Sunday, May 27, 2007

24 Hours In The Cache River Natural Area

Last Weekend (6/20-21/2007), I had the opportunity to visit the Cache River Natural Area in deep Southern Illinois.

This area is, from an environmental standpoint, well decorated. It has been designated as a Wetland of International Importance (only 19 of them currently exist in the US), the National Park Service has dedicated two National Natural Landmarks, and three state nature preserves exist within the area.

I started off at the Heron Pond Trail. This trail travels along side of the Cache river and Bald Cypress swamps. Along the way, I saw these flowers in one area. This was the only red color I recall anywhere along the path.

Red and Yellow Wild Flower

Continuing along the path, I got to what was definitely one of the top highlights. There is a boardwalk / dock with handrails going out into the middle of the swamp. From here, you get clear views of a Bald Cypress swamp

Cypress Trees and Duckweed

The Cypress trees have flared trunks, called buttresses. Additionally, they grow these stumps called knees. The knees are an extension of the root system which add stability to these sometimes enormous trees in such a loose base.

Close-up of Cypress Knees

The swamps are nearly completely covered in a brilliant green carpet of Duckweed. This stuff is amazing! Most of the plants leaves are very small, maybe 1/4" - 3/8" across, and its roots are suspended in the water. They are not anchored in the soil/sediment at all. If a snake, fish, frog, or even a boat/canoe creates an opening or trail through it, the Duckweed immediately begins drifting back to fill the gaps. Within seconds, the carpet has repaired itself!

Duckweed 2

Next, I visited the state champion Cherry Bark Oak. Huge tree!!! (still need to post a photo of that..wonder how I missed it). Continuing on, the next trail or two, were uneventful for the most part. I didn't really have a map, so was just winging it. I later found out that the next two trails were simply connecting trails to other areas of interest.

One of these areas is Little Black Slough. Another Bald Cypress / Gum Tupelo swamp, but it has more open marsh area. There weren't many places to get a clear look at it, but here is one really nice view.

Little Black Slough

After Little Black slough, I decided to head back, as it was getting towards late afternoon, and there was an area called Wildcat Bluffs / Lookout Point that sounded like a good place to be for sunset. I walked a lot further than I thought with my leisurely stroll, stopping for pictures...I was fairly worn out by the time I got back to the truck!! I also had only taken a partial bottle of water with me as I thought the trail was only about 1.5 miles (I didn't realize I had gone on two connecting trails and part of a third until I found a map that night).

This is pretty rural country, and I decided to find lodging and something to eat/drink before continuing. Google maps had indicated 3 hotels a few miles away at the Interstate. On the way through town, I noticed that everything except the gas station / convenience store was closed (Sunday evening after 5:00pm).

I went back to the Interstate where I exited, and, lodging there. hmmm.... I had to continue to the next exit where there was not three hotels...but one that was closed down, and one that was listed twice on Google, but was no longer associated with any major chain. Oh well, I have one'll have to do.

So, after getting that taken care of, I headed out to find Wildcat Bluff...not an easy task! There was one sign on the highway, but a couple critical points along the way didn't have signs.

Eventually, I found it, and there were even maps of the area at this location (tells me that not as many people visit this location). I walk the mile or so trail to Lookout Point.

That brings me to the end of day 1.

Day two starts out with breakfast.

I ask the hotel desk clerk where's a good breakfast. She tells me that right across the highway, behind the gas station, there's a local place called Jumbo's Char and Grill, that's what I'm looking for. With a name like Jumbo's, how can I go wrong??? So, I head to Jumbo's, and it's exactly what I expect...a local diner with good breakfast at a reasonable price. While there, I plan my day (now that I have a map with some descriptions of the sites/trails).

I have spent an afternoon in the Upper Cache River area, now, most of what I want to see is in the Lower Cache area, so I head that way. I start off in Section 8 Woods Nature Preserve.

Section 8 Woods Sign

The particular area I go to has another boardwalk into the swamp. This is right off a state highway, so no real hiking involved, but, it is still an amazing sight. One of the attractions here is the State Champion Water Tupelo tree. Honestly, I am not 100% sure this is the actual state champion, but I think it is.

Large Tupelo

While in this area, I could hear the Herons and Egrets barking from several locations. This is pretty dense area, and it was difficult to get a clear line of sight for anything.

I did, however, see a huge tree fall (insert 'if a tree falls in the woods' joke here). It came splashing down, hitting several other trees along the way. It doesn't sound too exciting, but it really was. To hear the cracking begin, then escalate and see this giant fall...what are the chances of being there at that exact time.

As it fell, it sent a snowy egret scurrying and squawking in disapproval, as well as at least two other large birds. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a shot of the events.

Now, it's time to move on.... Next stop, Buttonland Swamp. This area has access for small boats and canoes (I sure wish I had a canoe for this). There were some beautiful views here, but, most were obscured by Button bush, Reeds, and various other vegetation. If you had a canoe, I am sure you could see some amazing areas, and wildlife.

There is one point that has an overlook area that teases those of us stuck on the land with what we are missing.

Lower Cache River Swamp

After visiting Buttonland Swamp, I backtrack a bit to another area of Section 8 Woods to Big Cypress access/trail. This is a really nice little trail that takes you to a Bald Cypress who's base is more than 40' in circumference; this buttress is huge! This tree is over 1000 years old!!

Big Cypress 2

While there I saw a couple of other interesting things. First, was a large dragonfly. I found him hiding on the under-side of a Cypress knee. I tried to keep my distance as he seemed very aware that I was there and shifted position a couple of times. I wish this image had more Depth of Field (F/7.1 at 130mm wasn't enough).

What I didn't notice until I got home, was that he had just molted!! You can see the old skin just above him!! If I had only gotten there a bit sooner!

Dragofly Just Molted

The other thing I found that was completely amazing to me, was two trees growing from one base!! The main tree is a Bald Cypress, and growing right out the side of it is a Tupelo Gum tree!!! As you reach the canopy, it's hard to distinguish one tree's branches from another, but I could definitely make the distinction visually (but not photographically). Even so, the trunks and bark are definitive....this is definitely two different types of tree!!

Two Different Trees!!

Upon leaving this area, it was mid afternoon, and I had a 5 hour drive home, so this was the end of my outing. There are still a few things I would like to see in the area, so maybe one day I'll make it back to that very unique area (at least for Illinois).

For more pictures (and larger sizes which most of these really need), please visit my flickr page and click on the Cache River set.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed following along on my 24 hour journey.


Conniebury said...

Looks like a great day, the photos are pretty amazing! Thanks for sharing them!

tsheets said...

Thanks!! It was an awesome day! I am looking forward to other outings exploring new areas.

Czarina Pempe said...

Hi Tim, I found your water tupelo champion picture from a google image search because I am currently working on my blog post about the same park. I find it interesting that I was there exactly one year after you. Sadly I didn't know about the water tupelo so I only saw the cherrybark oak and bald cypress, which were both very impressive. I hope you continue having wonderful adventures!

tsheets said...

Thanks for stopping by! It's a great area, so many different and interesting things within a short drive.