By Eileen Ogintz

SLIDELL, LA (Day 3 of 4) — Ready for a marshmallow?

The alligator certainly is. We’re on a Pearl River Swamp Eco Tour in the Honey Island Swamp in Slidell on Louisiana’s Northshore in St. Tammany Parish, about 40 minutes across Lake Pontchartrain from downtown New Orleans.

Our guide, John Royen, who plays jazz piano on Bourbon Street at night, tells us the gators think the marshmallows are turtle eggs. We’re relieved to hear they actually are good for their digestion. “I play with the alligators during the day and the lounge lizards at night,” he jokes.

This not-so-little guy (six feet long!) is about 10 years-old. He can live to be 75, growing to be double or triple his length.

There are hundreds of gators in these swamps. Louisiana, we learn, is 70 per cent swamp. This one—so named because of the honey bees that build their hives in hollows in certain trees here—stretches for 250 square miles. It’s bigger than Washington, DC. Check out the wild hogs

Pontoon house boat on the Pearl River Swamp Tour

Pontoon house boat on the Pearl River Swamp Tour

Know the difference between a swamp and a bayou? A swamp is an entire ecosystem — kind of like a flooded forest, Royen explains. A bayou is a secondary waterway. He takes us into the narrow bayou where we see baby alligators, Ibis nesting in the tall trees, a Great Blue Heron. We learn if you get lost in the bayou or swamp, the Arrowhead plant is completely edible. Good to know, John!

The swamp certainly can be a spooky place. Royen tells us when he was a kid, his Cajun grandmother would admonish him to behave or the “swamp monster” would get him. Apparently there is “swamp gas” – methane gas from the decaying organic matter that might bubble up, combines with natural phosphorous to create a luminous glow in the trees.

The guests on the boat came from all over the world as far as Australia, Canada, and the Northeast. No wonder. Swamp tours are a top family attraction here and this company gets high marks from hotel concierges like Joseph LeCour at the Hotel Monteleone for not only a fun time, but for teaching us something about Louisiana’s ecosystems along the way.

September, Royen says, is the one month a year when those who own property in the swamp can hunt alligators to keep their numbers down. We pass houses—some high on stilts, some mere shacks built on top of old oil drums—kind of like a pontoon boat. A lot of those who live here are fishermen.

Back to the gators — they can go a month without eating. They survive winter by their hearts slowing down significantly — imagine if your heart beat just once every 45 seconds. The difference between crocs and gators: the crocs can’t survive when the weather gets cold.

He points out the Mallow flower, which created the original marshmallow. It seems when you grind the root into powder, add honey and roll into a ball. Presto! Since it grows in the marsh…we have marshmallows!

We don’t see any poisonous snakes. They won’t come out until it is cooler, at night. There are huge turtles and spookily gray-green Spanish moss hanging off the Bald Cypress trees — so named by the Choctaw Indians because it reminded them of the facial hair on the Spanish conquistadors — the first men they had ever seen with facial hair. I think the “Cypress knees” are especially spooky—they look like giant fingers sticking up in the swamp but really, they are keeping the roots and the tree in place.

Mother gators, we learn, will lay their eggs in the bayou and cover them with mud to protect them and they must “bake” in the heat. Those that get to over 92 degrees are male; the cooler ones will become female. Crazy! Only 20 per cent of those hatchlings will survive. How big can they get? Our guide tells us the biggest gator on record was found right in this swamp—19 feet 2 inches long and over 1400 pounds.

Feral hogs seen on Pearl River Swamp tour

Feral hogs seen on Pearl River Swamp tour

I’m glad I didn’t meet this guy. There are crayfish, bass, frogs, turtles, catfish and bass all here.  And feral hogs, which have overrun much of the area and are hunted during the year to keep their numbers from growing ever larger.  We see a group of piglets — cute, but soon to be “pork chops,” Royen predicts.

When we get back “Otis” the gator is waiting. Another marshmallow, please!