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Cache River State Natural Area

Not your laid-back summer holiday -- canoeing and hiking galore.

Little-Known Fact: Cache River State Natural Area boasts the 1,000-year-old state champion bald cypress?

This wasn’t going to be one of those laid-back summer Sundays ~ no leisurely wake-up, no morning paper, no second cup of coffee. Instead, my friend and I were bound for the Cache River State Natural Area, where we’d be on the water at first light, tromping the trails at midday, then back in the canoe by sundown.

An ecological novelty in the Land of Lincoln, this 10,430-acre natural area is composed of two distinct sections: the famed Heron Pond-Little Black Slough wetland on the Upper Cache River, and the Cache River Swamp, a nine-mile corridor lining both sides of the Lower Cache. Both sections are precious remains of a wetlands ecosystem that once encompassed more than 250,000 acres and spanned the entire southern tip of Illinois, from the Mississippi River on the west to the Ohio River on the east and south. Today, only the Cache River watershed and a few nearby smaller tracts are left, representing some of the best undisturbed swamp in the southeastern part of the United States.

We paddled quietly in the morning mist through an otherworldly cypress-tupelo bog, a section of the Lower Cache called Long and Short Reach Slough. Bald cypress trees surrounded us, and great blue herons rose out of the still backwaters to croak their displeasure at our intrusion. I could have sworn I was in a Louisiana bayou or Georgia’s Okefenokee.

We did not linger, however, because we had other stops to make and not all of them from a canoe ~ nine miles of foot trails penetrate the Cache River Natural Area. After grabbing a quick lunch, we headed for the scenic 1.5-mile wooded path leading into Heron Pond. A floating boardwalk wound between the cypress trees, providing easy access to the heart of the swamp. A 6.5-mile trail through Little Black Slough provided a bit more challenge. It skirted a bald cypress and tupelo swamp, and passed through flood-plain forest, barren sandstone ledges, dry limestone glades, and hillside prairies, proof that the entire state of Illinois does not suffer from topographic monotony.

But it was the night that we were anticipating since a swamp is most alive after sunset. Returning to the Lower Cache River in darkness, we eased the canoe into a narrow channel where the trees and buttonbush closed around us. Our only source of light was faint starlight and the strobelike flashes from what seemed to be millions of fireflies.

A rhythmic din created by myriad unseen creatures ~ bird-voiced tree frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, and others ~ rose from the swamp. A loud splash and a thump momentarily silenced the nocturnal chorus. Was it a beaver, a muskrat, an endangered river otter, or a bobcat?

My partner broke the spell, reminding me he had to be at work early the next morning. Craning my neck, I strained for one last glimpse into the darkness of the swamp, reluctantly leaving its mysterious waters.

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