"In this strange, silent, primeval world of the southern swamps, the only sounds one hears are created by people or birds: the groan and creak of the floating boardwalk underfoot, a pileated woodpecker hammering on a long-dead snag, a prothonotary warbler chortling as it feeds its young, and the startled cry of a wood duck fleeing through the trees. Cypress trees, in a seemingly vast stand, support upon their ‘knees’ little colonies of plants—islands in miniature. The surface of the pond is covered with several species of duckweed. This thick green blanket is broken only by a fallen cypress needle, the black ribbon of a swimming cottonmouth, or the delicately embossed outline of a floating frog. In the quiet and stillness, the bayous of Louisiana come to mind."

Susan Post, Illinois Wilds

Heron Pond in Spring; photo by Michael R. JeffordsDescriptions of the Cache River are as varied as the people who have encountered it. The expression “to each his own” is aptly applied to this meandering, sluggish stream. An anonymous English journalist proclaimed in the 1860s that the area was “a forest of dead trees, their ghostly leafless arms over buried trunks like plumes over a hearse—a cheerless miserable place, sacred to the ague and fever.” William Ferguson, who traveled the state by river and rail in 1855, was fascinated by what he saw. Even the little things were intriguing. “The descent to Cairo is made in forty-four miles. It is through a wild, wooded, beautiful country, till we reach Villa-ridge, ten miles from the terminus. Here we began to see fire-flies in great abundance, and they increased as we got into the low grounds. Few at first, they seemed like stars here and there; but they increased in number, till every tree seemed alive with wandering stars.”

“This river is hidden,” said a French adventurer credited with naming the Cache when he spotted its log-jammed mouth on the Ohio in 1702. His words are still true today because the natural features, the hidden treasures of the Cache, these remnants of its past, must be actively sought out to be experienced. The treasures are the living landscapes and organisms waiting to be discovered by anyone with a little skill at map-reading, a willingness to walk, and a healthy dose of curiosity.

The word cache comes from the French and means “something hidden, or stored.” In Illinois, our Cache is a treasure- trove of biological wonders and a wetland of international importance. The Cache River basin crosses southern Illinois, from the Ohio River on the east to the Mississippi River on the west and is the prehistoric river valley of the Ohio. Referred to in the original General Land Office Survey as “inaccessible and a drowned land,” the basin marks the geographical point where the last invasion of the sea into the Midwest reached its northernmost limit and lies only a few miles from the southernmost extent of the continental glaciers of the Pleistocene. Originally, over 250,000 acres of cypress–tupelo swamp and wet forest covered this area of southern Illinois.

Today, due to the efforts of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and private organizations and individuals, the Cache River Joint Partnership is actively engaged in preserving examples of this complex landscape, restoring lands to their original condition, and even reconnecting a river that was literally divided in half during the early part of the last century. What was once contiguous is now fragmented and forms a complicated corridor running across southern Illinois. Yet the Cache River basin supports a diverse mixture of forests, grasslands, wetlands, shallow lakes, and streams and is the northern limit for cypress–tupelo swamps in the Mississippi River valley.

Obtain an Illinois Gazetteer, get off the interstates, and explore unique sites located near tiny towns with charming names such as Cypress, Belknap, Perks, and Ullin. Access to the Cache and its wetlands requires a bit of effort. It can involve canoeing to a state-champion bald cypress over 1000 years old, hiking a short distance on a boardwalk to view a nearly primeval wet woods, or climbing to an overlook to see an uninterrupted expanse of forest with the brown ribbon of the Cache winding through it.

The Cache is literally a four-season experience. Seeing the flowers and ephemeral green of an early swamp spring is magical; experiencing a hot, humid, sultry summer day is reminiscent of a visit to a primordial coal swamp; watching bald cypress turn russet rivals New England maples; and experiencing the swamp during a midwinter snowstorm is unique. Add the diversity of the plants and animals that call this place home to the truly beautiful landscape and you have the makings of a day, a week, a month, a lifetime of exploration.