Sunday, July 18, 2021

IL: Cave-in-Rock State Park and Rim Rock Trail Reboot

Cave-in-Rock State Park is a neat little place that contains a very short trail to the cave itself and a nice upland woods walk over the Ohio River. The place is a sort of a pilgrimage center to earth scientists and the day I visited I met a professor from Southern Illinois University who was exploring with his young son, although the boy was much more interested in the large Cliff Swallow colony on the limestone cliff just above the cave entrance.   


A mid-floor channel is evidence that an underground stream served as the origin source of cave formation though no water flows from the cave now. At the back of the cave is a large mud floored room that, according to local legend, contained a kind of "pirate's bar" or commercially crooked bar room. The commercial venture failed but it is known that river pirates did use the cave as a hiding place from which to launch raids on drift boats carrying settlers west in the mid-19th century.  The large entrance with opposing level decks of limestone reach out and around to the river and are enhanced with historic graffiti. Even the high ceiling contains some old dates and initials as people drifting in on flood waters could reach the roof from small boats.  

Limestone shelf deck

No pirates back here

Cliff Swallow colony

The limestone here is embedded with large chert nodules that give it a raisin bread appearance. Indigenous people harvested chert from limestone beds or collected it  loose from the river banks to make fine tools such as blades, hoes, hunting and fishing spear points.  In my short essays about time, I found while writing that night, that holding a piece of river chert in my hands conveyed a sense deep history from the marine organisms that formed the sediments, to the geological processes that formed the stone, to the human hands that worked it to make dozens of specialized tools.  The pain in my gut reminded me that everything is temporary, everything comes and goes in and out of our short lives which, in the grand scheme of life on earth, is already a memory in stone. 

Chert nodules embedded in limestone

Cave-in-Rock is different from Cave In Rock, the first being the state park and the latter being the town of the same name - but without the hyphens. I walked around the little riverfront town to learn that here and just downstream at Elizabethtown were the places where Cherokee refugees were unloaded from flatboats after crossing the broad Ohio River from Kentucky. They continued the brutal forced march west from here cutting through Southern Illinois to cross the Mississippi in a week's time.  I stopped at a little mom-and-pop rock shop and was told that townsfolk offered the refugees food and water but were ordered to stop aiding them by federal troops who escorted them at gunpoint.  Routes of the Cherokee passing are marked with historical signs for the Trail of Tears but I was told that there were a few different overland routes, not a single road.

I took to the Rim Rock National Recreational Trail upper and lower trail sections to explore this scenic rock bluff "city" with a combination of stairways, tight passages, and bluff-top vistas.  A connecting trail (which I didn't do b/c I was starting to get sick) leads to Pounds Lake. I actually did the upper trail loop twice because of the rare limestone barrens communities and geology was so interesting.

Red Cedars up to 500 years old

The trail encircles the escarpment along open bluff and enclosed forest. This area is protected as the Pounds Ecological Area and contains rare plants, ancient Red Cedars, and excellent examples of wave action captured in limestone.  All sorts of fantastic erosional features graced the walls and boulders of the massive blocks of stone. 

Massive overhang at the Pounds Hollow

Wandering carefully around the edges of the escarpment revealed I was able to see the extent of the limestone barrens, the xeric calcareous habitat that supports flat rock plant communities anchored in patches of moss and Bluestem Grass sods. Prairie flowers including Aster and  Boneset were just beginning to blossom but well beyond the shade of some very old Red Cedar that laid prostrate across the rock.  Mounds of moss supported tiny whorls of Ebony Spleenwort and the edges of forest soils, hot from the direct sun, sprouted delicate tufts of Sidebeak Pencilflower, Stylosanthes biflora, a new plant for me native to Mid-Western deciduous forests.
Sidebeak Pencilflower

Cleft passageway

Crossbedding formations indicate fast water laid these sediments

Bridges and stairways

Stumbling around the base of the escarpment in a bit of pain from ongoing gut and breathing issues, I decided to finish my hike for the day and head back to the campsite on the river and reassess whether I wanted to continue into a second week of Use-It-or-Lose-It Vacation. I felt worse at camp and decided that since I was far from my doctor and in a state where my not-so-great health insurance is not accepted anyway, I decided to end my Shawnee National Forest exploration that evening and head out early the next day. Driving home to PA from Illinois I was crunched over the steering wheel most of the way and in a pretty sad mood - not the first time this year I've been overcome with sadness. It's been a very hard year, working from home with two jobs to cover, in front of multiple computer screens for upwards of 14 hours a day. The sedentary lifestyle of work-from-home day and night has taken a toll on my health and heading home that day from the Shawnee I came to grips with that. 


CCC-built stairways

Limestone honeycomb

Not only did I reassess the situation for staying the second week in the Shawnee, but the drive allowed me time, even if scrunched over, to reassess how much my own lifestyle has changed these few years and how much of an impact those changes have had on my health. Though still on track to complete my "Five Year Plan" for leaving full time work, I had to rethink the two job routine (especially while home) and what sacrifices I am willing or not willing to make for "future me."  I stopped for the night at a small motel east of Toledo where a wonderful front desk lady offered to run out and buy some garlic oil pills for the intestinal pain. She locked up and ran out only to return a few minutes later with a new bottle of pills. I gulped a handful down and slept almost pain free for the first time in a week that night. 

Shortleaf Pine, Pinus echinata  (endangered in Southern Illinois)

It's now mid-July, many weeks since visiting the Shawnee National Forest and I know that I will go back and hike the 160 mile-long River-to-River Trail at some point and visit some of the places I had been and still need to see. Until then I am sorting out some health issues the result of this past year and will start training again to get my lung and joint function back and deal with work- related stress that drops me like a rock. 

At home I got caught up with my friends who are vlogging their PCT hike and I remembered their decisions (all three of them) to end the cycle of poor physical and mental health (work-related) to retire healthy and adventurous into the wild life they have now. I'm at that point.  


Tuesday, July 6, 2021

IL: Earthworks and Mounds

From West Virginia and down the Ohio River Valley to Southern Illinois is part of the region known to be occupied by Edena cultures (800 BCE - 100 CE), mound and earthwork-building people who pre-dated the Mississippian  culture (100 BCE - 500 CE) who I would meet later. I stopped a few times on my way to the Shawnee National Forest to visit various burial mounds and sites of earthen forts. I was surprised to find many of these ancient burial mounds in the center of modern towns which really shouldn't have surprised me since a good townsite is always a good townsite.

Oak Mound Reservation, Clarksburg, WV

Criel Mound, South Charleston, WV

Shawnee Reservation Mound, Dunbar, WV

I want to thank friends at the Serpent Mound Historical Site for setting me up with a Google Map collection of these sites that I could follow as I drove to the Shawnee National Forest. I made sure to spend time at each one and get at least a mile walk in. The human body is not made for extended car rides! Another time I'd like to visit many of the other mound sites and museums on this list. Only the Criel Mound had any real historical information posted - a beautiful set of NPS interpretive panels that answered all my questions. 

I explored along the Ohio River, walking many flat, hot miles to investigate several sites and one museum in and around Metropolis, IL, "Home of Superman," but home also to the excellent Massac Fort State Park. I was able to follow seven miles of bike and walking trails as well as remote farm roads. But yikes was it hot! The small museum at the park contained an excellent collection of stone tools that illustrated the scale of farming taking place in and around the Mississippian Kincaid Mounds complex which I visited just upriver from Fort Massac. I found this site to be pretty lonely, almost forgotten - even the interpretive panels at the small and remote parking lot had been sawn off and carted away. It represents to me the neglect of indigenous and ancient history in this country, an almost willful ignorance. 

Agricultural tools at the Massac Fort museum.

Hunting points in collection at Massac Fort museum, Metropolis, IL

The odd look of this raised mound is due to archeological step trenches.

This lifted complex sits above Ohio flood waters and many platforms were built atop it. 

One of several platforms that would have held a temple or governance buildings. 

While walking the lonely dirt roads around Kincaid Mounds along cut-off river braid lakes and wetlands, I thought about how this agricultural center marked the beginning of industrial agricultural on this continent. Large-scale farming is still ongoing with vast flat fields flung far out in every direction. Bald eagles wheeled overhead and deer raced across the open bend in the river. Modern corn grows now where ancient maize varieties once grew. Floods brought renewed soils to the bottomland. The mound complex, built upon its raised foundation of tons of earth carried to this site by the basketful, kept the town above the waters while the fields received their life-giving silts. 

This Google Maps sat-view shows the floods in relation to the complex.

My walks around these sites were more-or-less wanderings where I wasn't too worried about hiking any mileage but concentrated instead on being present in land memory. For someone who spends untold hours reading landscapes, I found these pre-contact archeological sites to be both fascinating in their secretiveness and for hiding-in-plain-sight. I didn't finish my second week due to getting sick ( I will another time) so Cahokia has to wait, but whether I was wandering around rock shelters or mounds, I was taken with how faded modern memory of ancient people is on this land. I was craving a good museum and found a small one at Massac Fort, but I was amazed at how much of a mystery these places still are to us and how much of this history is neglected.

Stone-lined grave, Millstone Bluff, Shawnee National Forest

Petroglyph, eagle/thunderbird. Millstone Bluff.

Depressions of "basements" of house sites.

Just an hour north of Kincaid Mounds in the Shawnee National Forest were Millstone Bluff and Rim Rock National Recreational Trail which contains Middle Woodland sites. I hiked a short (1 mile) bluff trail at Millstone through what had been a village site built on top of an escarpment. Stone-lined box graves could be seen just visible above forest leaf litter.  Ground depressions of home sites and a council house were scattered through the woods. In summer with all the greenery it took a sharp eye to see the layout of houses and commons areas. Petroglyphs carved onto the bluff were slowly disappearing under moss and lichen. I'm glad I spent the extra time to finally find the thunderbird figure.  At Rim Rock the imposing remains of a stout stone defensive wall enclosed the backside of the escarpment where a similar bluff top village had once been. No one knows why these small towns built defensive structures or occupied such high ground against attack. Who were their enemies? What were the threats? 

Defensive wall remains at Rim Rock, Shawnee National Forest.

I worry about the erasure of indigenous history, especially on public lands where we stand the best chance to learn about and appreciate it. The people have not vanished. They are not gone. They are today's Shawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Osage, Sioux, and Ho-Chunk. The trope of "mysteriously vanished people" is still bantered about, however, and it just isn't fair or accurate.  

Large rock shelter at Rim Rock, Shawnee National Forest, IL

The Smithsonian Institute sponsored many scientific expeditions into the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys in the 1800s and Cyrus Thomas' 1894 publication documented the combined research with over 100,000 mounds and earthworks.  Many 19th and early 20th century American archeologists and antiquarians, however, claimed he had undercounted that number by many thousands. Since Thomas' report, the majority of these sites have vanished under the plow, urban/suburban development, mining, highways, railroads, and fell victim to massive looting that completely destroyed thousands of mounds. As sites vanished, so the myth rose that these people were "long gone." In fact, many early 20th century historians claimed that these "lost" people were in no way related to modern indigenous people, unable or unwilling to recognize the living descendants of the Mississippian cultures. These myths have persisted unfortunately. 

One of my best lunch stops during the week was on the day of mounds and earthworks exploration.  Here I sat at a picnic table on a small river barge above the Ohio with visitors Ken and Darleen from northern Ohio who claimed Shawnee heritage. Catfishing was a long-standing tradition in their family and the E-town floating catfish pound and restaurant was a favorite place to eat when in the area. Darleen said she felt a strong connection to the people who lived here hundreds of years ago and was very proud to say her people were "still be here despite it all."  Truly, the BEST catfish I have ever had and real nice company to share it with. 

E-Town Catfish Pound and Restaurant 


Informational flyer for Millstone Bluff Archeological Site, Shawnee National Forest.

Informational flyer for Rim Rock National Recreational Trail.

Kincaid Mounds Field School (Southern Illinois University)

A nice (long) lecture on ancient indigenous cultures east of the Mississippi by Dr. Anna Guengerich (2015) with lots of art, architecture, and history to-date. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

IL: Shawnee National Forest - Garden of the Gods

 Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois represents the eastern-most extent of the Upper South region of the Ozarks. I wanted to scout the area to learn more about its prehistory, geology, and long distance River to River Trail. Each day I tried to hike 10 miles and spread my hiking out across several state park and USFS sites. I camped on a bluff over the Ohio River just a few miles from Metropolis, IL, Home of Superman (but a great walking and hiking area in its own right). Had it not been for getting sick and deciding to come home after one week of my two planned in the Shawnee Forest, I would have covered more ground but will plan to return and finish my explorations as well as hike the R2R. So here goes...

The Ohio River at the base of the bluff where I camped.

Top of the bluff base camp

I base camped on a lovely bluff overlooking the broad Ohio River on land owned by a local farmer. The Shawnee National Forest covers a lot of ground in Southern Illinois, but from this spot I was able to get to all the places on my list (for week one, anyway) in under an hour's drive. There are several great state park campgrounds that I could have stayed at either in the forest itself or aligned with it but I wanted to try out Hip Camp and loved the fact I was the only one at this beautiful bluff with use of the facilities at the house and barn down the farm lane. I was truly alone but had lots of non-human company including a pack of vocal Coyotes, a loud pair of nest Red-Shouldered Hawks, hooting Great Horned and whooing Barred Owls, screeching Great Crested Flycatchers, barking Tree Frogs, bellowing Bullfrogs, trilling American Toads, squawking Pileated Woodpeckers, and lots of curious White-Tailed Deer. It was, at times, louder than a crowded campground - all night long. Nevermind the almost sub-sonic thrumming of the triple diesel engine pushboats that plied the river night and day. 

Ohio River from the bottom of the bluff - lots of pushboats and barges all hours night & day

Eastern Fence Lizard in breeding colors

I spent a full day hiking the beautiful bluffs and rock formations of Garden of the Gods. At this site the trails intersect and become the River to River Trail for several miles of the R2R's 160 miles to the Mississippi. From the base of the bluffs I could imagine the ancient seas and wind-driven sands. Stark walls of sandstone showed layers of crossbedding, signs of moving water deposition or dune action. On top of the bluffs, water and wind have formed fantastic boulder gardens, slot canyons, and high cliffs. The bluff-top trail system was built by CCC boys in the 1930s, laid as pavements of sandstone slabs and rock-lined paths. 

Ancient Pennsylvania sandstone

Heavily block-jointed stacks

Liesegang Rings - concentric bands of iron oxide.

Sea-stack formations

My first steps on the R2R

Complex erosional histories go crazy here. 

The landscape in and around the Shawnee National Forest has never experienced the effects of glaciation, but it did feel the cold coming from the ice sheets to the north making for lush savanna rich with game animals that would later attract wandering bands of nomadic people.  As the climate warmed and seas formed, these hills faced a huge interior sea. Prior to the ice, continents shifted, faults popped and land masses dropped or rose. Oceans closed, new oceans opened, and seas disappeared from the interior of the what is now the Mid-West. The Ohio River established a braided path through the lowlands while interior streams poured through uplifted plateaus. Ice dams broke, canyons were carved in massive flooding. Savanna turned to forest. People moved from nomadic camps to settlements, some the size of modern cities. You get the sense that nothing is completely lost here. Everything is recorded in the rock and earth and streams. Big history, indeed. 

Trail junction

Woodland hoodoos

Anvil Rock

The trails I chose were either the R2R or wilderness trails that helped me form a loop to return to the bluffs where I parked. All were multi-use trails with high equestrian use. I had to step aside numerous times for trail riding groups and glop through muddy holes where no trail existed save for calf-deep mud. I came across two USFS field biologists who were doing salamander surveys of various sites. They admitted that trail conditions are poor in the Garden of the Gods area after heavy rains or snowmelt and that most local hikers stay clear of the place because of equestrian over-use. On the positive side, however, trails riders do keep trails open and maintained, especially where there are horse camps nearby or parking areas for trailers and trailer-camps. 

Forest HQ is about fifteen miles north of the forest on the edge of town. It was closed. 

Woodland Sunflower

The biologists suggested that I take a drive north to the USFS Shawnee National Forest headquarters for maps and brochures that could help me chose trails that were not as degraded as those in the Garden of the Gods area - or wait till things dry out a bit and come back. I decided to head to town after my hike but found HQ closed, like many federal agency buildings this COVID year. But I did get to meet a recent R2R thru-hiker who gave me excellent advice the best times of year to hike. As we stood in front of a well-stocked informational kiosk just outside the locked building she took a look at my plans for the week and thought I'd do fine for ten-mile-a-day hikes at the sites I chose. "The worst is behind you!" 


Guide to the Geology of the Garden of the Gods (Illinois University)

USFS Shawnee National Forest