The Last Cajun

Norbert LeBlanc doesn’t hunt alligators anymore. Instead, he has spent the last 15 years taking Francophone tourists on tours of the swamps east of Lafayette in his role as a guardian of Cajun culture in Louisiana.
© Clément Thiery

The engine purrs slowly as the boat slips between the cypress trees. The stem of the vessel cuts gently through the duckweed covering the surface of Lake Martin, a wildlife preserve some ten miles east of Lafayette, Louisiana. Norbert LeBlanc is sat at the helm with steel-blue eyes and a bristling white beard covering his face. He suddenly points to his right. “There’s a big one,” he says in French. “He is more than 10 feet long.” As the passengers follow his gaze, they spot an alligator dozing on a half-submerged tree trunk.

Some 15 years ago, Norbert LeBlanc would have shaken a steel hook under the animal’s nose, tempting it with a chunk of fish. After the reptile took the bait, the hunter would have shot it between the eyes with his rifle before dragging it aboard his boat. The meat would then have been dried and the skin sold off. As a local saying goes, “an alligator can live for up to 120 years, unless it meets a Cajun!” But hunting is now heavily regulated, and tanneries and luxury brands source their products from breeding farms. As a result, the price of wild alligators has dropped from 80 dollars per foot during the 1970s – the equivalent of 700 or 800 dollars for a ten-foot alligator – to just five dollars today. According to the hunter, these prices now mean “it’s not worth risking my life anymore!”

The 2,000 or so alligators currently living in the swamps around Lake Martin can sleep easy, as Norbert LeBlanc, 83, now earns a living in the tourism sector. Every day from February to October, he takes up to 66 people on trips across the lake (visitors should expect to pay 20 dollars for a 90-minute trip). The ex-hunter is a descendant of French colonists who were driven out of Nova Scotia in the 18th century, and grew up in Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun Country. He is now the only Francophone tour guide in the region. The mobile phone he wears around his neck rings constantly, and he replies in French or English depending on the caller. Tourists come from France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Quebec to listen to his hunting stories and explore the bayou under his watchful eye.

“Here, We’re Proud to Speak French”

A blue heron takes to the skies as the boat stops in the shadow of a thousand-year-old cypress tree – the kind of wood that was used to build the houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Norbert LeBlanc takes advantage of the break to hand each passenger a glass of moonshine, a liquor made with corn and peaches he distils himself. He then takes out a brown leather briefcase and removes a wad of yellowed paper – his portfolio. The stack of documents includes a dog-eared copy of National Geographic magazine in which he was interviewed in 1993, and a photo taken in 2015 with the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, while she was in Louisiana for the annual conference of the International Association of Francophone Mayors.

More recently, the old hunter was featured in a commercial for Toyota, playing himself and speaking in his native language. “Ici, on est fier de parler français,” he declares to visitors. The same words can be read on the back of his Chevrolet pickup truck and on his Facebook page. Needless to say, Norbert LeBlanc is proud of his Acadian origins. However, he is saddened that the younger generations are abandoning the old traditions. He speaks French with his wife, but his five children only speak English. “I raised my kids using nature, but they all work in offices and eat at McDonald’s,” he says. “They’ve all got a computer in their hand [a smartphone] and don’t need to speak French anymore.”