Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cache River State Natural Area: Much More Than "Mud & Muck"

When you think of a wetlands area, there is nodoubt that you may quickly conjure up an image of Swamp Thing's eerie home immediately. Or, perhaps you envision a marshy bog filled with savage spiders, slippery snakes and man-sized mosquitoes, each lying in wait under an ever present layer offog, lurking within their secret hiding places until deciding to lurchforth for you, their unsuspectingvictim. But in reality, wetlands are beautiful areas that alsoprovide a home to more than a third of the species on the U.S.Endangered Species List and serve a variety of services to us aswell; such as recharging our ground water supplies, providing a filterwhich removes pollution, and trapping flood waters. But beyond those important ecological benefits, you will find that wetlands may provide another intangible benefit to you. You may find your own soul reinvigorated, if just given a chance to step beyond the "mud and muck" of Cache River State Natural Area...

Cache River State Natural Area

This Cherrybark Oak
Champion may be found
on the Todd Fink
Heron Pond Trail
The Cache River State Natural Area is an absolutely stunning example of a well restored wetlands area. You will find this gem nestled within a floodplain, which was sculpted by the mighty flood waters of the Ohio River ages ago. The Cache River Wetlands is now fed by the Cache River and it's many tributaries and stretches over 14,960 acres in Johnson, Massac, and Pulaski counties in Southern Illinois. This scenic area also plays as a featured stop to many migratory bird species, including bald eagles, great blue herons and (a personal favorite) snowy egrets. In addition to the myriad of migratory birds you will undoubtedly catch an earful of the areas most vocal inhabitants as choirs of spring peepers, bullfrogs, bird-voiced tree frogs, American toads and more amphibians all sing together from the bogs to the boughs and everywhere in between. As you hike on the trails and boardwalks below you may also want to keep a keen eye trained for some of the larger warm blooded residents as many white tailed deer, squirrels, raccoon, beavers, foxes and mink call the area home as well.

On our visit we were lucky enough to hike three areas within the Cache River State Natural Area (click to visit individual pages or read more below): Big Cypress Tree Trail (250 feet), the Section 8 Wood Nature Preserve Boardwalk (475 feet) and the Todd Fink-Heron Pond Trail (1.5 miles). Each of these short hikes were absolutely stunning and completely unique in their own way. These short journeys also seriously whet my appetite for a return to visit areas such as the Marshall Ridge Trail (2.8 miles), Lookout Point Trail (1 mile), and the Lower Cache River Swamp Trail (2.5 miles), but that will have to be another post at another time I suppose.

Big Cypress Tree Trail

Although missing some of its mighty boughs,
the state champion is still an impressive sight!
Beyond the wildlife that inhabits these wetlands, the area also boasts some truly spectacular plant life. Throughout the Cache Area Wetlands you will discover ancient cypress trees with their flared bases and many "knees", which were mere saplings over 1,000 years ago, now standing sentinel over the rich, black-water swamps that still nourish them. On the short, 250 foot Big Cypress Tree Trail you will find one very special bald cypress. This particular cypress tree has been so nourished by the rich waters that it has developed a remarkable base (also referred to as a buttress) of over 40 feet in circumference, which has earned it recognition as a state champion. As you make your way to the enormous namesake of this trail be sure to take note of the other plants such as majestic tupelo trees and low lying thickets of button-bush that share the landscape with the silent cypress colossus.

Section 8 Wood Nature Preserve Boardwalk

The murky waters of Section 8 are haunting.
There is something nearly hypnotic about the chorus song of nature, in particular the melodies of the amphibious inhabitants of the wetlands. The soprano trills of the tree frogs blend with the rich baritones of the southern leopard frogs, while the deep bass of the bullfrogs seem to keep the beat and complete the scale, providing the perfect background accompaniment as you stroll the wooden Section 8 Boardwalk (click here for more "Swamp Music":). As you make your way over the 475 foot long boardwalk you will be enveloped by the cypress, tupelo and other varieties of marsh loving trees, many of which you will be able to identify thanks to the wonderful interpretive panels that are available along the path. Then, as you look out upon the muddy and murky waters, perhaps wondering exactly what may lie beneath its calm surface, you may also catch sight of another state champion, this time a tremendous water tupelo, which can be found at the very end of the boardwalk. Unfortunately I just could not snap a good picture of it, or I would have provided one here for you... Now I guess you'll just have to take this serenaded trip as well. :)

Todd Fink-Heron Pond Trail

See that cool "Zipper" effect?
This short, 1.5 mile, trail begins simply enough. You'll find yourself descending into a mix of hardwood forest comprised of a mix of oak, hickory and sweet gum. As you reach the bottom of your descent you will come to a small truss bridge over which you will make your way over a convergence of Dutchman's Creek and the Cache River. If you find yourself crossing this bridge without setting an eye just upstream, toward the actual meeting of these two streams of water, you are missing a truly magnificent sight. For it is here, just upstream, where the relatively clear waters of Dutchman's Creek and the rich muddy flow of the Cache River slowly merge, becoming one, but not before the waters dance together, swirling and circling, ebbing and flowing, creating an absolutely hypnotic effect. The trail continues on just the other side of the bridge, and closely follows the snaking trail of the Cache River. As you continue your hike you will find a fork in the trail, it is here that you will want to journey to the left and in just a few short yards you will find the Heron Pond boardwalk.

The Heron Pond boardwalk winds its way out and into the very heart of its namesake pond. The waters here were more clear than we found at the Section 8 boardwalk, which allowed us glimpses of turtles, fish, insects, frogs and more as they swam among the giant tupelo trees and "knees" of the cypress here. In areas we found duckweed would obscure our little windows into the private underwater world of the swamps residents, occasionally these serene green mats of aquatic carpet would erupt with a violent "POP" as an underwater assassin would hungrily burst through the thin layer of duckweed in pursuit of an insect.

Now, after you've taken the journey on the Heron Pond boardwalk you may think that's it... But you'd be wrong. Remember that fork, where we turned left? You may be wondering what exactly would have happened had we turned right instead. Well let not your heart be troubled, because had you turned right at that fork you would have taken a trail that would have led you directly to yet another state champion tree! This time you would have discovered the state champion cherrybark oak tree that has grown to a circumference of over 22 feet and 100 feet high! You may never have quite so much fun feeling so very, very small and believe me, it's worth a quick visit to set your eyes upon this towering titan, plus it is only a few yards up that right path...

Cache River Wetlands Center 

You may want to begin your entire adventure to the Cache River Wetlands Area at the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center. Unfortunately the visitor center was closed when we visited the park on a Monday, but it certainly seems to have many offerings for you to peruse. It is located at 8885 State Route 37, Cypress, IL, 62923 and is now open to the public five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.


More Information:

Local Treks on facebook 
Cache River State Natural Area: Big Cypress Tree Trail - Looking for the state champion bald cypress? Take this trail!
Cache River State Natural Area: Section 8 Nature Preserve Boardwalk - Take a stroll directly through a swamp without even getting your feet wet!
Cache River State Natural Area: Todd Fink-Heron Pond Trail - Another state champion tree and awesome boardwalk trail!
Cache River State Natural Area homepage 
Hiking Maps of the Area
Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center
Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center flyer - This little beauty has many of the cool features of the center listed. 
Cache River State Natural Area Map
Color Brochure of the Area

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