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.
“They’ve been brainwashed by TV shows that this area is dangerous,” Pierce says. “They say, ‘We’ve heard these things and want to see if it’s true.’ ”
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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Sounds like a very worthwhile Scouting experience! Kudos to Evangeline Area Council for their forward thinking and wherewithal to provide our movement with this unique opportunity.
The story and video were great. That would have been my first impression too, mosquitos and humidity, but the scenery is stunning!
Wow! The video is really striking. The base certainly interests me here in Michigan. The good news is that my adult (Eagle Scout son) lives in DeRidder, Louisiana, which I suppose is not that distant from Swamp Base. Should make a great trek for the two of us along with some other Scouts. Any suggestions?
YIS, Jim Costello, Past Council President and Executive Board Member
Our Troop had a Crew at Swamp Base in 2016. It was GREAT! Bugs and alligators were NOT a problem. We saw a lot of alligators, and very few bugs including mosquitoes.
The canoeing was challenging as we expected. They could offer more Merit Badge work, but the activities were fun for both Scouts and adults.
We’re ready to go again.
What a Great idea. A week kayaking and camping would truly be a High Adventure, a real “Bucket List” adventure for any Scout. Thank you for making this happen. As a Troop Leader, I would like to attend with my Troop. As a “birder”, I would like to attend by myself if my Troop choose not to go. Count me “Ready to Go”
I have the privilege of accompanying my son and a crew of Scouts to Swamp Base this past July. It was an amazing adventure. Hats off to Ben and Skip for developing a great program, selecting awesome staff, and creating a program that makes a person fall in love with the swamp. It was fun, educational, and an overall great time.
We are putting together another crew for 2018.
Aloha guys! Fascinating article! Cheers!
Amazing scouting must be aware of bugs too!
But I request Author to also provide some checklists about Dos and Donts when on SWAMP BASE.
It would be really helpful for newbie like us.
Classguru, my son and I have been to Swamp Base 4 times over the last 4 summers and love it. It is my recommendation that you carefully read the leader’s guide and bring everything on the packing list that is recommended. Also, a very comfy canoe seat. I bring pool noodles about 15 inches long that I slit lengthwise to put between my legs and the sides of the canoe. They work great to sit on when the rear gets sore and the canoe seat flattens out. Sunscreen those legs and the back of the neck. I personally wear light weight zipoff pants for paddling. Bring Aloe Vera or burn cream because the Scouts will not and at least one will need it.
Fell free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org