Did you know pirogues…?

Oct 31, 2017

Before automobiles and trains, transportation in Louisiana was conducted largely on waterways. To navigate the shallow and sometimes narrow bayous and swamps, inhabitants used small boats known in Cajun French as pirogues. Did you know pirogues are completely flat on the bottom? Additionally, the boater had a choice between paddling or poling his pirogue through the swamp. Furthermore, these small, wooden boats were essential to putting food on the table.

When the Cajuns were expelled from Canada by the British, they initially settled in two areas of south Louisiana, the Attakapas Region, named for the Atakapa native tribe, on the banks of Bayou Teche and along the Mississippi River. The unfamiliar terrain presented challenges they did not expect. The first challenge was learning how to navigate the waterways that was the lifeline to trade and food.

Back in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, the Canadian provinces where Cajuns originated, fishing and lobstering was a common vocation. They used large, round bottom sea-going boats to ply their trade. In the swamps and marshlands of Louisiana, the waterways were much more narrow and shallow than the Atlantic Ocean and seas surrounding those provinces. In order to survive, the Cajuns would need to learn how to build and navigate boats that were suited for the environment.

Initially, the Cajuns made dugout canoes mimicking the vessels the local native tribes, like the Atakapa and Houmas, were using. Leveraging their boat building skills developed while living in Canada, the dugout canoes evolved into the modern-day pirogue. Cajuns learned that cypress trees repel water and resist decay making it the perfect wood for boats. They learned through trial and error that the best design for efficient navigation through the swamps was a narrow, flat bottom boat. This design would enable the boater to glide over submerged trees and maneuver around cypress knees (Bald Cypress tree article).

The boater could sit to paddle or stand in the center to use the opposite end of his long paddle, which was a pole. Poling can, at times, be more efficient than paddling when there are too many submerged obstacles to allow for paddling the boat. The long pole also came in handy when the boater had to disembark to check traps. The pole would be used to gauge the firmness of the terrain and check for alligators and snakes before taking a step.

Pirogues may appear to be small, but they were used extensively in fishing, hunting, and trapping. To be successful in hunting and trapping, the Cajun would sometimes have to go far from home to find prey for his table or to sell and trade for other sundries. Cajuns would haul their traps in the pirogue and set them when they reached fertile hunting grounds. Some of the animals that were hunted and trapped were alligators, mink, and ducks. The hunter or trapper would bring his catch back home in the pirogue.

Today, pirogues are still used for hunting and fishing though they are now made of steel and fiberglass. The success of today’s fishing and hunting expeditions do not necessarily impact survival, but it does impact the proliferation of Cajun culture and traditions.





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