VICKSBURG, Michigan — Call it a mashup of Cajun culture and classic Midwestern small-town charm, with a dash of education thrown in.
That was the setting Saturday afternoon in this small Michigan village of 3,100 residents, nestled roughly halfway between Detroit and Chicago, for a pop-up festival dubbed Cray Day.
A small delegation from Travel Lafayette, a tourism and convention organization, made the 15-1/2 hour trip to Vicksburg to put on the festival in response to recent news reports of an invasion of red swamp crayfish in Sunset Lake, the inland lake that borders the park where the festival took place. Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials say they're still learning about the crayfish, but are treating it as a potential threat to that state's fishing industry.
As Michigan grapples with a never-before-seen invasion of red swamp "crayfish" threatening c…
For Sue Moore, who has lived in Vicksburg for all but 10 of her 79 years, the festival was a perfect fit for the town's quiet character.
“It's low-key. It fits right in. It's perfect for our lake. It's a beautiful setting right in the middle of the village,” Moore said.
And the folks from Lafayette were feeling the love from their new-found friends.
“We are in love with this town,” said Jesse Guidry, vice president of communications for Travel Lafayette. “There's a lot of similarities to where I grew up in Breaux Bridge — the farmers market, the historic village. It'd be a nice town to come away for a vacation. The people are friendly. It's great.”
From the moment visitors walked into the park, they were greeted by live music from Sel de Terre, a Cajun music band based in Ann Arbor, located about 100 miles east of Vicksburg.
Then, they got to sample the traditional Cajun dish of crawfish etouffee, prepared by Lauren Liner and Sean Suire of the Cajun Table, a seafood eatery in Lafayette.
Liner also put on a demonstration on how to prepare etouffee, sharing with visitors how the dish varies from parish to parish and town to town in the Bayou State.
But for all the fun and festivity, there was a message as well — that Michigan officials are concerned about the potential spread of red swamp crayfish, which has also been located in the Detroit suburb of Novi.
“I think this is going to be a cool partnership, to hear more about how they do their business in Louisiana, and also stress the importance of protecting our water resources in Michigan,” said Nick Popoff, who oversees the invasive species section for the DNR's Fisheries Division.
About 2,600 red swamp crayfish have been captured from the two locations and are now under study by the DNR. It's not yet known where the crayfish came from, Popoff said.
“We're testing them. We're trying to figure the genetics,” he said. “We're removing them from the environment. That's the key thing.”
Several visitors asked Popoff variations of the obvious question — “Can't you just eat them?” His answers indicated that making the red swamp crayfish part of the menu for Michiganders could result in a greater spread of the species and harm fish that are native to the state.
While the message about protecting native species to Michigan is a serious one, it didn't keep local residents of all ages from having a good time. Children could get their faces painted with either a crawfish or a fleur-de-lis, and also had a story time where they were introduced to Clovis the Crawfish, from the children's book series created by Mary Alice Fontenot.
Mary Ruple, who runs a local pet store and served on Vicksburg's Downtown Development Authority board, said the festival has been good for the community from an economic standpoint.
“I wish we had a little more time to promote it, but it has been a draw," Ruple said. "People here are very interested."
And this might not be the last interaction between Vicksburg and Lafayette, Guidry said.
“We basically held a meeting, at a festival, so we could get all this info out," he said. "Hopefully it leads to a bigger discussion between them and us."