With summer just around the corner, hiking enthusiasts are starting to hit the trails. As part of our occasional series, "Unknown Illinois," we take you to the Cache River State Natural Area, about a four hour drive from McLean County in the far southern tip of the state. That's where Judy Valente meets up with two expert hikers, and learns hiking is about more than just physical exercise.
(Photo credit: Michael Jeffords)
Judy Valente is walking in a place called Heron Pond Trail with Susan Post and her husband Michael Jeffords, nature photographers and writers.
"Sometimes we'll come and do this hike every day, three or four days in a row," Post says. "And every time you will see something different or you will have a different experience, even though you're walking the same trail."
Heron Pond Trail is in the Cache River basin, a place whose name, in French, means 'hidden.' With its swamps, exotic birds, cypresses and rare water tupelo trees, the area looks more like a Louisiana bayou than the flat prairie land usually associated with Illinois. The distinct call of a bird is heard in the distance. "That call right there is the prothonotary warbler," Post says. "We like to think of that as sort of the signature bird of this area. A bright yellow."
As a child, Post would hike with her grandmother along the woods and prairie in what is now Sugar Grove Nature Center, in southern McLean County. She eventually authored the guidebook "Hiking Illinois." Post says, "A lot of people have asked me, 'why do you hike'? The simple answer is, 'well, I just like to see things...look at things. It's like my own, little personal Facebook, only it's while I'm walking."
Jeffords says walking a trail is a special experience. As he turns over a log, he spots a huge beetle. "It's a Bessy beetle. It's called a horned passalus," he says. Jeffords and Post happen to be etymologists. Jeffords says, "It's a beetle that talks to its young. They rub wing covers together and it makes this high-pitched sound. If I can get it to do it. No, she's not going to perform."
As the group leaves their beetle friend behind, they come upon an amazing sight: an entire forest of towering cypresses and water tupelo trees rising up out of a swampland. They take a boardwalk over the swamp. Post says without the boardwalk, they'd have to wear boots and there would be lots of splishing and splashing. She says, because the water is so shallow, they're all pretty safe. The cypress trees rise to about 120 feet and have feathery pine-like needles. The water tupelos, at least in this area, are much shorter trees, with shiny ovate leaves.
"When you bring groups of people here," says Post. "It's like immediately silence. It's like they're in a reverent place, and in a way, you are."
In her book Hiking Illinois Post says "hiking is an escape from the rigors of modern life." She adds, "As soon as I hit the trail, I become in a different mindset. My senses are more attuned to what I am hearing, what I am seeing. I become more relaxed, calmer. It just seems as though your troubles and cares seem to vanish." She says nature hiking is not jus about getting a physical workout. She says, "You're exercising your mind as well and exercising your spirit. Renewing yourself. You're away from a phone, you're away from a computer, you're away from everything."
Jeffords adds, "Sue and I aren't religious people, but we're probably spiritual people because this is our cathedral."
Cherry Oak Bark tree and cottonmouth snake
There is one more must-see stop on Heron Pond Trail: the site of the largest cherry bark oak tree in Illinois. Post calls it "The state champion cherry bark oak. If you have a school group of say, kindergarteners, it takes around 16 of them holding hands outstretched to reach around the tree."
As the group makes its way to the end of the trail, they encounter yet another familiar sight in the Cache River basin. Post says, "we better watch our step here, as we have a very large cottonmouth on the side of the trail." Amber-colored cottonmouths are among the few poisonous snakes in Illinois. "They are not aggressive, says Jeffords. "They are not afraid of you either. They just kind of sit there and intimidate you. If we were to mess with it, it would open its mouth and show its white teeth. You see it' just kind of crawling away. Valente bids the cottonmouth adieu.
"A cheerless, miserable place...a small piece of paradise"
About Heron Pond Trail and the Cache River State Natural Area, Jeffords says, "The early settlers, when they described this place in their journals, said it was a 'cheerless, miserable place sacred only to the ague, which was disease, malaria and fever.'" But he adds, "That's not it at all."
Post and Jeffords have hiked thousands of miles all over the world, but they call Heron Pond Trail one of their favorite places on earth--a small piece of paradise.
See photos from Heron Pond Trail
Saturday, June 1 is National Trails Day. In McLean County, the Grand Prairie Illinois Master Naturalists will offer guided tours of the forest and prairie trails at Sugar Grove Nature Center. They'll have workshops, activities and educational displays for all ages.
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