WEST PEARL RIVER, La. – Denny Holmberg is trying to get by with a little help from his friends: alligators, turtles, flying squirrels, bass and gar, wild boar and 29 different kinds of spiders, just to name a few. Oh, and don’t forget a handful of kind-hearted humans.
Two years after Katrina swamped his once-thriving swamp tour business, Holmberg is still in a world of hurt. In a cruel encore to the hurricane’s devastation, Holmberg was hit just after the storm by a recurrent brain tumor that had been in remission for a decade. Surgery and drugs have left him subject to frequent seizures, unable to run his business, down to his last few dollars and wondering how he’ll pay for another operation.
“Eeeaaahhhh!” bellows Holmberg from his moss-draped compound on the banks of the Pearl River, where Highway 90 crosses it just west of the Mississippi state line. These days, a good Cajun yell – at once mournful and joyful -- sometimes comes easier than words for Holmberg and seems a fitting summation of his predicament.
Trim and handsome, Holmberg, 56, couldn’t look more the part of a backwoods guide with his neat gray mustache and goatee, Indiana Jones hat and, hanging on a string around his neck, a 3-inch tooth from a 17-foot gator. He will not venture anywhere near the water without a life vest that he could inflate with the pull of a tab should he feel a seizure coming on.
“I love the swamp,” says Holmberg. And the swamp loved him back for 25 years, providing a fine income from Mr. Denny’s Voyageur Canoe Swamp Tours. With seven canoes and several guides, Holmberg’s tours took as many as 150 visitors a day at $20 to $50 a head up the river’s tiny tributaries. Powered only by paddles, the boats let their occupants slip quietly across thick carpets of salvinia grass and beneath towering cypress trees to get an up-close look at the amazing array of wildlife in the swamp.
But Katrina washed away Holmberg’s modest riverside home and four of the seven 22-foot canoes that he designed and built himself, modeled on the Canadian fur-trading boats he paddled and raced as a youth in Minnesota. Then the tumor returned, leaving him unable to rebuild his home or business.
Since his last surgery, Holmberg has been living in a FEMA trailer on $700 a month in disability payments, mostly consumed by his prescriptions. His home was uninsured – “foolish enough to live on a river,” he shrugs – and he got $9,000 in Katrina grant money, now almost gone.
“I’m in a dilemma,” Holmberg says, which is just where Russ Vandercook found him in late June, packing his few remaining belongings into a couple of plywood crates for a move back to Minnesota, where his mother, brother and sister live.
Vandercook, a building contractor, was looking for recreational outlets for the AmeriCorps crews he was working with on Katrina relief efforts. When he heard Holmberg’s story, he decided to help get the swamp tour business going again as a way to help Holmberg raise enough money to rebuild his house, take care of his health needs and stay near his three kids, 20, 16 and 14, who still live in the area. Eventually, Vandercook hopes, the business will provide a living for him too.
For now, Vandercook, his wife, son and a couple of friends are guiding whatever tours they can book to raise money for Holmberg. Their efforts have been adopted by a Hancock County relief organization, which is publicizing the tours on its Web site, and Vandercook is promoting the business with new brochures and yellow pages listings.
Vandercook, 47, himself a recent transplant from Michigan, has developed a passion for the swamp and loves to pull canoes through the muddy water wearing camo pants with a foot-long combat knife strapped to his thigh.
And he has grown very fond of Holmberg, helping him sort through his medical and financial issues and deal with the seizures that come at least several times a week and sometimes once a day. One of Vandercook’s biggest goals is to see Holmberg, who studied biology, lead tours again.
“You get out here with Denny and it’s just like going back to school,” he says. “He’s a very knowledgeable man. We just wish it wasn’t stuck in his head right now.”
They gave it a test run of sorts recently.
“He said he’d never get back in the boat because of the seizures,” Vandercook says, “but we took the middle seat out and put some cushions in and put him down in there and took him out in the swamp.”
The voyage was a success, Holmberg said, unleashing another “Eeeaaahhhh!” for emphasis.
NOTE: Mr. Denny’s Voyageur Swamp Tours can be reached at 985-643-4839.
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