in. We visited the swamp to find out the secret to success.
Ben Pierce always asks troops the same question when they arrive at Swamp Base: “What is one word that comes to mind when you think of the swamp?”
They could’ve gone anywhere, but for some reason these troops have come from as far away as Minnesota, California and Pennsylvania to spend a week paddling kayaks through the hot and challenging Atchafalaya Basin.
Pierce, the director of Swamp Base, wants to know why.
About 80 percent of the responses are negative, he estimates. Scouts expect to be bitten by mosquitoes and alligators. They expect to meet swamp people missing at least half their teeth. They expect squirrel stew for dinner.
It doesn’t help that the swamps of Louisiana (and Florida) have drawn reality TV producers in droves. These are the names of actual shows that have aired on TV in the past five years: Swamp People, Swamp Monsters, Swamp Loggers, Swamp Men, Swamp Wars, Swamp Pawn, Swamp’d and even — yikes — Swamp Murders.
So you can’t blame the Scouts and their parents for being a little leery of the swamp. But you also can’t blame Pierce for wanting to change that perception.
After their five-day kayaking adventure, Pierce asks them the question once again: “What is one word that comes to mind when you think of the swamp?”
“This time they use words like ‘beautiful,’ ‘majestic,’ ‘underappreciated’ and ‘amazing,’ ” Pierce says. “They say, ‘We got a chance to see it firsthand, and we want to tell everyone and make sure they understand it.’ ”
Thanks to word of mouth and an aggressive marketing campaign, reservations are pouring in. The summer of 2015 is booked, and 2016 treks are almost full. Troops and crews from 30 different states have paddled Swamp Base’s waters. But success didn’t happen overnight.
A million people live in the Atchafalaya Basin, and they don’t agree on much.
“There’s a million different interests, and they’re all suing the heck out of each other,” says Evangeline Area Council Scout Executive Art Hawkins. “It’s a hotbed, and they’re looking for somebody to unify.”
Enter the BSA. Hawkins and Pierce had an idea for how to use the area’s 1.4 million acres of contiguous paddling opportunities. They were convinced that the council had a gem right in its backyard. Only nobody knew about it.
With the Swamp Base plan, they finally knew the right way to promote this natural resource, but because the proposal included state-owned territory, they’d need the OK from the Louisiana State Legislature.
Pierce and Hawkins showed up at the hearing with PowerPoint in hand. “We were there ready to testify,” Pierce says. “But they said, ‘Any objections?’ And there were none.”
The move passed unanimously. Turns out, when it comes to the contentious Atchafalaya Basin, the BSA is Switzerland.
“They told us, ‘We don’t normally play well together,’ ” Hawkins says.
“ ‘But here we all are, ready to support you.’ Companies and private entities can’t do this. The only difference is this is the Boy Scouts.”
Pierce and his right-hand man, Program Director Skip Andaya, make paddling an Atchafalayak look easy. A portmanteau of the words “Atchafalaya” and “kayak,” an Atchafalayak is a supercharged boat custom-built for Swamp Base. It has watertight cargo bins, adjustable footrests and comfortable seats.
Pierce and Andaya have spent a lot of time together in an Atchafalayak over the years, and it shows. They are human propellers. Andaya’s paddle dips in on the left just as Pierce’s breaks the surface on the right.
The two have kayaked every mile of Swamp Base’s paddling trails to see what Scouts will experience. They’ve staked their reputations on the base, and it’s working. As they paddle around one morning, Andaya sees the metaphor.
“I think this is appropriate,” he says, “because Ben and I are in this boat together — sink or swim.”
Andaya grew up near what’s now Swamp Base and remembers thinking he’d do anything to get out. Now he’s set on sharing his home with others.
Pierce, meanwhile, moved to Lafayette, La., when he was 5 and later attended Louisiana State University. He may not be an Atchafalaya Basin native, but he’s just as motivated.
That’s why Pierce has his hands in everything. There’s no marketing team, so Pierce does it all. He designed the Swamp Base logo, shot photos for the website, selected the official font and even wrote the Swamp Base Grace. He posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to reach potential visitors there.
The swamp itself is a draw, of course. But council president Gary McGoffin says every council has a spectacular site within its borders.
“Everybody’s got something unique in their area, and they need to see what they have and how cool it is,” he says. “Scouting can lead the way. Other councils can make their community better — and the country better as a result.”
See more photos from Swamp Base
Meet the Swamp Base team
The guys behind Swamp Base gave blood, sweat and years to ensure its success. From left: Volunteers (and brothers) Keith and Mike Simon know the area better than anyone, while council professionals Skip Andaya and Ben Pierce dedicated their careers to making this dream a reality.
Getting Any Bites?
Every crew that visited Swamp Base in 2014 saw an alligator, but no Scouts had close encounters, says Swamp Base Director Ben Pierce.
He’s quick to point out that there have been exactly zero alligator-related fatalities in Louisiana since the state started keeping track of such statistics.
Troop 512 Assistant Scoutmaster Derek Burney says the alligators seemed more scared of his Scouts than the other way around.
“We saw a number of alligators,” Burney says. “The funny thing was, our Scouts had to learn to be quieter on the water so we could get closer to them. As soon as they heard us, they left.”
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