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Cache Incentives


First-time swamp paddler stung by ignorance, not mosquitos, in an eye-opening trek down the Cache River.

The canoe glides through neon-green duckweed on the Cache River, past cypress trees that are more than 500 years old.

By the time our canoes edged away from the swampy Cache River shoreline, skimming through soupy layers of neon green duckweed, the sun's upward trek had nearly peaked, and I warily began preparing for an onslaught of plasmathirsty mosquitos. My already sunscorched skin tingled at the thought of those diminutive parasites plunging microscopic needles into my arms, legs, neck or any other uncovered extremity. Primed to see a true swamp in Illinois, an unquestionable befuddlement for those who've traveled the state, I anticipated a day defending my O-positive supply against those rancorous thistle bugs.

There is little doubt I was naive, alright, ignorant concerning what swamps are like. I had bought into the Hollywood version of dirty waters, rabid snakes and mosquitos like watermelons. Still, I was willing to accept a future ointment bath (also I had snagged a friend's can of insect repellent) to paddle a part of Illinois few realize exists. Living my entire life in this state, I had not heard of the Cache until a year ago. Gullibility had assured me the Prairie State couldn't possibly house bald cypress, tupelo gum and an assortment of swamp critters. This is why, had there been mosquitos, I probably would have swallowed most of them when my jaw fell agape at my first sighting of Illinois' very own, and very unHollywood, swampland.

All around me were bald cypress trees, their trunks dark with moisture as they leech into the water, sucking up nourishment that causes such immense height and grandeur. Their leaf-adorned branches soaked in the sunlight and doubled as hostesses for a slew of chorusing birds that watched us pass. At the trees' base, the puzzling knee features awkwardly protrude from the water. Dozens of these dull, wooden daggers surround each tree's base. It is said they provide stability for the ancient historians, though to me they appeared as stoic gnomes huddled together in hushed secrecy, cloaked in robes of moss.

Being summer, the air stayed heavy and warm, though a light wind blew in periodically to cool us down. After we paddled for awhile, the bird songs quieted, and the only sound heard was the inevitable plunking our duckweed-coated paddles made dipping into the water. Then, in the distance, a low-pitched screech echoed across the water, and a great blue heron swooped silently behind a transparent cypress curtain. I stopped paddling to watch, knowing that if any creature demands respect in this murky land, it is the great blue. There is something ancient and elusive in its flight.

Darting above us, chimney swifts circled the sky, leaving their protected nests in some hollow cypress to search out insects. An assortment of waterfowl, including hooded mergansers and wood ducks, plus warblers, egrets and turkey vultures, call the Cache River home. I noticed other strange birds, and I silently cursed myself for being so ignorant when it comes to memorizing different bird species.

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Signs mark the water level from previous years' floods, which raised the river high above its normal range.

On top of the multitude of birds, animal life is equally impressive. Otters and bobcats are sighted periodically along the Cache, though they usually remain elusive. Their home bears a fitting name, for in French, Cache translates to 'hidden.'

The bow of the metallic canoe bobbed forward, and our paddles commenced stirring the duckweed stew as we drifted by post-flowering button bushes. Paddling was becoming more arduous as the thick duckweed, layered with 10 different species types, forced us to slow down and absorb the scenery. It wasn't too difficult to succumb to this particular demand. The trek was a path into a fairy tale, another realm I foolishly deemed impossible to encounter in the corn-besieged flat-lands of Illinois. What made it all the more magical was the knowledge that this was an area first destroyed, then revived, by man.

It is paradoxical to imagine the mentality of early European settlers who came upon this wetland more than 200 years ago. At the time, settlers viewed swamps as filthy places of disease, and crossing the swamp meant possible sickness or death.

Cache River Natural Area site superintendent Jim Waycuilis calls the area the 'Graveyard of the Midwest,' because of the hundreds of settlers who died here of malaria. Fearing that mysterious 'swamp gas' was causing the disease, and believing swamps only hampered human endeavors, the decided-upon chemotherapy was to exterminate the swamps. Lumber needs reinforced the land-clearing desire and beginning in the 20th century the swamps were drained, and the alien landscape nearly became another Illinois pasture. The water wouldn't come back for good until 1982, when two conservancy groups won a court battle to return the water to the Cache.

Oddly enough, it was later learned the swamp gas theory was a fallacy, and science revealed that mosquitos were to blame for spreading the disease.

I suddenly remembered that I hadn't been skeeter-attacked once, nor even seen a semblance of those little kamikazes. A teal dragonfly buzzed past the canoe as if on cue; the secret revealed. With the amount of dragonflies, frogs and toads in the swampy Cache River, Waycuilis said, mosquitos are seldom bothersome to the paddler. The bugs are terrible around the marshy inland, but gliding across the water , not a mosquito soul could be found.

Not that I would have cared. The canoeing was becoming even more enjoyable, the soothing river silence interrupted
Cache River


only by the call of a great blue heron or fish splashing in front of the bow. There were no loud mechanical noises, large crowds or traffic here. It was noon and the only rush was the wind occasionally urging us forward. We rounded a brushy bend, past more cypress and approached the state champion bald cypress, a 73-foot tall giant more than 1,000 years of age. The timekeeper was struck by lightning many times, and its top had long since blown off. Still, it stood mighty and proud, much to the disdain of the lightning, I suppose.

Gazing up at the giant provokes thoughts of what mysteries this old tree has seen, and what history occurred under its branches, or above, for that matter. Most of the cypress are from 500 to 1,000 years of age. To put it in perspective, when Columbus arrived at what he would call the Americas, many of these trees were already 500 years old. I expect the early, indigenous people canoed this same water, maybe even stopping for rest beneath what is now the state champ. After a moment, we slowly left the regal leader, and its branches swayed a farewell, always watching and surveying its domain.

We followed the international canoe trail markers as the river oozed along. The Cache, which begins near Cobden in Union county, was actually carved out by the Ohio River prior to it changing course. The 110-mile river is divided into two unique sections; the upper and lower Cache. The only part of the river that can be canoed is the lower Cache. Canoeing the upper Cache is out of the question, as severe bank erosion has left felled trees impossible to maneuver around.

Looking skyward, I noticed the sun was dipping lower. We had canoed three miles into the swamps

Burke Speaker is an intern serving as a staff writer for OutdoorIllinois. Originally from Galena, Burke attends Southern Illinois University, where he is majoring in journalism.

8  OutdoorIllinois

oi00091094.jpg of the Cache River, and now we reluctantly paddled back to shore, worming our way along backwaters to the main river channel, and finally, to the dock. Vacating the canoe, I stretched, tired and sore, but exhilarated. The canoe trip lasted mere hours, but in that time I had meandered through a landscape that wasn't supposed to exist in Illinois. oi00091092.jpg Walking back to the vehicle, the wind ceased, and I could smell the swampy, damp air. I figured that, as with many other national and state natural treasures, man's relationship with the Cache is one of ignorance, realization and then, preservation. I paused at the car door for another look at the river, and turned to leave, mentally pledging a return visit-minus the unused can of bug spray, of course.

For canoeing or other information about the Cache River contact the Cache River Natural Area at (618) 634-9678. The river can be accessed at the Lower Cache River Access or for $1 by private boat launch. Canoes can be rented for $25 by calling Cache Core Canoes at (6l8) ,845-3817.



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