"LATER, ah will show y'all where to find bald shrimp," drawled T. Bob, touting his airboat tour and trying to get my husband, Michael, and me to sign up in the whitewashed office, which stood on stilts over a bayou near New Orleans.
I had heard of hair snakes, beard worms and comb jellies, but aren't all shrimp bald? On something called an educational nature tour, wouldn't you hope to see something different -- shrimp with dreadlocks, perhaps? Prawns wearing curlers? Crustaceans sporting toupees?
Still, the trip held promise. The black-and-white drawing on his business card showed an eight-point buck strutting while herons, egrets, woodpeckers and eagles surrounded a little boat. Two raccoons played on the craft. Looking at that serene scene, I was baffled by the lengthy liability releases we had to sign, but T. Bob's friendliness put me at ease.
The "T" in Cajun names stands for "\o7petit\f7," meaning "little," but T. Bob was a stocky man in his 30s, wearing a gray T-shirt, faded jeans and a charcoal-colored baseball cap on his round head.
He led us behind the building to the airboat -- a 16-foot, camouflage-painted contraption cobbled together with yards and yards of black metal tubes, mesh and wires -- which, I understood, would hover over the water. Its flat deck had no raised sides or railings, and two thin metal benches wobbled in the middle. On the stern, a gigantic fan two feet taller than a man and caged by sturdy bars was mounted behind a massive engine, held at bay by more tubing and chicken wire. This thing should have been attached to a rocket -- not a six-passenger boat. In a post-World War III world, T. Bob, his airboat and cockroaches would rule.
T. Bob climbed high atop the engine to a black-leather chair. After we had settled onto a metal bench, he handed us headphones with ear coverings the size of armadillos. Next, I expected him to outfit us with two large, red flashlights so we could go to a tarmac and direct airplanes to their gates.
Instead, we moseyed down a narrow channel of water toward the main wetlands. Four-foot-tall reeds on each side swayed in the warm, humid breeze. In the distance we saw 30-foot-tall cypress trees with slender, straight trunks and delicate branches draped in gently waving moss. Hints of sea air mixed with the damp scent of the swamp.
A flock of black birds appeared to be chirping, although I couldn't tell for sure over the roar of the engine. I nudged Michael and pointed to a duck resting onshore. Michael removed his headset and asked, "What kind of duck is that?"
"Ah don't know," T. Bob said. "But them's good eatin'."
Then he shouted, "Ah ax y'all now: Put on y'all's headsets!"
T. Bob's wild ride
THE airboat shot forward, zooming into open water and listing steeply. I grabbed my seat. T. Bob turned the boat 90 degrees right -- and accelerated. We raced toward low vegetation at the bayou's edge.
The airboat skidded over the plants, spun a tight 360-degree doughnut turn and stopped. Breathing again, I was relieved not to be splattered on a bank.
T. Bob hopped down, grinning. "Five-hundred horsepower," he said, chuckling. "Seventy miles per hour."
Pointing to the ground, he said, "That 'land' a mat of plants, that."
He patted his "ay-er boat."
"Ay-er boat go over water. Ay-er boat go over land. Ay-er boat go over pawking lot."
I hoped a parking lot wasn't on today's tour, but at least now I understood the reason for the liability releases.
T. Bob pointed to bulbous eyeballs poking above the water a dozen yards away.
"That caiman, that," he said.
"How many caimans live in the swamp?" Michael asked.
"Ah don't know," he said. "But them's good eatin'."
The creature dipped below water.
I then noticed a cat-sized rat with a reddish-brown coat and long, scaly tail scurry into the brush.
"That's a nutria, that," T. Bob said.
I said I had read that the rodents were brought from South America for fur ranching, but they adapted too well and have become a huge pest.
T. Bob added, "But them's good eatin'."
Looking around, we saw cypress "knees" poking a foot or two above the water like scruffy gnomes.
"Those are bald cypress," Michael said.
Maybe we were getting close to bald shrimp too.
Fifty yards away, the still water reflected three-dozen snowy egrets in leafless bushes above marsh grasses framed by blue sky and moss-draped cypress trees. It was a perfect National Geographic photo. I quietly pulled out my camera.
Then T. Bob gunned the airboat -- and headed for the egrets. They scattered like snow in a blizzard as we flew past faster than an Olympic bobsled.
Later, on a mat of plants 50 feet to our left, a dozen black chicks with red beaks floated with their parent -- a heartwarming scene that could have been lifted from a Sierra Club calendar. I nudged Michael and pointed.
"Moorhens," he mouthed.