Thursday, February 19, 2015

Heron Pond in Winter

     It has long been a dream of mine to visit Heron Pond Nature Preserve in the winter.  However, whenever there is a large snow event in southern Illinois, there is a strong incentive to stay indoors.  But I've always wondered how difficult it would be to get into the swamps of the Cache River wetlands in the winter.  This week I finally got my chance.

     After receiving 8-12 inches of snow in southern Illinois on February 16 in the year of 2015, I made it out to explore Heron Pond.  The minor road leading to the preserve from Belknap road was not plowed at all, but other vehicles had traveled the road and compacted the snow.  I was able to make it up the hill to Max Hutchison's house with relative ease in my all-wheel drive Subaru, but the road beyond this point was untrammeled by vehicle or by human foot.

My car at Max's house and the untouched snow on the road to Heron Pond
     I was surprised by this since I was not able to make it out there until the day after the snowstorm.  I guess I figured others had the same foolish endeavor to walk out to see winter work its magic on Heron Pond.  Clearly the locals and other nature lovers were far more sensible than I.  I parked my vehicle in Max’s driveway, checked in with the Hutchison family, and geared up for the hike through the snow.

     Unfortunately, I did not have my cross country skis or snowshoes with me, because the conditions were perfect for their use.  How amazing would it have been to ski out to see a Cypress swamp!  But instead I was left to lift foot after foot into the deep powder and it seemed like forever just to reach the parking lot.

Bridge over the Cache River and the trailhead
     I walked down the hill and over the bridge.  The Cache River was frozen except the spots just after the rock weirs.  These are structures created to slow down the flow of the river, to reduce stream downcutting in the upper reaches of river and to reduce sediment transfer to the lower reaches of the river. 

Rock weirs on the Cache River
     The snow made it easy to see the movements of animals.  I noticed abundant deer and squirrel tracks, and even some mink or otter activity along the river.  I spotted a red-headed woodpecker, brown thrush, some mallards, and an owl that flew off as I approached the boardwalk.  It was marvelous to see such a prized and highly visited spot in such unadulterated beauty.  The solitude made me think I was in a vast wilderness, yet I was just a couple miles from my car.

My tracks on the boardwalk and the virgin powder on the trails and stepping stones
     Max advised me to not go out on the ice, although he admitted that the best time to explore the swamp was when it was frozen.  Since the boardwalk extends into the swamp, I did not feel the need to walk out on the ice, although it did look plenty thick.  Just as I was leaving, the sun poked through the Cypress trees and I got the shot I was looking for. 

Cypress Swamp at Heron Pond Nature Preserve
     On the way back to my vehicle, I reveled in the fact that the only human tracks in the snow were mine.  This is truly a magical place and I was truly elated to experience it in a whole new element.  Once I returned to Max’s house, I had to stop in and what do you know, of course they insisted I stay for chili and cornbread.  Who could turn down such a request?

Chili and cornbread at the Hutchison's

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