On Wednesday, our Road Scholar group ( www.RoadScholar.org ) explored the Cache River State Natural Area ( www.dnr.state.il.us ). This vast landscape covers 14,328 acres in Johnson and Pulaski counties, of Southern Illinois. There are more than 18 miles of designated foot trails within Cache River State Natural Area, so it was a perfect location for a "walking seminar and field trip" in this distinctive part of Illinois.
After crossing the trestle bridge shown in the collage above, the hiking trail was beside the Cache River for a distance, before it branched off to provide access to the shallow wetland, called Heron Pond.
The hiking trail had several Interpretive Panels along the way, which help the visitor to spot significant aspects within their visual field, that they may not be immediately aware of. In addition, our Road Scholar group was fortunate to have botanist Chris Benda in our midst, who was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the habitat we were exploring!
The cone-shaped objects in this photos are called "knees", and are a prominent feature of the cypress swamp we were traversing. Some of the short ones were "hiding" under leaves along the trail, and almost brought me to MY knees a couple of times, as I stumbled over them!
During our October visit, the water was covered with a floating carpet of brilliant emerald-colored duckweed. I was reminded of the tiny dots the famous artist Monet used to create his masterpieces in days gone by!
Our group gathered at the end of the floating boardwalk for a photo, to help us capture this moment in the great outdoors, for future reference and recollection!
A path called "The Linkage Trail" took us to the Illinois State Champion Cherrybark Oak Tree. Seeing this giant specimen will be a visual aid for me for the Bible verse Jeremiah 17:8, that says "He is like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit."
As one peered into the swamp, the little "knees" surrounding their "parent", reminded me of little gremlins, hovering around their mama and papa.!
The brochure we received on the Nature Reserve called the cypress trees "living pillars", which is illustrated in this photo. The canopy they create high above the swamp is home to bird-voiced tree frogs---which some consider to be the most beautiful of all the frog voices.
A place within the nature preserve that one should "for sure" visit, is the Cache River Wetlands Center (618-657-2064). Besides having clean (indoor!) restrooms, there is a wildlife viewing area (equipped with binoculars), exhibit area explaining the history of Southernmost Illinois, gift shop, elevated boardwalk over the pond, paved, wheel-chair accessible nature trails, and a connection to the Tunnel Hill Trail, popular with bicyclists. In addition, a staff member is available to answer questions, and help you plan your visit. There is a theater where our group saw a video, with beautiful images and helpful information, about the Cache River State Natural Area. There are also picnic tables, so it was a perfect spot for the hungry Road Scholars to have their picnic lunch, which had been prepared and delivered by the efficient staff at Camp Ondessonk ( www.Ondessonk.com )
As the name implies, sections of the Tunnel Hill State Trail, are part of the "rails to trails" movement, and we actually saw the tunnel, for which it is named.
After lunch, our group went by van to the area called Lower Cache River Access point. This is where canoes and kayaks can enter the water to paddle through the Lower Cache River Trail, which varies in length from 3 to 6 miles. The canoe trail enables one to paddle up and touch the state champion bald cypress tree.
Even though our group was not canoeing, we were still able to see the champion tree from this viewing platform Like many trees within Cache River State Natural Area, it is more than 1,000 years old.
The fields along the trail leading to the overlook have been reforested, and provided more autumn leaf colors than anyplace else we had visited!
From the canoe trail, we traveled by van a short distance to the boardwalk at the Section 8 Woods Nature Preserve. This area is popular because it take visitors by the State Champion Water Tupelo tree.
And human beings were not the only ones along the board walk! This beautiful caterpillar, that looked like a pipe cleaner, was also making its way to the famous tree!
When the boardwalk ends, you find yourself at the Big Cypress Tree, shown in this collage. It, too, is more than 1000 years old, and has a buttress circumference of more than 40 feet. Folks can go inside it, and the photo on the right of the collage shows that once inside, Chris and Johnny were both able to stand up straight! They positioned themselves inside, so that they could "boost up" anyone who wanted to be photographed with their head sticking through a hole in the tree.
This collage shows that one of the guys took them up on their challenge, and posed for our cameras. The photos on the left shows that getting your photo taken was the easy part---it was getting OUT of the tree that presented a challenge!
In this area of Southern Illinois, where east meets west, and north meets south, there are four distinct ecological regions. This unique assemblage of physical attributes, soils, and climate zones, has led to a developing viticulture venture, with nearly fifty wineries involved in grape production. With "agritourism" on the rise throughout the USA, Southern Illinois has become a popular spot on the map. Our group stopped by this "bella terra--beautiful land" venue to freshen up, after our hiking ( www.bellatwinery.com ). You can learn more about the agritourism going on here by visiting www.southernmostillinois.com or phoning 1-800-C-It-Here .
When we arrived back at Camp Ondessonk, we saw that the staff had been busy all day, preparing for our "foil supper" cookout. There were torches lighting the way through the woods, where we found our dining table, (complete with white tablecloth!) ready for us hungry hikers. The chef had put chicken, beef, or vegetarian entrees in heavy folk wraps, along with vegetables, so that all that had to be done was set them on the hot coals. After the staff had used a food thermometer to assure the ingredients were fully cooked, we chose whichever entrée we wanted, and completed out our dinner plates with baked beans, rolls, condiments, and potatoes. And even though our tummies were full, we gathered around the campfire for the hallowed tradition of making S'MORES!! It was the perfect end to a perfect day, and brought us "MILES OF SMILES"!! Tricia