“Everything around us seemed dreary and dismal, and had we not been endowed with the faculty of deriving pleasure from the examination of nature, we should have made up our minds to pass the time in a state similar to that of Bears during the time of hibernation. We soon found employment, however, for the woods were full of game; and Deer, Turkeys, Raccoons, and Opossums might be seen even around out camp; while on the ice that snow covered the broad stream rested flocks of Swans, to surprise which the hungry Wolves were at times seen to make energetic but unsuccessful efforts. It was curious to see the snow-white birds all lying flat on the ice, but keenly intent on watching the motions of their insidious enemies, until the latter advanced within the distance of a few hundred yards, when the Swans, sounding the trumpet-note of alarm, would all rise, spread out their broad wings, and after running some yards and battering the ice until the noise was echoed like thunder through the woods, rose exultingly into the air, leaving their pursuers to devise other schemes for gratifying their craving appetites.” — John James Audubon[i]
Ice blocking passage through Dogtooth Bend, upstream on the Mississippi from the mouth of the Cache River, forced John James Audubon and his fur-trading party to make camp under a huge tree on Tywapatee Bottom early in the winter of 1810.
Audubon and his party found more than enough game at the mouth of the Cache to sustain themselves until the ice broke up six weeks later. Audubon took the time to study the behavior of trumpeter swans, which also wintered on the ice-covered lakes and ponds near the river. He noted that when trumpeters feed on land, they graze on leaves and seeds and capture land snails and small reptiles. In water they swing their feet in the air, upend their bodies, and thrust their heads deep in water to snag aquatic insects.[ii]
The Cache River in southern Illinois flows through an ancient valley carved out by the Ohio River when it carried glacial floods to the Eastern Lowlands. About thirteen thousand years ago, the Ohio shifted south, took over the channel of the Tennessee River, and flowed along the eastern wall of the Mississippi Embayment. The Cache meandered through the abandoned Ohio channel, an underfit stream, too small for its valley.
Historically, the Cache flowed through the five counties that form the southern tip of the State of Illinois.
The Cache River wetlands are a biological and geological crossroads where four physiographic regions overlap: the Ozark Plateau borders the wetlands on the west, the Central Plateau on the north, the Interior Low Plateau on the east, and the Mississippi Embayment, the extension of the Gulf Coastal Plain, on the south. The river itself flows out of the Illinois extension of the Ozark plateau into the Mississippi Embayment.
The region is a mix of habitats: bedrock bluffs, grasslands, and swamp. Upland forests and southern swamps, at the northern edge of their range, support a huge variety of plants and wildlife, including ancient cypress, thousands of years old. Like the larger system of wetlands along the Cache River of Arkansas, the Ramsar Convention designated this Cache River Wetlands a Wetland of International Importance.
Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and deer roam the upland forests, treed in white oak, red oak, sugar maple, poplar, and shagbark hickory that provide habitat for the Cooper’s Hawk, turkeys, woodcock, and bobtail quail.
Stunted post oak trees and blackjack oak root in the upland barrens, places where the soil is thin and the bedrock exposed.
The floodplain swamps and forests host the greatest variety of trees of any bottomland in Illinois: oak, hickory, cypress, tupelo, sweetgum, ash, maple, and willow. Dense stands of giant cane provide habitat for a diverse population of migratory songbirds. Acadian flycatchers, cerulean warblers, tree swallows, wood ducks, herons, and black vultures find refuge in the cypress-tupelo swamps with their scattering of buttonbush, red maple and Virginia willow.
The Cache River hosts river otters, beaver, muskrats, mink, and raccoons along its banks, and salamanders, snakes, and frogs–bird-voiced tree frogs, southern leopard frogs, spring peepers, western chorus frogs, bullfrogs, and American toads–in its swamps. Lost to the logging and drainage of the wetlands were wolves, bears, and elk, gone since the mid-nineteenth century when sawmills came to the Cache.
Early nineteenth century pioneers to the Cache valley did little to alter the landscape. They supplemented what they could grow on small subsistence farms with hunting and fishing in the swamps. Loggers came to the Cache in 1850 and set up sawmills. The timber industry grew. At the turn of the century as much as two million feet of lumber was being cut from Big Black Slough yearly.
When farmers began draining the wetlands for fields, they discovered that when the Ohio flooded, so did the Cache. To dry out their land, they chopped the Cache into pieces. In 1916 the Post Creek Cut-off diverted the Upper Cache River near Heron Pond directly to the Ohio River, isolating forty miles of the Lower Cache. The Cache was now two rivers.
After World War II land speculators bought up swampland to drain for farmland. Loggers brought in huge clearing machines to get to the wettest, most remote parts of the swamps. In 1950 a second ditch diverted the Lower Cache to the Mississippi, reducing its length by twenty miles.
In the 1960s and 1970s thousands of acres of prime swampland were cleared and drained for agriculture. Silt poured from the cleared land into the Lower Cache and much as twenty-four inches a year. Ponds dried up. Fish died. Migrating ducks lost prime feeding places where the oak forest had been cleared for cropland.
In 1979 local citizens, concerned about the isolation and degradation of the Lower Cache formed The Citizens Committee To Save The Cache. They recognized the need to educate the public on the value of the Cache as a natural resource. They petitioned the local drainage district to restore the current to the Cache.
In 1991 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge along a tributary of the Cache. The Service, along with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited established the Cache River wetlands Joint Venture Partnership with the intention of restoring the Cache River system as a self-sustaining river-floodplain system by protecting 60,000 acres along a fifty-mile corridor of the Cache and its tributaries and by reconnecting the Upper Cache to the Lower Cache. To this end the partners began working with the Corps of Engineers on a plan for reconnecting the Cache River System and restoring habitat to land accepted in to the Wetlands Reserve Program. At present the group controls 35,000 acres. [iii]
[i] Audubon, Maria R., Audubon and his Journals, New York: Charles Scribner’s Songs, 1897, Vol. II, 222-223; Illinois Trails, “Audubon’s Stay on the Cache,” Exerpt from the book :Pulaski County Illinois” by the Pulaski Board of Commissioners, http://www.iltrails.org/pulaski/Audubon.htm.
[ii] Audubon, John James, Birds of America, Vol. 6, The Trumpeter Swan, http://www.abirdshome.com/Audubon/VolVI/00646.html.
[iii] Saucier, 243; Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural Areas Conference, #7 Cache River, LaRue-Pine Hills, Otter Pond Research Natural Area, http://www.conservation.state.mo.us/nac/four.htm; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge,” http://refuges.fws.gov/profiles/WildHabitat.cfm?ID=32630; Needham, Rachel, “The Cache River Wetlands,” Illinois Periodicals Online, Northern Illinois University, http://www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/ihy020226.html; The Nature Conservancy, “Grassy Slough Preserve at the Cache River Wetlands,” http://nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/illinois/preserves/art1124.html.