a midwinter journey through a southern illinois swamp

By Caleb Motsinger

Hazy winter skies and below freezing temperatures can make the natural world a cruel place.

The days are short and the nights are cold, and in rural southern Illinois, wintertime entertainment can be limited.

Venturing down to the Cache River Natural Area early Saturday morning was my way of fighting off those pesky winter blues. Only 45 minutes south of Carbondale, the Lower Cache offers southern swamplands and bayous matchless to any other place in the Midwest.


I had my canoe loaded and a few extra layers of clothes on, but my fingers grew numb through my gloves after less than 10 minutes of being outside.

Photos by Steve Matzker

To venture into harsh conditions takes preparation. If you’re ready for late January’s unkind weather and remain unfazed by its line of defense, you open yourself up for the fulfillment of beating the season.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s website, Ohio River glacial floodwaters carved out the floodplain that surrounds the Cache River State Natural Area.

The website also states cypress trees, many older than millennium, with flared bases in excess of three feet in circumference, are some of the natural features that populate the area. One cypress earned the title of state champion bald cypress because of its huge trunk, height and far-reaching canopy, the website said.

But no canopy hung suspended over the frigid waters Saturday as the ancient, naked cypress trees sprawled toward the winter sky. John Muir once said when a man comes to the wilderness, he comes home.

Upon my put in, it was soon evident that this unseasonal excursion into the Cache River was, in fact, not unseasonal at all.

Scores of decoys filled the water as duck hunters sat silently in their camouflaged boats. I gave a friendly wave to Tad Parrish as I paddled by.

Parrish, of Cobden, said he felt right at home as he scanned the sky below the open waters of the Cache.

“It’s pretty out here this time of year if it’s what a guy likes to do,” Parrish said. “It seems to be too cold for the ducks to come out today, though.”

The Cache River Wetlands Center, just north of the Lower Cache put in area, offers a cultural and natural history timeline exhibit, a short video on the history of the Cache River basin and a boardwalk through a re-established wetland along the old bed of Cypress Creek.

Mollie Oliver, Department of Natural Resources coordinator for the Wetlands Center, said the area is definitely a lot less busy during the winter months compared to the spring and fall. But, she said, the center hosts a variety of wintertime activities, such as frog calls and birdwatching exhibits, and that there are also 11,000 acres open for year-round hunting and fishing outside of the nature preserve.

In warmer months, the moss-like duckweed plant floats on the black water of the Cache, noticeable now only in its absence. When spring comes, the swamp will take a different form as duckweed reappears, water levels rise and mosquitos swarm to the area to birth their young.

As the water levels recede, the knees, or root structures, of cypress trees reveal themselves and rise high above the water. Some have as many as 209 knees, which all serve a purpose in the preservation of the area’s beauty and rarity.

With the canoe back on top of my vehicle and the paddles put away in the trunk, I found myself hesitant to leave. Despite the cold and the gray skies, the trip could not have been better.

It’s good to see things from different perspectives. It gives you peace of mind and although it can sometimes be uncomfortable, it offers limitless possibilities only discovered through exploration and consideration of the world around us.