Shawnee National Forest/Cache River road trip: Day 8
May 25, 2013
Another glorious day dawned in the Shawnee National Forest, and after an amazing three-course breakfast we headed for what I think is the only natural bridge in Illinois — Pomona Natural Bridge. My memory has dulled since May, but it may not have been as easy to find as I had expected. By the time we arrived, and even more so when we left, I needed a rest stop. Someone told us there used to be at least a portable john by the parking lot, but no more. For the next couple of hours I paid dearly for all that good breakfast coffee and juice.
Pomona Natural Bridge is a short distance down a slope from the parking lot. After the sucking mud of Lusk Creek Canyon Wilderness, it was a quick, easy stroll. If I’d been in better shape, we could have taken the loop around and gone below. Thanks to me (again), however, we didn’t get the full experience.
What we did see was lovely and, like so much in Shawnee, unusual for Illinois. If you’re braver and less stiff than I — most likely you are — you can walk across the bridge. I contented myself with watching some couples and families cross. Now, months and seasons later, I wonder that I didn’t try (and that I wouldn’t let J.). Step ups and other things that come so easily to others have become nearly impossible for me. Even from our limited vantage point, though, it’s a peaceful, densely green area in mid-spring, a beautiful way to start a long day.
There’s a price for the idyllic greenery. When we returned to the parking lot, I noticed a tick crawling up my arm. After a search, I found another in my hair. J. discovered a couple of his own and did a dance among the cars in his efforts to crush the tiny buggers. No need to wait for an end-of-day tick check — if you spend any time outdoors in Shawnee, you will acquire your own personal tick collection. On the plus side, Illinois isn’t a hotbed of Lyme disease like Pennsylvania, Connecticut and some other states.
By now, a rest stop was becoming a painfully urgent need. That didn’t stop J. from stopping at a picturesque general store, complete with gas pumps that once dispensed leaded gasoline for unwitting customers, like Fred Flintstone (remember “Ethel”?).
All that driving gave us a good overview of the Shawnee Wine Trail, at it was at Von Jakob Vineyard that at last I found relief. Ahhh. This is a lovely upscale winery with an extensive veranda overlooking vineyards.
Our next stop was Little Grand Canyon. With our 4:30 appointment with Mark Denzer at White Crane Canoe Rentals, we didn’t have much time left to explore, and of course I asked someone unfamiliar with the area which trail to take. I knew we were in trouble when a younger, fit couple came back looking exhausted, and the woman kept saying she had problems. I made it at least a mile, while J. soldiered on. I’m not sure what he saw before he returned, but I had a good walk in the woods, which dropped off enough to let me know I wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
Leaving Little Grand Canyon, we found ourselves approaching a large turtle parked in the middle of the road. Judging from a farm pond below and his muddy tracks, it looked like he was headed toward the opposite side. But he wasn’t moving very fast if at all, and we didn’t want him killed. I was going to try to pick him up, keeping away from the head (as I’d learned during zoo docent training), but I soon learned that turtles can spin. Fast. No matter how I approached, he spun to face me. And then he snapped. A snapping turtle. A good-sized, hot, unhappy snapping turtle. We used trekking poles and one of our shoe boxes from Gander Mountain to push him toward the pond side (it was closer, although he’d been headed the other way), accidentally flipping him a couple times. I’ll never know if we did more harm than good, but we tried. The people driving past undoubtedly thought we were nuts.
Fortunately, Mark of White Crane was late, too, as a friend told us when we arrived. At last he returned and we pushed off, after I’d carefully leveraged myself into the canoe by using the back strut (for a moment, Mark feared I was going to try to sit on the strut). Meanwhile, J. had carefully brought his camera and telephoto only to realize later that he couldn’t switch lenses while paddling anyway. I just sat in the bottom, trying not to move too much, grateful that sciatica seemed to be in check.
What a tour. We didn’t see much wildlife, just a great blue heron or two flapping along on a parallel course near the shore. Mark told us that one photographer gave him a giant tip when they managed to spot a river otter. We could hear birds, including owls. We may not have seen many animals, but we did get a great feel for the Lower Cache and its unique ecosystem, as well as a bottoms up view of the state champion bald cypress and a many-kneed companion. It’s much easier to feel an intimacy with the trees and their home from the bottom of a canoe compared to the detached viewpoint from the dock overlook the day before.
As the sun was heading toward the horizon, changing the light and shadows among the trees and on the river, I couldn’t help being sorry that all good and great things must end, including magic.
After dropping Mark off at his friend’s house and deciding to skip Wildcat Bluff (lateness of the hour, approaching dark, tiredness, mosquitoes, or all of the above), J. spotted an Amish couple packing up their buggy next to the road. They had a few items left over for sale, including one of my Pennsylvania favorites — a pumpkin roll. By the time we left, they had even less to cart home.
And so to dinner and tick-free rest.