You can find directions to the hike to Fort Chartres Island at twotanktours.com/StLouisTours.html. Download the Bluff Road tour. The cost is $7. It covers the American Bottom, the great Mississippi River Floodplain in Monroe and Randolph Counties in Illinois. It also includes a hike of the Fults Hilltop Prairie, a rare ecosystem on top of the bluffs.
History buffs know Fort de Chartres for the reconstructed eighteenth century French fort. Hunters, anglers, trappers, hikers, and birders know it for its woods, fields, and wetlands. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency owns 1,219 acres between the fort and the river. The agency limits deer and turkey hunters to muzzle-loading firearms and bow and arrows. Duck hunters may use modern shotguns.
The French constructed the fort on a side channel of the Mississippi, which filled with silt by the middle of the nineteenth century, attaching Fort de Chartres Island to the mainland. The Fort de Chartres Side Channel runs between the batture lands and a second, unnamed island.
There is an exhibit in the museum at the fort, which illustrates the changes in the river at the fort.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the St. Louis District of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built wing dams, rock dikes set perpendicular to the bank, along the Mississippi to scour a deeper navigation channel.
At Fort de Chartres Island, the engineers built wing dams that directed the navigation channel to the Missouri side of the river and directed the river’s sediment behind the wing dams, creating, first a sand bar, then a willow island, and finally a timber island that reached the level of the mainland. The Fort de Chartres side channel ran between the timber island and Fort de Chartres Island.
In addition silt began clogging the side channel and it filled with vegetation. However, floods, like the Floods of 1993 and 2008 can scour the sediment and vegetation from the channel and return water to it.
The Fort de Chartres side channel is one of twenty-three remaining on the Mississippi River. The St. Louis District and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have made plans to restore the channel for the benefit of the pallid sturgeon, an endangered fish. The engineers would introduce more water into the side channel by making notches in the dikes to allow water to flow through the channel, dredging sediment from it, and installing hard points—mini-dikes that scour deep holes for fish. The plans, however, are on hold.
Last week I returned to Fort Chartres Island with the plan to hike across the closing dam, and cross the island to the edge of the the river. Mike and I wandered around the island for 45 minutes and never found a clear path to the river.
As we turned to leave, we scared a snake into a tree and the snake scared us. I normally don’t do snakes. But this one was small, in the tree, and just as scared as I was.