Shawnee National Forest/Cache River Road trip: Day 3
May 20, 2013
Again we set out for Cave-in-Rock for breakfast (and because the state park was on my must see list), and again we didn’t make it. While passing through Elizabethtown, west of Cave-in-Rock, J. spotted a short street leading to a big gazebo overlooking the Ohio River. At the end we found two impressive bed and breakfasts — the historic Rose Hotel (1812) to the east and the River Rose Inn (1914) to the west. Nearby the E-Town River Restaurant floats atop the river, connected to land by a gangplank.
The restaurant was to open at 11 a.m., so we took photos and checked out the gift shop at the Rose Hotel, which is operated by the State of Illinois. Photos in the gift shop show flood waters creeping up the lawn and up the side of their smaller gazebo, as well as a great blue heron taking advantage of the bountiful fishing opportunities.
At the E-Town River Restaurant, which sways gently back and forth with the water’s flow and the passing of boats, the server and I talked J. into ordering river catfish vs. pond catfish. The place and the fare aren’t fancy, but I’m told the fresh river catch is excellent if you like that sort of thing, the people are friendly, the experience is unique, and the views are marvelous — it proved to be one of those unplanned delights that help to make a trip extraordinary. Afterward, J. decided he wanted to stay at the River Rose Inn on Wednesday night, even though by then its far eastern location would be out of the way.
Ever since hearing its name, J. had had a burning desire to visit Whoopie Cat Lake (named for its former owner, Ernst “Whoopie Cat” Ralph). Miles down country and gravel roads, Whoopie Cat Lake is remote — in fact, it’s so remote that we never made it there, although I didn’t figure that out for another week or two. We found a sparkling blue lake surrounded by woods where two women were fishing — you would expect to come across Andy and Opie on its banks, whistling. Sure that we had found Whoopie Cat (we’d followed the signs), we took photos and savored the idyllic scene even as one of the women warned about ticks and Lyme disease. Later I found out we had stopped at Whoopie Cat’s sister lake, Tacumseh. The real Whoopie Cat is about a quarter mile away, reachable only by a foot path. On a map, its shape resembles that of a fish.
Our next stop was at Tower Rock Recreational Area, where we had difficulty finding the trailhead until a ranger who was about to leave pointed it out. It’s only one-eighth of a mile, overgrown and mostly uphill. At the top is another Ohio River vantage point from which we watched one of the longest barges I’ve ever seen.
Continuing east, finally we arrived at Cave-in-Rock and Cave-in-Rock State Park, also on the Ohio River, which served as a vantage point and base of operations for several gangs of murderers and thieves. Don’t expect a deep cave suitable for spelunking — it’s a hole in the rock with a good-sized fissure in the rock above that lets in daylight. I started to wonder what would happen to the cave if the New Madrid fault let rip — and glad I wasn’t going to be in the cave.
While walking up the wooden steps near the water, I spotted one of my favorite little critters — an anole, this one brown to match the wood. While anoles are common in places like Texas, they’re another sign that you’re not in a typical Illinois habitat anymore.
We tried the park’s lodge for dinner, but the restaurant is open only on weekends, which seems to be a recurring theme. We ended up at Rose’s Kountry Kitchen, where J. ordered fish (bluegill, I think). He’d decided that, when you’re so near the river that used to be their home, fresh fish has to be the order of the day every day.
Before leaving Cave-in-Rock, we considered taking the ferry to Kentucky, but, yes, I was the killjoy who nixed the idea (or voice of reason, depending on your point of view).
The compromise was to check out the Illinois Iron Furnace Historic Site, the only iron furnace structure in the state. Like Tacumseh and Whoopie Cat Lakes, the furnace doesn’t pull in out-of-towners. It’s a tall stone structure with furnaces on both sides, a little like a through-the-looking-glass effect. We were the only people there to take photos and to stoop into where the fires must have burned brightly and constantly. According to this, “it took forty men working in two shifts to keep the furnace in full blast.”
Across the road several families had gathered at a swimming hole, complete with ropes for swinging into the water — another place you might find Andy and Opie. While the children splashed happily, their parents stood around drinking beer and smoking as though high school were more than a recent memory.
So ended Day 3.