Cool off this summer at the Cache River State Natural Area in the southern tip of Illinois. Every summer, I spent a pleasant afternoon on the Lower Cache River. There’s an access point within the natural area where I put my canoe in the water. A large dock and a concrete ramp make getting a boat in the water simple and convenient. A well-marked canoe path, the Lower Cache River Trail, threads along the northern edge of the wetlands. My canoe is in the water, and it’s time for me to get on the water.
Pushing the duckweed aside reveals a large turtle where I have to put my foot. Moving him gently with my paddle, I step into the cool water, get onto my canoe and push away from the ramp. A fantastic vista greets my eyes. The bright emerald green duckweed covers much of the surface of the water and ancient, stately cypress trees rise from randomly scattered patches of button bush. Many old, snarled trunks of trees, glorious at one time, grace the landscape. Centuries of time and weather have shaped them into incredible, surreal, sculptures.
Duckweed, though it looks slimy, is actually a floating mass comprised of small leafy plants. It is of tremendous value to the health of the wetlands. It keeps the water cool and provides a habitat for many species of wildlife.
It’s a beautiful day with a brilliant blue sky and white fluffy clouds. A mild breeze blows out of the south, making gentle ripples on the water. Tree Swallows twitter and dive for flying bugs. Prothonotary Warblers peek shyly at me from their perches in the cypress trees. A loud noise shatters the quiet and
a very disturbed Great Blue Heron flies in and out of sight among the trees. Gliding along, looking at the scenery, I see a pencil sized object push slowly upward through the duckweed. It gently drops back into the water when approached. It is the nose of a snapping turtle getting a breath of air. Large carp slap my boat as it cuts a wake through the swamp.
Rounding a bend in the one of the channels, I hear the quiet murmur of voices. I move in their direction and discover a pair of fishermen in a Jon boat. They’re using a trolling motor to quietly work around the snags. After talking for a little while, they show me a pair of very nice bass they’ve caught. On one of my future trips, I just might bring a fishing rod.
The canoe trail eventually comes to a huge, impressive, gnarled, bald cypress tree. It is the state champion. This tree is 73 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 34 feet 3 inches measured at 4.5 feet above the river bottom and boasts a crown spread of 35 feet. It is a massive sentinel that has been here for more than 1,000 years.
State Champion Bald Cypress
The cypress trees are a mix of live and dead wood. Green branches, bearing the round green cypress cones, intermingle with oddly bent snags. They often have a crown of branches at what looks like the maximum water level. This–combined with buttonbush, duckweed, and submerged logs that look like alligators waiting in ambush–give this place an otherworldly feeling.
Paddling back to the boat access, I hear the occasional quiet sploosh. Turtles basking on logs gently slide into the water as I near them. I am at the boat ramp now and it’s time for me to get out of the water and head home. It is actually hard to leave. This is a wonderful place to be.
Everyone will find something of interest in southern Illinois’ wetlands. The Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center in Cypress offers a comfortable meeting and stopping place with multimedia presentations, a fascinating museum and programs of all sorts that help acquaint people with the wetlands. From Vienna, Ill., go west five miles on state Route 146 from the intersection of Route 146 & U.S. Highway 45. Turn left (south) on state Route 37 and drive nine miles to the Wetlands Center entrance. Follow the signs.
When you go: For more information, contact the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau at 800-248-4373 While there’s no overnight camping in the natural area, a variety of lodging and restaurant options can be found in this part of southern Illinois. The area also is noted for a wine trail; you might consider seeing the Cache River Basin Winery and getting a bite to eat at the restaurant on site.
Before heading out on the canoe trail, don’t forget to pack helpful equipment such as a GPS or map, compass, dry bags for gear, water, snacks, sunscreen, a hat, insect repellent, a good personal floatation device and a cell phone.
Enjoy Southern Illinois!