Pirogue racers honor nearly century-old Cajun tradition

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Deep in Bayou Barataria, there are bald cypress trees that are fully grown, greeting the sun each morning and saying its goodbye at night. Those sturdy trees lived through hurricanes, floods and, most of all, the ax of a pirogue racer.

The town of Jean Lafitte has a history on the bayou that is richer than their Cajun cuisine. The town was founded by hunters, fishers and trappers, all rowing through the swap on their one-seat, lightweight vessel known as the pirogue.

They hauled in crab, they hunted and they depended on their wooden boats for their livelihoods, but also for their sport.

From the tallest and strongest tress on the bayou, the Cajuns of Jean Lafitte crafted their racing boats, creating a tradition that has been alive since Native American times. But between the 1920s and the 1980s, Jean Lafitte was known as the pirogue racing capital of the world.

Across the southern states, hundreds of racers would test their skills against the local talent, but gradually, the annual racing event started to lose interest and the pirogue champions of Jean Lafitte became nothing but tales and legends.

“No matter if you were at your grandparents’ house, your uncle’s house, your aunts’ house, this was an event that you heard about,” Timothy Kerner Jr. said. “This was an event that everyone knew about, that every grandparent talked about.”

Kerner was a part of the generation that never got to see the “battle for the paddle.” So a few of his friends decided it was time to bring back the races and honor the town’s history.

But in 2018, they didn’t expect nearly 100 racers and over 3,000 people to show up.

“The community wanted (the races) back,” he said.

Kerner and the other organizers successfully brought the boats back to the bayou last year, so the plans for the 2019 races were to make it bigger and better. On September 7, over 100 racers were ready to face off in 13 different races, each with their own unique twist.

With children’s races, blindfolded contests and even a decoy pick up race, the locals came out to support their racers, much like they did nearly a hundred years ago.

“Down here everyone grew up in a pirogue so everyone has a connection to the races,” event organizer Russell Easley said.

The festivities kicked off in the Louisiana heat with the smell of boiled seafood and the tune of washboards and accordions.

Kerner said, “This is not just a crazy Cajun event. This is unique to Louisiana. You can’t get more Cajun than this. You can’t get more Southern Louisiana than this.”

The races were important to the older residents, who grew up and even competed in the races of the past, and for the current generation, who were eager to honor their heritage with a win on the water.

The pirogue united the town and its visitors.

Organizer Elton Matherne said, “These people build these boats from scratch. They design their own pirogues. They put a lot into this.”

John Matherne, a resident of Jean Lafitte, competed in both the blindfold and the kayak race, winning the former and placing third in the later.

“It is so fun, with the competition coming at you,” he said. “You never know who is going to win. You can’t see where you’re going so you’re just guessing.”

And while both the competitors and spectators had fun with 11 of the races, the final two kept the crowd on edge. The championship title was on the line and both local talent and out of state competitors were eyeing the prize.

The men’s championship race had everyone on their feet.

The LeBlanc family has deep ties in the Jean Lafitte pirogue races, with local legend Malcolm LeBlanc earning the title 10 times through the 60s and 70s.

His son, 52-year-old Shane LeBlanc, looked for a title of his own, but the competition all brought their best.

The two-mile race saw the eight rowers go neck-and-neck. Neighbors were pitted against neighbors but it was the out of town racer that rounded the mile-marker buoy first and took the lead to the finish line.

Jeb Berry from Gulfport, Mississippi won the championship by a wide margin, but the same could not have been said for the women’s race.

The defending champion Shannon Dardar looked to repeat this year but Lafitte local, Julie Cagins, wanted the trophy for herself.

At the sound of the horn, both racers were off and just yards apart as they reached the mile marker. It wasn’t until the 1.5-mile buoy that the defending champion slacked off and Cagins rowed on to be named the next women’s champion.

“It’s pretty awesome,” she said.

She entered the race after watching her husband practice for last year’s competition.

Cagins said, “My husband practicing (inspired me), I was like, ‘I’m just going to try and see if I can get in this thing.’ and I wanted to do it.”

She will have an entire year to practice if she wants to defend her title, but for now Cagins will celebrate.

“I’m going to have a beer and show off my trophy to my kids,” she said.

Overall, the competitors and attendees experienced something that is deeply rooted in the region’s history and now they hope to keep the races alive for future generations instead of having them live on as memories.

“There is no other sport event that is uniquely Louisiana,” Kerner said. “We are trying to keep it here for 100 more years.”

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Andres Fuentes

CCS contributor

Andres Fuentes just completed his third year with The Maroon, and has previously served as Sports Editor, Sports Assistant and Distribution Manager. He hopes that his experiences in both the classroom and newsroom allow him to lead The Maroon effectively on both print and media outlets. He hopes to have stellar and note-worthy news while also featuring interesting and vibrant…

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