Pirogues struggle to stay afloat in modern Cajun life
Aug. 12, 2017
THIBODAUX, La. (AP) — Once a staple of Cajun living, the pirogue has evolved into a novelty item, largely replaced by plastic kayaks that can be purchased at outdoors stores and big-box retailers.
"Everyone had a pirogue at one time, and a lot of people still do," said Tom Butler, director of the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building in Lockport.
But one thing he and others agree on is the wooden, flat-bottom boats are not as common and essential to south Louisiana living as they once were.
Browse photos of Terrebonne and Lafourche's bayou communities from the 1950s and earlier and you'll likely to find one or more pirogues, which locals used for hunting, fishing, fur trapping and basic transportation. The earliest of Louisiana's Cajuns, arriving in the late 1700s after the British expelled them from Canada's East Coast, are believed to have adapted the boat from the dugout canoes Native Americans built from bald cypress.
The traditional pirogue, about 12-14 feet long, was designed to get around the shallow waters of south Louisiana's swamps and marshes. Its light weight made it easy for someone to carry and paddle.
Lots of locals built pirogues in their backyards, a practice that has also dwindled.
"As time passed, people got away from trapping, and the pirogues have been handed down from generation to generation, and, like you see, most of them end up here because nobody wants to deal with them anymore, no one wants to take care of them," said Ernie Savoie, resident boat builder at the center in Lockport.
Savoie, who comes from a family of carpenters, said his father taught him skills passed from generation to generation.
Pirogues are bulkier and more high-maintenance compared to other small boats, he said, so people often get rid of them.
'It's a treasure'
"People just inherit them into their lives and they don't know what they have," Savoie said. "They don't know the treasure they're giving away. To me, it's a treasure."
Marvin Autin, a carpenter from Cut Off, began trapping furs in high school to make money, using a pirogue after school to navigate the marshes and bayous near his home. He grew up watching his father, George Autin, and his uncle, Alfred Autin, make pirogues in the garage, not realizing he was learning how to build them himself.
When trapping season was over, Alfred and George Autin would get on a boat with a Model T engine and poke the bottom of Lake Salvador for sunken cypress logs. They would drag the logs they found onto land, make dugouts and sell them for about $45 a piece.
"And they still have logs in that lake, it would just be to find them," Savoie said.
Cutting them down
A big blow to the pirogue came in the 1920s, when logging companies cut down most of south Louisiana's old growth cypress, leaving only the younger trees, which are not as good for making dugouts.
Archival lumber company film footage posted to YouTube shows loggers in pirogues chopping down some of the giant Louisiana cypress trees once used to build the boats.
The quality difference between a pirogue made with virgin cypress and one made with younger wood, also called grobeck cypress, is striking, builders said.
Autin's cousin, Paul Autin Jr., owns a pirogue that's more than 150 years old, hand-carved by his great-great-great grandfather, Olivier Charpentier. Despite its age, the boat was used for more than a century and was retired from the water about 40 years ago.
To recreate a vessel of such quality would cost too much money because of the effort it would take to find a wood that wouldn't rot in four or five years, Martin Autin said.
"It is financially unfeasible to try and sell one built like this. Someone would probably give $1,500 for this, just to have it," Autin said. "When my uncle was making this, he could make them and sell them for $100 at that time, where if he had to go make this now, he might of have to charge $500 at the time or $600. Right now, I wouldn't make one of these dugouts for $2,000 because I could go make that easier in carpentry work."
'No more big trees'
In the late 1950s, after the lumber business had depleted almost all of the old cypress, the plank pirogue emerged, made out of marine plywood.
"The dugout pirogue is dead because there's no more big trees available, but there are so many different types of boats people can make," Butler said.
When Autin was 20, his father died, and he created a pattern off his father's pirogue and built two for himself in two days. It cost $250 to build the two boats in the early 1980s; he kept the first for himself and sold the second for $250.
"I just recalled what they did. They was talking in French putting it together and all, and when I grew up, the memory just kicked in and I built it, and I sold a few," Autin said. "We were desperate poor. I wanted a boat to trap. Don't ask me who showed me how to build; it was just in my blood."
Autin said he sold five more pirogues but never let his first touch the water.
"It's been up in the garage all this time," Autin said. "I want to try one day to put it in."
'A big difference'
Autin stopped building the boats once fiberglass pirogues were introduced in the 1980s because he couldn't compete against their low cost. He plans to build pirogues again once he retires, but for now he carves push poles.
"A lot of people are still using them -- don't get me wrong -- but there's a big difference since I grew up," Autin said. "When I was growing up, every kid had a pirogue down here."
Also a recent addition to the small-boat market is the kayak, which, Butler said, has gained popularity in south Louisiana because people are realizing it works well in the marsh and may even be safer.
"You can turn one over and still survive," Butler said. "If you turn over a pirogue in the marsh and the grass, you might drown if you don't know how to swim."
From February 2015 to February 2016, recreational kayak sales rose 21 percent across the country, according to global information company The NPD. Kayaks are ready-made and drastically cheaper; Wal-Mart sells some models for less than $200.
Nonetheless, Butler said he has seen steady interest among locals who want to learn how to build pirogues. Savoie estimates that since he's been at the center, he's taught 10-11 people.
"Traditional boat building is still alive," Butler said. "There's still a need for it."
Information from: Daily Comet, http://www.dailycomet.com