HOUMA, La. — "Here, Sam, baby! Nicky! Isabel! Come to Annie, y'all!" Annie Miller, skipper of a Terrebonne Swamp & Marsh Tours boat, sounds like a mother gathering in her brood.
She dangles a blob of raw chicken at the end of a pole. A large, blunt-tipped torpedo shape shoots through the water. The corners of Miller's merry brown eyes crinkle as she smiles. Her round cheeks glisten under a thick layer of sun screen.
The morning is hot, but Miller is wearing long pants, a long-sleeved cotton shirt and a scarf under a sailor's hat. Her ice chest holds a supply of cold drinks. With a lifetime out in the weather, she knows how to protect herself.
"Hands inside the boat!" she yells.
A scaly head with goiter eyes cautiously breaks the Louisiana bayou's surface. Snap! The meat vanishes between saw-toothed jaws. Sam, the alligator, rests his throat against the prow. He seems more jaw-snap than bite, gentled by regular free lunches. But Miller cautions: "Don't touch. Sam's no pet!"
Another alligator approaches. Miller croons, "That you, Isabel?" She wants to believe that she and the 'gators know who is who. Could be. They do know how to play her game of chicken.
Miller sees nothing wrong with lending ecology a hand to thrill her tour guests. The bayou is her Cajun birthright. As a child she hunted alligators with her father. As an adult she always has reaped her family's livelihood from the swamp, first as a young widow with two boys, then as wife of Ed Miller.
She married Ed Miller, an oil-rig worker from Oklahoma, 25 years ago by his hospital bed, a month after he had been disabled in a rig accident.
Now a vivacious grandmother, Miller guides the putt-putting boat through a twilight world of moss-hung cypresses submerged up to their knobby knees. She chats of how bayou folk fashion dugout pirogues out of the "wood everlasting" of the Louisiana cypress, how they plait palmetto leaves into baskets and weave vines into animal traps.
She points at what to an untrained eye looks like nothing but a flickering pattern of sun and leaf shadow on a branch. "A snake," she says. "Mostly spot 'em at night."
"How can you?" a passenger marvels. The swamp in its scrim of shrubbery and treetops is dim enough in the daylight. Pinpointing a well-camouflaged snake in the dark seems superhuman.
"If you don't eat unless you spot, you learn to spot," says Miller briskly. She did it for 30 years, with her husband's help whenever his pesky injuries permitted. She trapped nutria, raccoon, muskrat, mink, otter and chameleon and caught snakes for pet shops, reptile farms and movies.
It wasn't an easy life. Once she lost 400 traps to vandals. Afterward, she spent night after sleepless night on the levee with a rifle at the ready.
She is glad that now the tours earn enough for her to give up trapping, yet stay in her element. Hardships have become conversation pieces. She spins the tale of the bayou with the ever-fresh delight of a child over a favorite story she knows by heart.
The channel opens into a lake, and an iridescence of dancing dragonflies rises above the reeds. Miller slows the boat to a float past this Japanese screen come alive. "Ah-ah," she sighs with pleasure.
Then, all business again, she pilots among stumps and logs, cuts a swath around fishermen's catfish lines, warns against fire ants. The boat passes a plank bridge, a trappers' camp. A passenger exclaims over a purple gallinule, and Miller reaches for a bird guide to mark it down.
Books About the Bayou
"I don't know a lot about birds," she claims. She keeps a small stack of nature guides next to her. It is hard to believe that she needs any book learning about the bayou.
She unlocks a gate. The boat glides toward the tour's star turn, a floating island on which a mob of birds roost. There are herons--white, blue and dark Louisiana--and roseate spoonbill ibises, which look as grotesque as they sound. Thousands of snowy egrets nest here, too.
They almost went extinct, Miller says, hunted for their lacy nuptial feathers for Victorian hat plumes.
Miller approves of a turn-of-the-century law that protects the birds.
"I don't tell people where my 'gators hang out," she says. "It's illegal to harm alligators, but people do."
The bayou's bounty is to partake of but not to destroy. So is the swamp dweller's life. The Millers still live in an ancestral Cajun cypress cottage on Big Bayou Black.
The tours run from their weathered landing. A trailer containing flush toilets stands in the yard and a telephone hangs on a utility pole. They have been installed as something extra for customers. "Something extra" is called lagniappe in the Cajuns' French dialect.
The greatest lagniappe of all is Miller herself.
The $15, 2 1/2-hour tours runs all year, except in midwinter. No street address; contact Miller at (504) 879-3934 in Houma.