Back in the 1800s, the Bayou Teche was how many folks traveled in south Louisiana — paddling along the 135-mile waterway that snakes through four parishes, from Port Barre down to Berwick.

“That was the original highway. I feel we are blessed to be linked by the Teche,” St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot said.

He was among a crowd of community leaders and elected officials who gathered Thursday in Breaux Bridge to celebrate the National Park Service’s selection of the bayou as a National Water Trail, a designation that comes amid efforts to make the bayou just as important to the region as it was decades ago.

It is the first waterway in Louisiana to receive the distinction and one of only 18 in the U.S. since the Park Service launched the water trail system in 2012.

The designation literally puts the bayou on the national map for paddling enthusiasts and opens the door for assistance in future projects to improve the waterway and make it easier for boaters to access.

“It shows that the bayou is not only important to the people of this area but to the people of the country,” said state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro. “I think this shows the country that this is an important natural resource that we have.”

The bayou has been attracting increasing attention as a recreational waterway in recent years and is now the site of an annual paddling race down its entire length, the Tour du Teche.

Paddling clubs have sprouted along its banks, and an outfitter, the Bayou Teche Experience, has set up shop in Breaux Bridge to rent kayaks and canoes for exploring the waterway.

Much of the activity is connected to the work of the TECHE Project, a nonprofit group that started six years ago to organize bayou cleanups and educational programs and to promote the bayou as an economic development opportunity for the region.

Among the group’s most recent efforts is a project to install eight floating docks along the bayou.

The first is set for Breaux Bridge.

TECHE Project Executive Director Conni Castille said there has been renewed interest in the bayou as an asset, and some businesses along the waterway have even installed docks for the convenience of recreational boaters.

“Today, we can paddle to get a beer and a plate lunch,” she said. “... We want to capitalize of this momentum.”

Castille said she hopes to see canoes and kayaks become a central part of the recreational experience in south Louisiana.

“We want paddling to be as common as football and softball,” she said.