Tucked away in the southern tip of Illinois you can find places which don’t seem to belong there. When you think of Illinois – aside from Chicago, or references to Abraham Lincoln, you tend to think of acres of flat land covered in corn, wheat and soybeans. What you might not think of are sheer bluffs, canyons, waterfalls and in the case of the Cache River State Natural area, cypress and tupelo tree swamps.
Formed in the remains of of a floodplain created long ago by glacial runoff coursing through the Ohio River, the wetlands that make up this area are fed by the Cache River and its tributaries. Boasting trees which were saplings when Vikings plundered Europe, as well as much younger trees which date to the time of Christopher Columbus, Cache River State Natural Area gives you a chance to immerse yourself in an area little disturbed by human contact.
My companion had been there before, and suggested the Todd Fink-Heron Pond Trail. The gravel trail which wind through the area, as well as wide and stable boardwalks which take you out over the water itself allow you to experience features of the planet which otherwise would be pretty much off limits. The 1.5 mile trail is labelled easy, which is true, though in July when we visited, the heat was pretty intense. You can’t count on much of a breeze, and the bugs are pretty much what you’d expect in a swamp.
The bottomland forests of the area surround Heron Pond, and a boardwalk extends out to the center. The shallow water is home to towering cypress trees, rising high above the duckweed which covers the surface of the pond. It’s easy to spot signs of life in the green duckweed, including trails left by snakes swimming along its surface. The curious bird-like sound heard frequently is actually the sound of tree frogs, which live in the cypress. What you see while standing on the boardwalk and looking out is a sight relatively unchanged for a thousand years or more.
It’s a miracle that its survived to this day. In the nineteenth century, only a few sturdy settlers occupied the area, trying to make a go of it harvesting lumber. With the advances in technology however, the wetlands were cleared quite rapidly. It was only when concerned citizens stepped in to stop the harvest, that about 15,000 acres were saved. Almost a quarter of a million acres of wetland were lost.
There are about a hundred species of endangered wildlife which finds a home in the Cache River State Natural area. Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, barred owls, great blue herons, great egrets, little blue herons, green herons, least bitterns, wood ducks, mallards, snow geese, sora rails, woodcock, quail, mourning doves, red-headed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, prothonotary warblers, black vultures and turkey vultures are among the birds often spotted. White-tailed deer, squirrels, raccoons, beavers, gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, skunks, mink and the occasional bobcat are among the mammals of the area. And a plethora of reptiles inhabit the wetlands, including ird-voiced tree frogs, southern leopard frogs, spring peepers, western chorus frogs, bullfrogs, American toads, cottonmouths, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. So it’s best to keep your eyes peeled, as those last three are rather venomous snakes.
In addition to hiking, it’s possible to take canoe tours, ranging from three to six miles. There’s also a bike trail which winds through the area. And for fishermen (and fisherwomen), the catch could range from Channel catfish, crappie, bass to bluegill. Authentic swamp fish might also end up on your hook, the bowfin, needlenose gar, grass pickerel and yellow bullhead catfish for example. Two state-endangered fish which live only in forest swamps are the pygmy sunfish and cypress minnows.
We were content to hike the easiest of the trails, and sit on the boardwalk in the middle of Heron Pond and watch the filtered sunlight dancing on the duckweed, changing the color from a bright emerald to a rich green, and listen to the tree frogs high above us. There are few places where you can lose the sound of humanity, and here the only human sounds were the occasional far off sound of a truck out on the highway. My companion said once, that it was a place that felt like we shouldn’t be there. And she was right. It was humans which almost destroyed the Cache River wetlands for all time. But it’s also humans which have managed to preserve at least a part of it, and given us access to areas we could never otherwise reach.
As a reminder, when we got back to the truck, my friend noticed her ankles were swarming with deer ticks. These carriers of Lyme disease are a reminder that even though we might go someplace, we might not be designed to survive in those places for long. Leave no tracks, and wear boots!
If you go:
For more info:
To reach Cache River State Natural Area headquarters from the North, take I-57 south to I-24, go east toward Nashville, get off at exit #14 (Vienna), turn right at the stop sign onto US Rt 45, go south on Rt 45 through Vienna, 7 miles, turn right on the Belknap road for 4 miles to the stop sign in Belknap, turn right at the stop sign on Main Street and go 2,000 feet and turn right onto Sunflower Lane (past the Belknap Methodist Church) and go north 1 mile to the park office. The park office is located in the white metal pole building.
To reach the Henry Barkhausen Wetlands from Vienna, IL, go West 5 miles on Route 146 from the intersection of Route 146 & US Route 45, turn left or South on Route 37, then 9 miles to Wetlands Center entrance – follow signs.
While groups of 25 or more are welcome and encouraged to use the park’s facilities, they are required to register in advance with the site office to avoid crowding or scheduling conflicts.
At least one responsible adult must accompany each group of 15 minors.
Pets must be kept on leashes at all times.
Actions by nature can result in closed roads and other facilities. Please call ahead to the park office before you make your trip.
We hope you enjoy your stay. Remember, take only memories, leave only footprints.
For more information on tourism in Illinois, call the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs’ Bureau of Tourism at 1-800-2Connect.
Telecommunication Device for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Natural Resources Information (217) 782-9175 for TDD only Relay Number 800-526-0844.
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