Kayaking another place and time in the tupelo and cypress of the Cache River in far southern Illinois
Kayaking the Cache River in far southern Illinois with the tupelo and cypress feels like something from another time and place; and it reminds just how many very different parts of Illinois there are.
ULLIN, Ill. — Cicadas whined in morning heat as I turned down Dean Lane, then drove to the last stilt house by the Cache River. Racks of canoes and kayaks indicated I had reached Cache Bayou Outfitters.
Tupelo, a mixed red and blue heeler, ambled to greet me ahead of Kamea Rhine saying, “You must be the kayaker.”
A plank boat, made by Mark Denzer, operations manager, and Neth Hass (Rhine’s father), decorated the front of the stilt office.
“We built the pirogue around 12 years ago, made from local cypress with mostly hand tools,” Denzer emailed later.
I was in the right spot.
It had been about 20 years since I paddled the Cache in far southern Illinois. That anomaly of our topography feels like Mississippi or Louisiana more than Illinois with bald cypress, tupelo, slow waters and swamps.
Rhine brought out a map and suggested a four-hour paddle.
“If you get branches in your face, you’re going the wrong way.” she said.
I only went the wrong way once. Branches left me know real quick.
She directed me, when past Perks Bridge, to follow the wooden sign left into the bottomland swamp and to Eagle Pond, where there was a 900-year-old cypress.
“Before that, there’s a tupelo grove that is my favorite spot,” she said.
Her directions were good, I found her grove.
She also showed where there would be an observation deck with a 1,500-year-old cypress across from it, then the Lower Cache River Access, a good lunch and turnaround spot.
Before I left, she said, “We have lots of Asian carp now. But no one has caught one in a boat recently. What do they call them now?”
“Copi, as in copious,” I said. (Here’s more on the new name.)
She rhapsodized about eating copi so glowingly that I wondered if she worked for Kevin Irons, Illinois’ assistant fisheries chief and long-time invasive guru.
“Put them in the coals and let them cook,” she said. “The meat falls right off the bones.”
That sounded good.
In the heat, I paddled slowly and quickly saw great blue herons (eventually dozens), egrets, crows and a black vulture (they have established in southern Illinois in recent years).
When past Perks Bridge, I sat in the quiet and listened to herons croaking and mourning doves cooing. I wondered at unseen splashing in the swamp. Herons? Copi? Muskrats? Miscreants doing nefarious things? I didn’t need silence to hear a screaming red-shouldered hawk.
Midway through my paddle, a brownish raccoon lumbered around the middle of a cypress. I paddled past lots of cypress, massive entities with their knees, tupelo and buttonbush.
Copi were particularly active in the backwaters. Once, I prepped my paddle as a club, fixing to whack one upside the head, if needed.
Late in the paddle, dozens of swallows swirled out of side-by-side cypress.
Early, Merlin Bird ID said there was a Mississippi kite, but I didn’t see it. Then, near the end, I spotted one flying over the river. It’s one thing to have an expert or an app show you that, more gratifying to do it by yourself.
An otter swam off as I neared Perks Bridge on my return.
“We have muskrats, minks, weasels, and even the invasive nutria,” Denzer emailed later. “So, yes, it’s very possible that you saw one.”
Near the launch, the last group was leaving for the day and Denzer called across the water to tie the kayak up and leave the paddle in it.
It was time.
Felt like another time.
For information, go to cachebayououtfitters.com.