(State #28/50) “Oh, we’re much more ecologically diverse than Southern Indiana.” A ranger from the Shawnee NF in Illinois told me. Suspicious of this claim, I pressed a bit. “Oh really? Says the ranger from Illinois.” She laughed. “No, I’m actually from Indiana, so I’m not biased, this area really is more diverse.” After spending a few days in the area, I believed her.
My original plan (I feel most of my posts can begin with that statement) was to canoe Lusk Creek in the hills. Rangers from the NF helped me figure out my float, even sending me a marked up topographical map of where to put in and take out. “I haven’t been out there this year,” they cautioned. I told them I’d report back on the conditions. Well, here’s my report: water too low, un-floatable.
Scarfing down an apple, in the final stages of edibility, I looked off a steel bridge down onto the creek — I saw more grass than stream. Where there was water, it was stagnant and blocked with fallen trees. Upstream was even worse and even I wasn’t stubborn enough to launch into a string of rocks and puddles. I headed forty-five minutes away to the Cache River and, to my great surprise, found myself back in Louisiana.
The Cache River and surrounding swampland is the furthest north cypress-tupelo habitat in the mid-west. The transition from Ozark highlands, in less than an hour, to humid cypress swamp felt, ironically, unnatural. My mind wasn’t prepared for a southern swamp — I had left them behind almost two months before when I put Coastal Carolina in the rearview.
I launched into the brown, algae covered water at six o’clock. The sun shone weak through high clouds and the humidity spiked. Unseen creatures rippled the film-covered surface as I slid by beaver-chewed tupelos, submerged logs and the wide buttresses of cypress trees, so iconic of the South. Mourning doves sounded their sorrowful refrain behind the sharper tones of cheery birds. I heard splashes, big splashes, all around me as gar, carp, beaver, duck and frogmen conducted business. The only things missing from this Dixie wetland were Spanish Moss and alligators. If I had woken up there in my canoe I would have thought I was in at least fifteen different states before guessing, without any confidence, that I was in Illinois.
Following arrows, I canoed towards the state champion cypress. Over 1,000 years old, the papa tree stood, wide-based, stout with the centuries of wind, storm and lightning etched into its facade. Ten feet from the base, knees grew out of the swamp, one like a hand reaching up out of the murk, fingers and all.
Leaving the swamp, I found the main channel and paddled downstream between the wetland and a higher bank of maples and sycamores. After a mile, I stopped on the other side of a bridge to catch my breath when a fish leapt into my boat. I watched as a two-pound Asian Carp flopped around amongst my gear. I switched on the GroPro and recorded my dainty attempt to grab it by the fin and toss it back whence it came. I should have kept it, and ate it on principle alone — not only was it an invasive and destructive species, but it was also the first fish I’d caught on my trip, only took 28 states.
Mosquitoes came out in force as the sun fell behind the cypress trees. A chorus of frogs competed with the cicadas and songbirds. The frog song rose to a crescendo and then the amphibian concert stopped for a minute, only to repeat. A beaver patrolled up to my craft, dove and then surfaced for a tail slap. Owls hooted and the fireflies began the light dance as I reached the dock.
I put up my tent, and began cooking a rice and sausage dish with Mexican spices and the last half of an onion. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it if it wasn’t for all the roaches and mosquitoes. With the swamp came all the associated bugs. I was tolerant, if not welcoming, through the south, but when they are unexpected, I couldn’t help but loath all the insects biting my ankles, crawling into my food bag and flying into my supper. There’s the joyous level of gross and then there was this night, just uncomfortable, hot and filled with swatting and scratching.
I had hoped to spend the next morning organizing, cleaning the hull of the canoe (for invasive species) and washing myself in the spigot. But, right after I took down the tent, a van carrying canoes pulled up. Then another. At 7:30 in the morning I stood shirtless and confused, my gear scattered all over the pavilion, as van after van arrived, depositing dozens of canoes and high schoolers. Soon my lonely pavilion was crowded with teens, adult leaders and forest service personnel, all wondering what the hell I was doing there. I finished breakfast, still half-naked and filthy, with my legs and swim suit covered in swamp muck. “Sweet hot plate!” a kid said, seeming suspiciously genuine. But he was a teenager and I was one shopping chart away from being a true hobo, so there’s no way it was.
Attempting to dispel the notion that I was just a seedy vagabond, I spoke to a guy in a uniform. His name was Greg and he was exceptionally friendly. He explained they were part of a summer youth conservation program with the enthusiasm of someone doing a job they love. Greg showed interest in my trip and then answered all my nerdy questions. “Four different physiographic regions meet right here in Southern Illinois,” Greg explained. It was also a RAMSR Site (wetland of international importance). When all of the conservation crews had arrived, he went over canoeing protocol and explained more about the Cache River Basin. I listened from afar, wanting to canoe along with them, but I had plans…
The moment the last canoe shoved off into the swamp, I stripped by the spigot and took a bath. I’m afraid to say, there was nothing remotely sexy about it. With a sponge and a bucket of suds, I folded my body under the spigot and bathed like “Gullom” from “The Lord of the Rings” — crouching, drenched like a dog, while pivoting my head wildly, watching for sneaky, filthy Hobbitses.
To celebrate my good hygiene (and for the second river in a row, not exposing myself to the youth of America), I boiled water, made more coffee and emptied the rest in the suds bucket with the biodegradable soap. I had already sponged off the swamp muck, but now it was time to kill any aquatic hitchhikers clinging to Rider’s hull (You need at least 100-degree water to prevent the possible spread of invasive species like Zebra Muscles, which are not present in the Cache River, yet). More info found here.
I finished, left my canoe to dry and made an egg and cheese burrito for lunch. I ate, quite content with the past 24 hours. Even though I was annoyed by the bugs, the Cache River represents one of the purposes of my trip — not just to see what I expect, but to allow the American Wilderness to surprise me… which it never fails to do.
Then the sky opened and from the swamp, I could hear squeals and screams from the teens. After a few minutes, the noise subsided as they came to terms with being soaked through. “Anything you take, assume it will get wet,” Greg had warned in his speech.
Minutes later, once again, dozens of kids and their leaders joined me under the pavilion, escaping the downpour. Watching the group brought back fond memories of my summer working with high school students in Dallas, for the Student Conservation Association. There’s nothing like exposing young adults to the outdoors, especially when it’s new to them. So, despite delaying my morning plans, I was happy to meet Greg and learn about their program. I was happy to learn more about the area’s unique ecology. And I was happy to watch the kids goof around, whisper jokes at my expense and explore the swamp in canoes. After all, smart-ass teens need nature too.
Swamp Stats and Fun Facts
- Cache River and wetlands, Illinois
- Date Canoed: 6-21-2017
- Weather: Muggy ranging from partly cloudy to overcast to rain
- Miles canoed: 4
- Elevation: Approximately 375 feet above sea level
- Rejected Title: Cache Me Outside: How Bout That?
- Launch/takeout Point: Lower Cache River Access (37.297029, -089.053009)
- Furthest Point Reached: Just passed the bridge at Long Reach Road (37.290863, -089.083318)
- Campsite: Maybe I camped at the landing and maybe I didn’t
- Thanks to Trish with the Shawnee National Forest for sending the maps of Lusk Creek (even though I couldn’t float it in the end!) and for Greg and other rangers for being friendly and answering my many questions.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: red wing black birds, great blue heron, green heron, great white egret, mourning dove, cardinal, robin, swallows, kingbird, hawk
- Mammals: 2 Beaver, Raccoon (at camp, heading for the garbage bin)
- Fish: Gar, Asian Carp
- Noted Species: Bird-voiced tree frog, Indiana bat, river otters, cottonmouth, copperhead and timber rattlesnake
- Dominant Vegetation: Bald cypress and tupelo with pines, silver maples and other species on dryer upland banks
- Ecoregion: Interior River Valley and Hills, (72a) Wabash-Ohio Bottomlands
- Current Threats: Sedimentation, agriculture runoff and sedimentation. Asian Carp. Hydrology from drainage, levies and land use. One of the reasons It is such a rare environment is because the majority of other wetlands in the region have been converted.
- Trash collected: Some small bits of trash around the pavilion. Not much in the swamp or river!
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Halfway Home! Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign