Cache River State Natural Area – Tupelo Trail
– by Gary Marks
When you think of a wetland what does your mind conjure up?
Is it the deep green duckweed that is laid out like a natural carpet over the still shallow water? Maybe, the giant cypress trees that have made their home here for hundreds of years, with their gnarly knees poking out from around their exaggerated buttresses. Alligators! Oh wait a minute, scratch that one off the list. There are no reports of alligators in the wetlands of Illinois, that is further south in the warmer swamplands of the United States. Snakes, turtles, and birds, yes there are lots of animals, along with plants and insects that call the wetlands their home.
It is almost a given, though, that the Tupelo tree was not one of things considered (unless the title of the article gave it away). This forgotten tree at first glance resembles many other trees in the forest, but there is a major difference. Where other trees perish under extended conditions of standing water, the tupelo thrives. The tupelo has managed to use the lower oxygen levels inherent to flooded environments to its advantage. Like its well-known cousin the cypress tree, it also can have an enlarged trunk base (buttress), that according to some keep its stature grounded in the soggy conditions.
I didn’t know this place existed. I had seen it on the Cache River brochure, but for some reason always passed it up on the way to the more popular Heron Pond Trail . That is changing though, as I follow a long gravel road past the Natural Area’s main office and park in a large vacant parking lot.
I refer to the trail head signage and note that it is a 2.5 mile round-trip excursion. I grab my backpack and head out on foot behind a gated road. At around .4 mile the gravel round comes to a curve. To the right is Heron Pond and Little Black Slough, but to the left the trail breaks free from the gravel and descends slightly into the forest.
My mind drifts as I reach the intersection of the loop portion of the trail at around 1.0 mile. So far, compared to the Heron Pond Trail, the hike is lacking one important item, wetlands. I keep my mind open and continue down to the right side of the loop.
Through the light greens of newly emerging leaves the wetland slowly comes into view, giving only slight glimpses into its secretive depths. A half mile from the loop intersection, a boardwalk juts out into the swamp. Although, not as big as the Heron Pond boardwalk, it is a welcome surprise, allowing one to leave the dense forested bank and gain an unobstructed view of the surroundings.
Time to take a break. I stretch my body out on the boardwalk and use my backpack as a pillow. Wood ducks scamper off in the distance, alerting every one of my presence. A white egret flies overhead as I look up into canopy of cypress and tupelo trees. The fading light tinges the edges of the leaves making them glow.
It takes every bit of fifteen minutes for nature to accept my silence. Then an orchestra of sounds comes forth from the swamp. Birds chirp and sing, frogs give deep throaty calls to one another, a turtle disrupts the calm surface of the water, which sounds like a pebble being thrown in. I am truly amazed at the amount of life here.
On The Edge
After an extended amount of time I turn to leave the boardwalk. Out of the corner of my left eye I notice movement along the watery edges of the bank. A reflexive gasp escapes from my mouth as the triangular head of a cottonmouth slithers my way. My natural flight tendency, immediately turns into curiosity as my heart races. I take the cap off my lens and take a photo. Crude, not enough zoom. I reluctantly take out my bigger lens and put it on in hopes of not missing this photo-op.
The cottonmouth poses and continues on its original route not giving me much attention. It swims below the boardwalk that I am standing on. I prepare my things and scuttle off the walk. I really do not want to see a head pop up between the boards wondering what I am up to.
I continue down the trail, which hugs the wetland bank. A small sandstone bluff keeps me company to the left as the trail soon opens up to an impressive clearing that shows one a vast range of tupelo trees.
As I click the shutter of my camera I think how before this hike I did not give the Tupelo a second thought, but now since we have been formerly introduced, I will no longer take this water-loving tree for granted.
Use the map below to get directions by clicking on the tab and entering your address. The tab is the approximate trailhead location.
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