If you're into canoeing or kayaking you may have heard of this place before. If you're not you probably have never heard of this place, or if you have, you haven't been there.
The Cache River, down there in the on-the-way-to-nowhere southern tip of Illinois, is a meander left over from the glacial floods period of what we now call the Ohio River. For about 100 years we did our damnedest to screw the river over, as seems to be our nature, by cutting drainage canals, building levies, and harvesting the wealth of trees, including 1000 year old bald cypress, but in the mid 1900's we finally came to our senses, realizing that we were fucking with one of the premier wetlands and bird flyways of the country, an area supporting, or at least trying to support, an estimated 100 endangered animal and plant species.
Now the nature area protects, and is slowly, very slowly, rehabbing some 15000 acres of the waterway and surroundings. In amongst that there is about a dozen miles of canoe/kayak trail, with several access points, meandering lazily around down there in the bottom tip of the state.
But don't be fooled. Not all the water down here is flat and lazy. In fact the Upper Cache River is more portage than float, mostly because of sever bank-erosion due to decades of trying to make the river flow where it doesn't want to. This erosion tends to bring nasty snarls of trees down into and across the waterway and you definitely don't want to get caught up under one of those!
But, if like me, you aren't really all that motivated to get out onto the hot, muggy, and definitely buggy water, there's always the Barkhousen-Cache River Wetlands Center, which also serves as the southern terminus of the 45 mile long Tunnel Hill Trail.
The visitor center is off of SR 37 a couple miles north of the intersection with SR 169 and from the campground I meandered (No really, I left the US and State roads behind and took to tiny little county roads.) some 30 odd miles on down there Sunday morning. (Yep, still Memorial Day Weekend)
I don't know why, but it never occurred to me that the Tunnel Hill trailhead parking for the southern end of the trail would have hours, but it does, mostly because it's also the parking lot for the Wetlands Center. When I turned off the road I was confronted with a big gate and sign telling me that it doesn't open until 0900 and you better get your vehicle back out before 1630 or it will get locked in!! (There's no such restrictions on the Karnak trailhead a few miles to the east.)
It wasn't yet 0900, by a long shot, but the gate was open so I drove on in anyway, parked in the far corner of the lot, and kicked back for a while, since I wanted to check out the visitor center first thing, before I got all sweaty and stinky from riding the trail.
The center was worth the wait.
Though it isn't huge, the displays range from millions of years ago up through today and cover
geology, flora, fauna, (Though I could have done without all the live snakes, one each to a plain, glass-fronted box. It's not that I don't like snakes, I do, and there's the issue. I'm not comfortable with the morality of caging them up like that. If our game-boy addled youth can't be educated with static displays screw-em!) and a detailed history of man's shenanigans over the last couple hundred years and the more recent attempts to repair the damage.
The glassed-in back of the visitor center looks out over wetlands and there's a half-mile or so of ADA trail back there with interpretive stops along the way.
Despite the day, and the holiday, I had the place to myself for an hour or so.
But then it was time to hit the trail, literally, although I suppose you could argue that I didn't so much hit the trail as roll it.
For a little over two miles, interrupted by only one road crossing, and that a backroad, the trail, very nicely paved with decomposed stone like all the rest of this trail that I've been on so far, bee-lines east-southeast through the trees.
About a half mile in the trail crosses the nearly still waters of the Cache River,
and though it might look like I had the trail to myself, I didn't.
It wasn't another biker, and he/she didn't let me get close enough for introductions, but the serpent did leave quite a set of tracks behind as it slid off down the bank.
It felt like a lazy kind of day, but a couple of miles later I made the sharp left turn at Karnak and continued north up the trail for another 5 miles or so. This got me to where the still active BNSF tracks cross the abandoned tracks that are now trail. Here the BNSF is coming north out of Metropolis and eventually works its way up to Minneapolis/St Paul.
I brought snacks, books, (I have the Kindle App on my phone for that) and plenty of bug repellent and, after making a nest at the base of a trail-side tree, hung out there near the tracks for many hours
hoping to catch a passing freight, (With the camera, not actually - like - catch the thing! I'm not that ambitious!) but I eventually had to leave, still freightless.
Like the BNSF tracks, the trail, this excellently maintained and surfaced trail sitting there waiting for the holiday crowds, remained completely empty for the whole time I was on it with the exception of a mother with a toddler trying out her training wheels right near Karnak.
Again, where did everybody go???