Cache River Wetlands

When my husband, Guy, and I discovered the Cache River wetlands in
“southernmost” Illinois a few years ago, we guessed it had to be the
state’s best-kept secret. We live in neighboring Missouri but had never
heard of it. At the time we thought we’d made a wrong turn into the Deep
South.

The Illinois we knew was wide-open flatland and seemingly endless miles
of corn and bean fields that before the settlers arrived was carpeted
with tall, rough grasses and wildflowers, prompting the nickname
“Prairie State.” This was land a glacier scoured and made rich some
20,000 years ago.

But the glacier stopped short of the state’s southern tip,
which today pokes into the Ohio River near its confluence with the
Mississippi like a pair of fat fingers. And what’s there, where four
“physiographic regions” come together – and north meets south and east
meets west – is a magnificent swampland where shallow, green-crusted
water is statued with tupelo and ancient cypress trees, many of them
giants that have stood there nearly 1,000 years.

Until recently most of what we’d seen of the swamp was in
photos. But after talking with Carol Hoffman, sales manager of the
Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau, and learning about the annual
Birding Fest in April that draws more than 1,000 enthusiasts from around
the country, we decided it was time to see the wetlands for ourselves.

Hoffman noted that 203 bird species had been recorded at the
event. But she was quick to add that although the Birding Fest is
popular, any time of year is a good time to visit and see birds (and
more).

We visited in June, and for three marvelous days enjoyed the
wetlands’ many offerings. We recommend the Henry N. Barkhausen Cache
River Wetlands Center, where a 12-minute film and dozens of exhibits in
2,000 square feet of exhibit space explain geologic and human history.
The story begins with the end of the last ice age when the melting
glacier flooded the Ohio River Valley, pushing the river south to its
present location.

Other exhibits at the center explain efforts made over the last
few decades to restore the wetlands, which once spanned more than
250,000 acres. The Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership,
formed in 1991 and made up of the Illinois Department of Natural
Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, The
Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, is
working to protect and restore 60,000 acres along 50 miles of the river.
Thus far nearly 35,000 acres have been protected.

Once considered worthless, the Lower Cache River Swamp was
named a National Natural Landmark in 1980, and designation in 1994 as a
“Wetland of International Importance” put the entire swamp in the same
ecological league as the Okefenokee Swamp and the Everglades.

The 1/3-mile-long Egret Slough Trail, behind the center, winds
past a small pond filled with cattails and blue pickerelweed, and around
a restored prairie thick with Queen Anne’s lace, purple blazing star,
black-eyed Susans and milkweed with delicately fragrant blooms. Placards
note that 105 bird species are “associated” with the wetlands; that
most of Illinois’ amphibians, reptiles and mammals use them; and nearly
half of the state’s plants are wetland species.

Eager to see the swamp from a canoe, we made arrangements with
Rick Reichert of Peddles and Paddles in Vienna, who leads guided trips
on the Lower Cache River. Before we boarded our canoes, Reichert handed
us life preservers “because insurance demands it,” but noted that the
river, once 6-8 feet deep, has been heavily silted and is currently only
about 3 feet deep.

As the canoes plowed furrows through thick lime-colored
duckweed and water meal, Reichert explained what we were seeing in this
surreal swamp world, where even the air is green. Stately cypress trees
with bases fanned like gored skirts rub shoulders with similar-sized
tupelo. He explained that although the cypress is coniferous, its
needles turn brown and drop in the fall, hence the name “bald cypress,”
while the deciduous tupelo, a gum, grows large “ovate” leaves.

Illinois’ champion bald cypress, a majestic 1,000-year-old
tree, was along our route; its 35-foot-wide “crown” towers 73 feet over
the water, and its base is more than 34 feet wide. At the far end of our
6-mile trip was Eagle Pond, where we paddled to another landmark — an
875-year-old cypress with 209 knees of varying heights. Reichert said
the knees, which sprout from the water like clusters of gnomes, may
provide stability for the trees that “never fall over.”

Birds are everywhere: egrets and herons standing in the
shallows fishing; vultures, a bald eagle and red-tail hawks cruising
overhead; and a host of woodpeckers flitting among the trees. Hundreds
of warblers jewel the trees here in spring, Reichert noted, but most are
just passing through. This day, though, we saw several bright-hued
prothonotary warblers. The swamp is similarly loaded with fish,
including blue gill, channel cat, bass, crappie and gar.

Four hours in the canoes may have been the highlight of our
southernmost Illinois visit, but we also enjoyed other treks into the
swamp on foot, following boardwalks and hiking trails such as the
1-mile-long Swamp Trail along the Lower Cache River and the Section 8
Woods Nature Preserve just south of the Wetland Center, where a 465-foot
boardwalk funnels visitors through a dim forest of oak, tupelo and
cypress.

But the most rewarding hike is to Heron Pond, a place so
surreal it could have been dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. A floating boardwalk
takes you several hundred feet into the swamp where hundreds of
enormous cypress trees rise like columns in a Gothic cathedral from the
still, green water. There are no sounds other than infrequent bird calls
and the grunting croak of a bullfrog.

Biking is another popular activity in the area, not in the
swamp but on 45-mile-long Tunnel Hill State Trail — a “rails to trails”
project that follows the old Vincennes and Cairo railroad bed beginning
at Karnak and running northeast to Harrisburg. A 2 1/2-mile spur on the
old Chicago and Eastern Illinois railroad bed connects the bike trail
to the walking trail at the Wetlands Center. (Numerous parking areas are
provided along the trail, which for the most part follows U.S. Highway
45.)

As usual our time ran out too soon, as there is much more in
Southernmost Illinois we wanted to see. But that’s OK because we’re
already planning our next visit.

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