Heron Pond in Summer; photo by Michael R. JeffordsHenry N. Barkhausen Wetlands
Center : The Hub of the Cache

The new Henry N. Barkhousen Wetlands Center is the best place to begin your journey of discovery. The center is named after Barkhausen, a conservationist, Cache supporter, and former director of the Illinois Department of Conservation. The center provides maps, informational exhibits, an audiovisual presentation, and a computer touch-screen virtual tour of the Cache. These give the visitor a preview of what they might encounter.

Take time to explore the grounds surrounding the center. Listen for the sleigh-bell-like call of spring peepers, the "running-the-finger-over-a-comb" call of the western chorus frog, or the "marbles-clacking-together" call of the cricket frog. Walk the trails and try to identify the sparrows as they keep one step ahead; field, song, savannah, and swamp sparrows may be found here. The "keer keer" of a red-shouldered hawk and the "crow with a cold" call of the fish crow can usually be heard near the center. The Barkhausen Wetlands Center and hiking trail connect to the Tunnel Hill State Trail. Take a few moments to stop at the bridge over the Cache because otters are frequently seen here.

Heron Pond : A Place for All Seasons

Heron Pond, a bald cypress forest, is part of a larger area called the Cache River State Natural Area. The trail to Heron Pond crosses the confluence of the Cache River and Dutchman Creek on a suspension bridge, passes through a bottomland forest, and soon enters the world of the swamp. In spring, the forest trail is lined with wildflowers; by August the huge white blossoms of spider lily have opened, creating patches of white in the unrelenting green. By late fall the cypress trees have discarded their needles, littering the duckweed around each base with a golden halo. Snow performs the same function following infrequent winter snowfalls. As the trail winds alongside the Cache, silent hikers may be rewarded with a sighting of skittish wood ducks, a basking softshell turtle, or a playful mink or otter.

The adventure into the swamp is greatly aided by a long boardwalk. Once on the boardwalk you will be surrounded by bald cypress with feathery foliage; duckweed, complete with hidden frogs and their high-pitched pips; and the swishes and squeaks of birds. Step carefully as sometimes a cypress katydid, a denizen of cypress canopies, has been dislodged and lands on the boardwalk. At the end of the boardwalk listen for the raucous squawks of great blue herons; a rookery is just barely visible through the trees. After the boardwalk, proceed onward, skirting the swamp and ending at the state-champion cherrybark oak, a massive dark-trunked behemoth of a tree, some 23 feet around.

Little Black Slough : A Place of Wonder

Little Black Slough-part of the Cache River State Natural Area-is well known for its cypress-tupelo swamp, but also has floodplain forests, upland woods, and small patches of limestone barrens. Some of the finest timber in the state was once found here. Forested areas were cut in the 1870s and the wood shipped to Chicago to help rebuild the city after the great fire. But if you view these trees only in terms of board feet, then your vision of the world is too narrow.

To explore Little Black Slough, take ad-vantage of the Tupelo Trail. This trail winds through an oak-hickory forest that is like walking on ball bearings during the fall of an excellent nut crop year! The wildlife viewing, however, is great. In early winter, the wide-buttressed tupelo tress are gray-green with lichens and surrounded by duckweed. To the naked eye, it appears as if the lichens are slowly moving up the tupelo trunks. With the aid of binoculars, however, they are revealed as well-camouflaged brown creepers. During spring on the trail that leads into the swamp, small rock outcrops are covered with pale yellow corydalis, while small cricket frogs stay one step ahead of you. Yet, perhaps fall is the best time to explore this trail: the leaves of the tall trees glisten against the backdrop of an incredibly blue sky, and the swamp may experience a "bidens sunflower bloom"-certainly an unexpected treat and perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. A bluebird fusses in a dead tupelo tree, woodpeckers fly from tree hole to tree hole, a hawk screams overhead, a young raccoon yawns and stretches in a feathery cypress tree, and an elusive wild turkey skitters across the trail. All of this may happen along the Tupelo Trail each autumn. Even if no wildlife is encountered, the cypress-tupelo swamp at the end of the trail offers one of the truly primeval landscapes found in Illinois.