Swamp-grown small business

The Sabine River is more than just a border between Texas and Louisiana. It is a river filled with a storied past. Every nook and cranny of the waterways and bald cypress trees has a story to tell.

Growing up in Southeast Texas or Louisiana, surrounded by water for a lifetime, you can feel immune to the beauty and danger of these ancient waterways. One business in Orange has been seeking to give residents a new perspective on their backyard and educate both residents and tourists about this unique ecosystem.

Swamp and River Tours in Orange takes visitors on the Sabine River and its surrounding waterways on a tour to enjoy the scenery and wildlife of Southeast Texas. According to owners Eli Tate, and his wife, Maria, Swamp and River Tours is the only boat tour in Southeast Texas that uses specially designed boats that are fast yet quiet and unobtrusive to wildlife.

“The noise of airboats scares the animals,” said Eli, who added the wildlife in the swamp get used to seeing their white boat over and over, and don’t feel threatened, which makes the animals, especially alligators, come out even more. He is not just a tour guide but also a biologist, and he and Maria make up the entire staff of their business.

The tour runs 90 minutes, and once on the boat, you get to see the different ecosystems along the Sabine, on both the Texas and Louisiana sides. From egrets, to gators, crabs, lily pads, cypress, palms and pines, there is a little bit of everything. Eli interacts with his audience, getting them involved in their surroundings.

One of the first stops along the tour is an old shipyard, the birthplace for battleships built in Orange during World War II. Only the skeletons of the berthing docks remains, but the Orange Shipyard can still be seen in the distance.

“Can you ladies imagine that the fastest modern boats in the world would be built by women?” Tate asked, noting that during the war, women built over 400 ships at that shipyard. And just past that, he gestured to the top of a pipeline, where what appeared to be an osprey’s nest could be seen, with a female and her young.

As he navigated the water, he pointed out a houseboat on the Louisiana side of the Sabine, one of several that had washed 50 miles downriver during Harvey.

He told the history of a  stretch along the river known as “No Man’s Land,” a time in Southeast Texas/Southwestern Louisiana history when lawlessness, along with pirate Jean Lafitte, once ruled the land. To this day, rumors of buried treasure abound.

At almost every point during the trip, alligators could be spotted, and at one time, three of them appeared to be surrounding the boat. Eli took that as a cue to tell of one of the wildest things he’s ever seen – a 12-foot gator with the haunches of a wild boar protruding from its massive jaws. He said unfortunately (or luckily) that gator did not appear to be out that day.

Periodically, he would speed down the bayou, providing guests with a cool breeze in the June heat, making sure to always stop and allow photos to be taken, and a history lesson to be given, at different points.

Pulling up to a shoreline dotted with sandy mounds up to 9 feet tall and littered with white shells, he pointed to what he said was a human skull plate, half buried in the soil – the remains of perhaps the last dinner of the Atakapa, a Native American tribe whose name means “eaters of men” in Choctaw, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s website. The question has been raised, however, whether the Atakapas’ cannibalism was for subsistence or ritual.

Born and raised in Louisiana, being on the water was always a way of life for Eli. Before starting this business venture, he was fishing commercially to sell to sushi markets, but found himself having to move further and further south due to overfishing. Twenty years ago, he landed in Venezuela, fishing for swordfish, when he met Maria.

“The fishing was good there, and she was the best catch I made,” he said, laughing.

He would come back to the states periodically, and was taking guests fishing when he noticed their curiosity for the swamp.

In 2000, he modified his boat with a canopy and seating for large groups, settling at their current location off of Simmons Road in Orange, where his tour business started to boom, and continued to climb until Rita, then Ike, turned everything upside down.

The hurricanes left nothing untouched. The storm surges contaminated the Sabine River and the swamps with salt water, leaving behind a thick crust of salt on the shores. This sudden change from brackish to saltwater killed off the fish, which in turn, made alligators and birds scarce. Even certain flower species disappeared, according to Eli.

The Tates ended up having to shutter the business for nine years due to the dead swamp, returning to South America where Eli had to again take up commercial fishing.

Ironically, another disaster brought them back in 2016. When the Toledo Bend dams north of Orange were opened in 2016 to ease flooding up there, it flooded Deweyville and surrounding areas. However, that same devastating flood was good for the Sabine waters to the south.

“That saltwater kills the freshwater. It could take generations to dilute, but the freshwater flood flushed it out, and everything started coming back.” Tate said. “The swamp has a unique way to straighten itself out.”

Swamp and River Tours reopened in 2016, and came back better than ever. Over the years they were closed, the Tates continued fielding calls about tours. Families that had come to them before the storms came back with new members, and continued to come back over and over, bringing new relatives or friends.

As with Rita and Ike, another hurricane impacted the business in 2017 – Harvey – but this time the swamp didn’t die out. However, for a month after the storm, there was no business to be had. Then later, tours consisted only of out-of-towners, first responders and organizations that were in Orange to help rebuild. Gradually business built back up. The local families returned and tourists dropped in almost daily, having learned about Swamp and River Tours from either the tour’s Facebook page or a Google search, or attracted by the colorful gator mural painted on the building. There have even been guests from Canada and Europe.

The Tates eventually get to know entire families, and Eli and Maria’s love for the people, the area and the animals within is evident.

“This area is just so beautiful,” Maria said. “From one point to another, it’s so different.”

“What makes the Sabine River area so unique is that it’s the only place in North America that has this many different ecosystems in one area – marsh, prairie, then tall trees,” Eli said. “When you say wetlands, it’s a combination of all of it. The best of all, the swamp is not Louisiana and it’s not Texas. It’s here at the border, a combination of all of them.”

Visit swampandrivertours.com, or search Swamp and River Tours on Facebook for more information.

Ginger Broomes, Special to the Business Journal

Photo by Ginger Broomes - According to Swamp and River Tours owners Maria and Eli Tate, their tours use specially designed boats that are fast, yet quiet and unobtrusive to wildlife.