Every now and then I get an email updating me on my Google Maps photo statistics. As of today, these photos have 10,000+ views. The surprises? The chicken and the nondescript view of Lincoln Park Zoo’s south lagoon. That so many people are looking at Beaubien Woods. And that the photo of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls didn’t make the cut as of today. Not looking like it will for a long time.
The first and third place I stayed at in the eastern portion of Shawnee National Forest was Willowbrook Cabins, first in the Outdoorsman and then in the Hiker (separated by a night in Elizabethtown). I booked the Outdoorsman while at the Post Oak rest area. Planning is for other people!
My friend and I arrived after 10 p.m. and found ourselves in a pickle. The code for the door didn’t work, the owners preferred not to be called after 10, and I didn’t have AT&T service anyway. After we drove several miles away, I was able to get enough coverage to call and find out that we should have tried 0 to 9 for the last digit. The code we had was off by only one or two steps.
Both cabins were large, rustic, and basic, but had everything you could want for a few days in the forest — including a washer and dryer that came in handy.
With the decor, I could almost imagine myself in Minnesota . . . just needed more boreal trees and lakes.
I don’t see signs about wildlife very often, although this one at Windigo, Isle Royale National Park, warns unsuspecting visitors about the island’s less famous, thieving canine. What do the red foxes of Isle Royale do with the car keys and hiking boots they purloin?
This sign, at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve near Morton Arboretum, exhorts you not to panic if Wild Fido follows you. He’s simply giving you an escort through his domain. If this task makes him snappish, simply throw clumps of dirt at the ground by his feet. I’m having visions of Monty Python and “Confuse-A-Cat.”
Other signs warn you about smaller wildlife, especially the kind that hops aboard. This one, at Michigan’s Grand Mère State Park, tells what to wear to help stave off the dreaded tick. By the time you’re at the park, however, you may not have clothing alternatives handy. The tick shown is terrifyingly big, but the ticks that can share Lyme disease with you may be little larger than a pinhead.
Pro tip: At Shawnee National Forest, which is tick heaven, I thought wearing a hat would keep them off my head at least. Not so. After a delightful morning at Pomona Natural Bridge, I felt movement in my hair and found a couple strutting under my hat on top of my scalp. This is one of those times when baldness would be an advantage.
Located at a town park near Grand Mère, this sign is not so much a warning as a caution. If you aren’t careful and you spread the emerald ash borer, this will happen to your ash trees. I can attest to the lethal behavior of the well-named emerald ash borer—both tall, mature trees in front of The Flamingo, plus the mature tree that shaded my bedroom at 55th and Dorchester, succumbed to these little green scourges.
At Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, we’re told it’s too late to keep out another horror, the dreaded zebra mussel. You can be a hero, however, by cleaning your boat and equipment properly so you don’t transplant them to a body of water where they haven’t taken hold. The use of “infest” is a great touch. It reinforces the nearby “No swimming” sign nicely. Swimming in infested waters just doesn’t appeal to me, even if I could swim.
If you’re about my age, you recall that “only you can prevent forest fires (that aren’t caused by lightning strikes, volcanoes, and other natural hazards). Many parks post the current risk of wildfire danger based on conditions like drought and wind. At Lyman Run State Park in the Pennsylvania Wilds, Smokey Bear can’t seem to make up his mind.
This version of Smokey opted for words instead of visuals, which makes his message less ambiguous (no broken pointer). No doubt that snow on the ground helps to keep risk low.
Taking shape on Stony Island Avenue in the remnant heart of Chicago’s steel industry, Big Marsh Park features a bike park (built on slag too expensive to remove), natural areas, and occasional bald eagle sightings. An enticing hill nearby forms a lovely backdrop for a walk at Big Marsh, which is still in its infancy. When you get closer, however, and read the signs, you learn it’s a steaming, seething landfill that’s being “remediated.” There’s no happily running up and down this slope. How I miss the Industrial Revolution.
It’s not every day you’re warned about lurking unexploded bombs, but for me this was no ordinary day. It was my first visit to Old Fort Niagara in nearly 40 years, which coincided with Memorial Day weekend. Most of the time, the fort is manned by soldiers in 1700s military fashions, but in honor of the holiday other conflicts were represented. I kept my distance from the bomb. Just in case.
This is one of the odder warning signs I’ve seen. I left the chef alone—after all, he works with sharp objects.
Slow down. Chicago is under a budget crunch, but do they send out a lone fireman like this? A lone fireman without a steering wheel? Or arms?
Here’s a warning sign you can ignore. It’s outside Riley’s Railhouse, a train car bed and breakfast in Chesterton, Indiana, that’s a treasure trove of signs.
From the exterior of the car I slept in:
At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s West Beach, it looks like the National Park Service is testing which sign or message is most effective at keeping visitors off the dunes. This one shows bare tootsies with the universal “No” slash, helpfully pointing out the dunes are ours.
A less friendly, sterner, more wordy one admonishes you to “KEEP OFF THE DUNES” and appeals to your desire to “Please help protect and preserve our fragile dune systems!”
At the beach, this slash through a barely visible hiker shuns wordiness (or words) for directness and simplicity without justification or explanation.
It’s sandwiched between even more minimalistic signs with a slash, planted where the dunes start ascending. Don’t. Just don’t.
Years ago when a landfill near my cousin’s house became a Superfund site (just what you want in your backyard), it was surrounded by an electrified fence complete with warning signs. Noticing there were no insulators, I dared to touch it. In this case, however, I’m certain the area behind the fence is dangerous, and this is as far as I got.
Normal weathering or resentment over the weapons message?
Waterfall Glen, a DuPage County Forest Preserve, forms a ring around Argonne National Laboratory, “born out of the University of Chicago’s work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.” Naturally, the immediate area around the lab is secured. While I was baffled by this sign about “lock installation” and “any unauthorized lock,” it was the 10 or so locks on the chain that got my attention. Why do people need to add locks to that chain? Why do they need authorization? From whom do they get authorization? Why are unauthorized locks removed? What does it all mean?
Remember when lead was thought to be safe? I don’t, either. This sign is on an old pump at the remnants of an old general store in the western part of Shawnee National Forest.
Warning: If you leave expensive stuff lying around, even at an exclusive university, it will walk off. You can bank on it.
At breakfast, J met Joe Hurley, who wrote Ten Million Steps: A fresh look at America and Americans from Cape Cod to California on Route 6, and walked away with autographed copies. He knows how to travel. Afterward, we said a long goodbye to the hens, who didn’t care that we were sad to leave and that vacation was almost over.
We stopped in Coudersport at Sheetz for fuel (gas and coffee and Mallo Cups) and discovered Old Hickory, a building in a state of decay that would put Miss Havisham to shame. Eliot Ness is said to have visited the inn — I wonder why?
After passing through Port Allegheny and Smethport (“Home of Wooly Willy”), we came to Mount Jewett and the road to Kinzua Bridge State Park. On the way the eagle-eyed driver spotted a sign for “Maple Syrup 500 Ft.” Determined to get maple syrup somewhere on this trip, we stopped, parked, and rang the bell. The back door was unlocked, and several windows were open, despite a threatening sky. We rang again — no answer. A half mile back, a pedestrian had tried to flag us down, so I could only speculate that he was a stranger who’d killed the family and was trying to get away (although in the direction of the park, where the road ends), but when the police came the neighbors would remember only us and how the car had been parked for a while as we knocked and peered in the back shop. It was a mystery. I’ve read too many true crime stories.
At last we arrived at the park, where a visitor center with park offices is under construction. For being a little out of the way, the park seems popular. Out on the skywalk, one man told us he’d brought his wife in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. She couldn’t quite handle 300 feet down, however, let alone thousands.
I asked a man familiar with the area about the F1 tornado that had taken out half the bridge. Tornado watches and warnings are a weekly, even daily occurrence in the Midwest, but not in western New York or Pennsylvania. He said a tornado will arise now and then, but its path usually zigzags and its duration is usually short. The mountains and irregularity of the surface probably inhibits a tornado’s ability to build a full head of steam. The 2003 tornado, however, was strong enough to take down half the (compromised) bridge. It’s a lovely area, and there are trails down the slope for those with more time.
On the return, we stopped again at the place with maple syrup. To my relief, the people were home (unless, of course, they were murderers covering for their crime — how would strangers like us know?). The mundane explanation was they’d gone to a ball game and forgotten to turn off the “Open” light and shut up the place properly. That was their story, which must be true as I haven’t seen any gruesome stories from Mount Jewett in the news.
Rain came, and when we arrived at the Kinzua Dam area, a mist hovered over the water in places even as the skies repeatedly tried to clear up. I’d been to Kinzua Dam at least once with my parents — long before it became part of the “Pennsylvania Wilds” — but I don’t know how many times. The dam was relatively new then, controversial because it flooded treaty land. On this day it seemed familiar-but-not-quite. I’d been here before, but not often or long enough for it to seep into my being’s core memory. I was left with an impression, not a picture.
While the dam and the water are impressive, I was more fascinated by the numerous ribbon waterfalls running down the bluff through which the road had been cut, the water seeming to disappear at the base. If my dad had been there, he might have tried to collect water from them in a plastic jug for the rest of the trip, although in the 1970s signs had popped up near many of Pennsylvania’s roadside springs warning of contamination from coal mining activities. Back then this disappointed me, and I wondered why post warning signs instead of cleaning up the pollution. Young and naive then, I still question that approach. I wonder if any of the springs we used to pass are viable today.
Next we found, almost by accident, the easy-to-miss parking lot for Bent Run Falls. The trail, steep and uneven, was muddy and slippery after the rainfall. The early part is overgrown, so I was able to get only glimpses of the water flowing along. I couldn’t get very far, and J. didn’t want to leave me behind so he didn’t get much farther. I’ve seen photos of the falls from a few different vantage points that looked lovely, but I’ve no idea where you have to go to see them from that perspective.
Our next stop was Jakes Rocks (no possessive apostrophe), where at a few places along the road you can get great views overlooking the lake. As is typical. when I spotted a colorful millipede sauntering around the parking area, I spent half my time stalking it, trying to take a closeup. Undaunted, it never slowed down enough for me to get a crisp photo within the frame. I resisted picking it up.
Reluctantly we left and headed toward Warren, where we hoped to find a restaurant. When we got there, nearly all of the local places were closed or closing, except for one bar that didn’t look popular, so we settled for Perkins.
Given the time of day and where we were, we decided to stay in Erie. By now it was getting dark and threatening, then it rained hard enough to make seeing much difficult. Just as it seemed the conditions couldn’t be any worse, J. swerved slightly, just enough to miss hitting a deer that had leapt at us from out of the streaming darkness, perhaps trying to join his five or six deer brothers we’d seen earlier on the road, dead.
After we had dodged the deer — barely — I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t think conditions could be any worse. Almost on cue, the hail started. To me it now seems that any trip home must be attended by bad, even dangerous weather. After the rain, the deer, and the hail, and the accompanying adrenaline rushes, finally we made it to Springhill Suites in Erie in one exhausted, shaking piece.
Champaign to Anna to Giant City State Park to Heron Pond to Fern Clyffe State Park, then home
May 23, 2014, late evening
J. and I set out for a brief return to Shawnee National Forest and the Cache River. Other than visiting Heron Pond, I didn’t have a plan.
We made it to Champaign before stopping. I forgot that Champaign is a few miles east of I57, so we overshot it.
After breakfast at Le Peep, we were on the road again. We had to bypass some of last year’s distractions, like Amish Arcola and Rend Lake. We did leave the expressway for Mattoon and a quick stop at a place I hate to leave: Common Grounds. Closer to our destination, in Mount Vernon we detoured to a Toyota dealer and a car parts store to look at the malfunctioning lower glove compartment. We also took a break at the Post Oak rest area, which with its bridge and trees is scenic and soothing. I remembered it from last year.
This time we focused on the more civilized western part of Shawnee, with home base at the Davie School Inn. Built in 1910, this elementary school is now a distinctive and very comfortable bed and breakfast — if the sight of a student desk and other holdovers from the school don’t traumatize you with memories.
Our host described Anna, which we’d been to before, as “just like Mayberry” (that is, there’s no need to freak out if you leave your car unlocked for a few minutes — or more).
Giant City State Park
May 24, 2014
I’d been intrigued by the name and description of Giant City State Park. As it was already late afternoon, it was nearby, and our host recommended the park’s lodge for dinner, it seemed like a great place to use the daylight we had left. On the way, we stopped in Makanda at what in any other place would be called a strip mall, only this was a rustic building carved into a hillside, and its stores were mostly local art and other tourist shops, with an ice cream joint in the middle. I loved its charming hillside location and unpolished design. You realize how sterile urban and suburban big box and brand shopping is when you see something like this.
We inadvertently took a hilly, twisty back way into Giant City State Park. These aren’t words I usually associate with the flat, bland Illinois landscape, so it’s like being in another world.
Giant City State Park has numerous trails, and I tried to find the one that was popular and not too difficult. (There may be a correlation.) After wandering around a while, we came upon the Giant City Nature Trail head, past a picnic area overrun with happy, screaming children.
This didn’t sound like something I couldn’t handle (although I wouldn’t be sure until the end). We were lucky because we weren’t swarmed by mosquitoes.
The “giants” of Giant City are huge rocks with “streets” between them, the natural antonym of a model scale urban canyon.
By far the most popular trail at Giant City, this 1 mile trail is home to the famous “streets” of Giant City. You’ll walk on a mulched trail with wooden walkways at difficult spots. There are some strenuous uphill portions on this trail. Take this trail to view a diversity of plant habitats from creek bottomland to dry blufftop. This is also a promising trail for seeing the largest woodpecker in the United States, the pileated woodpecker.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
The giants are beautiful and impressive, and we would have stayed longer if we weren’t running out of daylight for photos and time to get to the lodge for dinner before it closed. After we passed the Giant City “streets,” I was even nervous that we wouldn’t be back to the trail head by dark — I wasn’t prepared with this convenient and easy-to-follow map.
I moved as quickly as I could over the more strenuous uphill portions and somewhat rougher terrain. Earlier we’d seen a woman who was in the final stages of pregnancy, and I’d marveled at first that she was going to attempt the trail, but then her family detoured back to the parking lot, so they saw only the sandstone bluffs.
When we got back to the trail head, I noticed the sign said Fat Man Squeeze was closed due to snake activity. I realized later we hadn’t inadvertently disrupted the snakes. Even if we had spotted Fat Man’s Squeeze (we weren’t sure), from the looks of the photos it would have been a miracle if I could have gotten even my arm through. For a lot of reasons (mainly the distance between us), the snakes will remain safe from me.
Like Starved Rock Lodge, Giant City Lodge was a CCC project and has a similar rustic, roughly timbered feel (although the construction style may be different — I’m no expert). It’s decorated with specimens of various taxa that have been treated by a taxidermist — deer, fish, ducks, etc. Food and drink were welcome after the long, tiring day, and so was the classroom with the Jacuzzi shower and bath at Davie School Inn.
May 25, 2014
After a big breakfast, we set out for the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center to get better directions than I had for Heron Pond, although on the way we spotted a few signs pointing to the pond. I’m glad we stopped at the center not only because having directions helped us to find it (what you’re supposed to pass through, how far to go) but also because for a little while we could watch the barn swallows and hummingbirds forage.
I’m not sure where we went wrong last year (I think we just gave up), but although Heron Pond is a little out of the way, with the signs and the directions it’s not hard to find. The final approach, however, is down a narrow, single-lane gravel road whose shoulders have been cut away so there’s a good drop on either side with not much room for error. We were in luck; we had just started down it when a car came toward us, so we didn’t have far to back up to get to a point where we could let them pass. I wonder if the road is being made wider, but I can’t say.
The road is long enough to make you wonder if you somehow missed the pond but eventually you do come to a crude parking area, and the trail head is clearly marked. The trail itself is easy, and we stopped to take photos at several spots that didn’t make me think of what I was looking for, but were scenic on their own. The sign at the trail head was a good clue, as was the bridge we crossed soon after starting out — I’d seen it in a video of Heron Pond.
Although we didn’t see wildlife galore, we did occasionally see movement, which in one case gave away the location of a lovely leopard frog. I’m assuming he’s of the southern variety.
While the first part of the trail is more open and the water looks like a conventional creek (or “crick”), soon we started seeing swampy areas to the left, with denser vegetation. By this time, though, the fatigue from the up-and-down Giant City trail was hitting me hard. The experience helped me understand the descriptions given by people with disease-related fatigue. My legs felt like heavy dead weights that were getting harder and harder to move, even when walking on level, even surfaces. As at Lusk Creek Canyon the year before, I told J. I couldn’t go any farther if I were to be able to make it back to the car. Also as at Lusk Creek Canyon, when we hit a signpost (in this case a fork), he left me so he could see how far off the destination was. It turns out that Heron Pond wasn’t much farther, although that is relative when you’re fatigued and hurt all over. I plodded along until we finally reached the Heron Pond boardwalk, where adorable anoles were one sign that we weren’t in northern Illinois anymore.
As one woman passed us, she asked if we’d seen the cottonmouth (copperhead?) under a tree we’d passed. No! I’m disappointed we missed it — I’d been hoping to see a snake, although last year we’d been told they’re elusive.
Years ago, I’d read Marjorie Zapf’s Mystery of the Great Swamp, set in the Okefenokee of 50 to 60 years ago. n the hot, humid air that would be more typical of summer than spring in northern Illinois, Heron Pond looks like something you might find in Georgia — a tiny, northern, less wild Okefenokee. In the book, though, you see the world from Jeb’s eyes as he poles a canoe through trees covered with Spanish moss. When I read The Mystery of the Great Swamp as a child, all of it — the swamp, the canoe, the venomous snakes dangling from the trees, the birds, the dappled lighting and the deep shadows, the profound stillness and subtle sounds as the animals carried on with life — all of this was deliciously alien to my imaginative child-self. I was young enough to think I was Jeb, poling through the silent but not still Okefenokee, in search of answers to questions no adult understood or admitted. I didn’t love the ending because it wasn’t an ending for just Jeb or just me; it felt like an end to something bigger and critical to life itself — the unknown. Without mystery in life, what’s left?
Heron Pond isn’t large or remote enough to harbor the Great Swamp’s mystery — nor, of course, is the Great Swamp. It’s lovely, peaceful, and otherworldly, though, especially after the hours spent passing through central Illinois, if you can imagine the other tourists and, in my case, the pain and fatigue away.
Despite the humid heat and the sun, we stayed a while , then J. wanted to head toward the state champion cherrybark oak. So did I. By this time, my legs felt like they weighed one hundred pounds each, and every step was a painful effort — so painful that I broke into tears and became and even more miserable travel companion. At least I got a lovely photo of the champion cherrybark oak and for a moment I was Jeb — in a 52-year-old woman’s body, chronic condition and all.
Before we passed the Wetlands Center on the way back, we picked up a high-profile, slow-moving farm vehicle in front of us. As he headed toward a large turtle parked in the middle of the lane, I cringed, expecting to see the big guy flattened. The farm vehicle, however, passed over it, so high off the ground on its giant wheels that the turtle was in no danger as long as it stayed in the middle. After the vehicle passed, the turtle, which had been hunkered down, stood as high on its legs at it could and began to hightail it across the road. I’ve never seen such long legs on a turtle. Later my hair stylist pointed out what should have been obvious to me — the turtle was trying to keep its body as far from the hot pavement as it could. I hope it made it to a nice cool spot nearby. As for the vehicle, after a convenience store stop, where we had lost it, it found us again, but finally it pulled off the road at a farmhouse a mile or two away.
Further along the road what I could swear was an otter crossed in front of us. It had the low profile and short legs of an otter and walked very differently from the only beaver I’ve seen walking (in Kankakee River State Park).
The plan had been to squeeze in another activity as it was not much past 4, and there would be daylight for a while. I didn’t have much left, however. After a rest, we went to El Jalapeño in Anna for dinner. By this time, beautiful clouds had built up, and thunder rumbled in the air, but not much came of the threat except the opportunity to relax all the sore muscles and stiff joints.
Fern Clyffe State Park
May 26, 2014
Monday (Memorial Day) came, and it was already time to return — after another hearty breakfast, of course. Before we left the Jonesboro area, we stopped at Hidden Lake Bed and Breakfast and learned that they had indeed sold the property in two parcels — the main building as a private home, and the guest house as an inn — and that they were getting to move within a month or two. I’m glad I was able to enjoy the amazing breakfast room overlooking the array of bird feeders and a brief walk around the hidden lake last year.
Because time was short, we made only a quick visit to Fern Clyffe State Park, seeing a dead coyote along the way. At Fern Clyffe, the waterfall that had not been running on my previous visit in late May 2013 was not running. One of visitors, who lives nearby, helpfully informed us that after a good rain it had been running the past weekend. Curses.
The rest of the drive back was uneventful. We stopped in Roger Ebert’s university town, Champaign, for a second Memorial Day visit to Café Kopi, another comfortable place that’s hard to leave. By the time we pulled over at the Main Line Station rest area, storm clouds had developed around us, just like last year at the same place. This was the third beautiful trip that ended in rainy or stormy weather — almost as if the weather were trying to brace us for the return to work and reality, to bring us back from the mystery of the great swamp to the banality of everyday life.
As Star Trek: The Next Generation reminded us (quoting Chaucer), “All Good Things” must come to an end, including the week at Shawnee National Forest. Before leaving Hidden Lake Bed & Breakfast, we took some time to walk part of its wooded trail and by the lake. It was difficult to say goodbye. Although there was plenty of time in which to return to Chicago, it felt more urgent than it should have. It’s the anxiety of knowing that the time to leave the fantasy behind and to take the road to reality is nigh.
W could afford a few stops along the way, including Fern Clyffe State Park, where hoards of Southern Illinoisans had turned out for the traditional Memorial Day weekend family picnic. Our objective was the park’s waterfall, but first we stopped at the lake on the way in — for one thing, we had no idea how to find it.
Eventually we got directions we thought we could follow and after a few missteps finally stumbled onto the area. The falls are a short, easy walk on a wide woodland trail along a creek bed. As you can see, the water was missing from the waterfall, but it’s still a lovely spot, picnickers and all. Again, it was hard to tear ourselves away from both the lake and waterfall, but all good things . . .
Our next stop was Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. We had only a few moments at the visitor center before closing, and were told where to find bald eagles and a beaver family (“Cutest thing ever!”). Neither opportunity panned out, although a fisherman told us he’d seen the beavers. In one area we found a viewing platform from which we watched an egret, a raccoon, and a green heron go about their business. I loved how one road bisects a lake, similar to Tampier Lake south of Chicago. Crossing the lake at nearly lake level in the early evening seems dreamlike and magical. While we didn’t see much of Crab Orchard, which is in a busy area, it’s a reminder that not all National Wildlife Refuges are in remote forests and prairies.
After dinner at Sonic, we finally left the good stuff behind and set out north. About halfway up the state we stopped in Centralia, a mile or so off I57, for a fuel/potty break. This, too, was like stepping into another dimension. Half of the brightly lit building was a convenience store, while the rest was a bar/food joint with pool tables. I wish I could remember the name. The moment I stepped in, through the store end, a man astutely steered me to the restroom. It was when I came out that I noticed the varied purposes the building served, with no distinction in lighting or decor between the store and the bar/fast food seating area. I wondered if the same regulars are found there weekend after weekend and if they or someone like them had inspired any episodes of The Twilight Zone.
We made it to Effingham, with its giant steel cross, before calling it a night.
The next morning, Memorial Day, was long, spent mostly on driving, with no diversions to places like Arcola or Rend Lake. We did stop at Champaign, which looked almost like a ghost town and where it took some time and effort to find an open coffee shop. Finally we landed at Café Kopi, where the whole of Champaign seemed to have congregated, with many huddled over computers. When you’re as tired as we were, it’s nearly impossible to force yourself to leave such a charming, comfortable place.
This day had not dawned as beautifully as most of the others, and at a rest stop north of Champaign the storm we’d been hearing about on the radio appeared behind us and followed us the rest of the way, more threatening looking than it proved to be. It served as an anticlimactic ending to a picture perfect trip and a reminder that the real world of work and catchup lay ahead.
Later I could remind myself that even as I tried to make sense of the information on my computer screen tourists were drinking mini-Cokes in Arcola; the sun was shining on Rend Lake; folks were fishing at Tacumseh Lake; servers were chatting up customers at a restaurant floating on the Ohio River; someone was peering up at the light through the crack in Cave-in-Rock; families were snapping photos at Garden of the Gods; hikers were picking the day’s collection of ticks off each other; 2,000-year-old bald cypresses were presiding over great blue herons, owls, and otters; boys and girls were hurling themselves across a picturesque swimming hole straight out of The Andy Griffith Show; and somewhere west of Illinois a woman was continuing her bicycle journey west, having conquered the Shawnee Hills of southernmost Illinois.
Pomona Natural Bridge, Little Grand Canyon, Lower Cache by canoe
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.
Today was the day. We were going to the place that had inspired my interest in Shawnee and southernmost Illinois — the Cache River. Home to bald cypress, tupelo, and buttonbush, the Cache is the conjunction of north and south, east and west. Years ago I’d seen photos of the Cache taken by reptile keeper whose passion was photography and wanted to see what he’d seen. I may never make it to the Great Swamp (the Okefenokee) brought so vividly to life by author Marjorie Zapf, but here was my chance to experience something a little like, but now within my reach.
When the Ohio River adopted its present course, it left the Cache River to meander across rich and vast wetlands. Among the outstanding natural features found within the area today are massive cypress trees whose flared bases, called buttresses, exceed 40 feet circumference. Many are more than 1,000 years old, including one that has earned the title of state champion bald cypress because of its huge trunk girth, towering height and heavily branched canopy . . . the Cache River Valley contains four distinct ecological regions. Its hodgepodge of ecological factors has resulted in a collage of natural communities, each with its own unique assemblage of physical attributes, plants and animals.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
How could a place like that not be a lot more magical than anything conceived by Disney?
First, though, it was time to fuel in Hidden Lake Bed and Breakfast’s spacious breakfast room, which overlooks prettily landscaped grounds (although not the lake, because Hidden Lake really is hidden from the house) and a variety of bird feeders that attracted a variety of birds — flickers, indigo buntings, finches, hummingbirds, and even a hopeful hawk. Mary Jo, a former CFO, loves to cook, and it shows — three breakfast courses, all amazing. I’m so fond of that kind of comfort that I could have sat in that room for hours, just enjoying coffee and bird watching. We did linger for a while, but the Cache kept calling.
It may have called, but it didn’t tell me how to find it. I wasn’t thinking, and I didn’t spend the time to figure out what and where the best access points were. That’s how we ended up at Snakehole in the Little Black Slough Hunting Area, where hunters can sign in and out. As you can see, it was a perfect day and the area was amazing, but it didn’t fit my mental picture of a bald cypress-tupelo ecosystem. It turns out Google Maps just sent us to what was probably the closest access point to the Cache River State Natural Area. After walking around and seeing the sights, we headed down Old Cypress Road and got lost and lost again until we finally found our way out of the maze of scenic country roads.
It turns out our first stop should have been the Cache River Wetlands Center further south. Here you can get all kinds of information and souvenirs, then take a walk along a couple of trails. The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a great way to see the sights from a bicycle, while pedestrians have a choice of trails along and over the water. I’ve never seen so many fish in a river before, many of them needle-nosed gar. I suspect that this part of the Cache is a fisherman’s dream. Again, it was a gorgeous place, and I could have stayed there the rest of the day if pain allowed, but it still didn’t quite look like what I had expected. We decided to seek out the state champion bald cypress, indicated on the map we’d picked up.
On the way out, J. was distracted by a flock of snowy egrets across the road, and we went back and forth a few times while he tried to get a good photo or two.
Next, we found the area where you can view the state champion bald cypress, although at first we couldn’t tell which way to go. Most of the few people returning to the parking lot on the one path didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. We decided to go that way and see what happened.
Not far down (close enough for me and my fading energy), we found a viewing platform and a sign pointing to the state champ. We spent at least an hour taking photos, admiring the knees of the bald cypresses, and debating exactly which tree the sign was indicating — depending on your angle to the sign, the arrow seemed to indicate a few different trees, none of them the twin of the pictured tree. By the end, we thought we had it pinned down, and it turns out that we were right.
While standing on the viewing deck facing the water, the champion bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) can be seen slightly to the left (about 11 o’clock). This tree stands 73 feet tall, has a trunk circumference at 4.5 feet height from river bottom of 34 feet 3 inches, and boasts a crown spread of 35 feet. The Citizens Committee to Save the Cache and Jack White submitted these measurements to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forest Resources in th early 1990’s. Only native Illinois trees are considered for a Big Tree designation. Points are assigned based on a tree’s measurements: one point for each inch in circumference; one point for each foot in height; and, one point for one-fourth the crown spread. This tree earned a score of 492.75, and was recognized as the State Champion Bald Cypress in 1992.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources fact sheet
We wanted to see some of the 10 other state champion trees in the Cache River area, especially the water tupelo and cherrybark, but for some reason I had one of my rare bad days as a navigator and couldn’t seem to find my way anywhere. On the plus side, we’d finally found an abundance of bald cypress. On the down side, I now realize we really should have made an effort to find Heron Pond, where you can immerse yourself in the Cache.
We did do the next best thing, however. While at the Wetlands Center, we’d found out that guided and self-guided canoe trips on the Lower Cache were available and decided that was an option. (When I talked to the owner and told him I would have trouble getting into and out of a canoe, he said we would “manage it”). To me, the rate for a two-hour guided tour seemed reasonable — how can you put a price on such a great experience? By the next day, we’d decided definitely to do it.
We passed the Wetlands Center on the way back so J. could again try to take more photos of the snowy egrets. This time, we noticed many dead and dying turtles on the road near the center. I’d seen a sign earlier that warned this was their season to be on the move. Poor critters never knew what hit them . . .
And so back to town to do laundry and to dine at El Jalapeño in Anna. And then back to the B&B to find a note from the housekeeper saying she’d been in and a second note from Mary Jo saying she’d left something in the refrigerator — which turned out to be chocolate-covered strawberries. Mmmm.