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Bayou Boats

Bayou-Diversity (6 September 2020) For as long as humans have dwelled on our bayou-laced landscape, boats have drifted along the placid waters. Local Native Americans built watercraft for 400 generations before European immigrants arrived to mimic their designs. For efficient travel and trade in a wilderness world of wetlands there were no other options. The earliest boats were dugout canoes or pirogues. Hewn from logs of virgin cypress or water tupelo, some were large enough to carry a dozen passengers or a thousand pounds of freight. Construction was labor intensive and required skilled craftsmen, making the boats valuable assets. When settlers introduced pit sawed lumber manufactured in crude sawmills, plank boats still in the shape of pirogues replaced the technically complex dugouts. The availability of lumber also allowed design diversity and new types of boats were soon rounding the bayou bends. First were square-ended, flat-bottomed paddle boats called bateaus, “Joe boats,” or “John boats.” Skiffs had pointed bows for rougher water. Boats were often unique to a specific Louisiana bayou or river according to environmental conditions and their intended use. Even paddles and oars made of hickory or ash could often be traced to a particular community by their design. Early motor-propelled boats became common by about 1910. Sometimes called “gas boats,” they were pushed by inboard gasoline motors and a long, propeller-tipped drive shaft. From this point forward the remoteness of many bayous was forever diminished. By the time of the great flood of 1927 the use of outboard motors such as those manufactured by Ole Evinrude was widespread, being portable and more efficient. Today, having succumbed to those soulless vessels of molded fiberglass and welded aluminum, wooden boats on Louisiana’s inland waters are as scarce as the craftsmen who once transformed cypress logs into vessels of grace. (Adapted from “Bayou-Diversity 2” by Kelby Ouchley, LSU Press)


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