A genuine Southern swamp in Illinois

Mark Guetersloh motored his johnboat slowly, very slowly, through the still water of the Cache River. Keenly aware that tree stumps lurking beneath the algae-covered surface have shredded many a propeller, he had a couple of oars, just in case.

Despite brilliant sunshine, an eeriness set in as Guetersloh cautiously and competently navigated us through waterlogged stands of soaring cypress and tupelo. The tableau was reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou, yet we were only 350 miles south of Chicago, still in the Land of Lincoln, not Louis XIV.

Chicagoans "are blown away when they get out here. You don't expect to see a cypress swamp like this in southern Illinois," said Guetersloh, a natural heritage biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The area south of Carbondale is best known for the Shawnee National Forest, and the neighboring Cache River State Natural Area (dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r5/cachervr.htm) remains relatively obscure, despite the fact that it sprawls across portions of five counties.

As the DNR describes it, "The area is nationally significant because it contains true Southern swamps at the Northern tier of their range."

Fall, primarily late October into mid-November, are an ideal time to visit. The cypress leaves turn a reddish rust color as the tupelo's fade to a pale yellow. These contrast with the tupelo's dark purple clusters of teardrop-shaped fruit.

The colors also can be seen from boardwalks and hiking trails, but to really experience the majesty of this swamp — the northernmost of its kind in the nation, according to Guetersloh — people really need to see it from the water, to be awed just as Mark Denzer was when he first visited nearly 30 years ago.

"The swamp bug got into me as a child, and I've held on to it ever since," he said.

A couple of years ago, the Champaign native moved to this southernmost tip of Illinois to open White Crane Canoe Rentals & Guide Service (237 Dean Lane, Ullin, Ill., 618-201-4090, whitecranerentals.com).

As the name implies, Denzer rents boats: $15 per person ($10 for kids) per day. For another $15, he and his faithful companion, dog Pa-jou (meaning "hello" in a Native American language), lead customers on an informative floating tour.

Cameras from two canoes clicked as Denzer paddled to the state's largest known bald cypress tree. At the waterline, it's a whopping 12 feet in diameter. Beneath the surface, it doubles in size. The tree is more than 1,000 years old.

"We're only 51/2 hours away (from Chicago)," Denzer said. "Most people don't realize that. It's still one of the biggest secrets of the Midwest, as far as areas that are unexplored by tourists."

With their blue, orange and red kayaks, Kerry Dickey, her son and mother traveled from the St. Louis area to see the swamp and its towering timber for themselves.

"I've read about them having cypress trees that were over 1,000 years old," Dickey said. "I've always wanted to come out and see them."

"It's pretty cool," she added. "I can't believe how few people are out here, which makes it nice and peaceful."

Before hitting the water, Dickey and her family studied the region's history during a stop at the state-run Barkhausen Wetlands Center (8885 Illinois Highway, Cypress, Ill.; 618-657-2064), just a few miles from the boat landing near Perks. Through educational exhibits, visitors learn about how the swamp was created by the Ohio River thousands of years ago and how, in relatively recent times, much of it was lost to commercial interests.

Local songwriters Curt Carter and Tom Connelley explain it well in "Voices of the Cache," their tune that's woven into a fascinating film screened at the visitor center:

They cleared the trees to raise their crops and their families

They brought in machines to dredge and drain the land

And as the years went by, the wetlands seemed to scatter …

Efforts to preserve what remained began in 1982, when private and public landowners agreed on a plan to save the habitat. Not everyone, however, was pleased.

"I remember my grandfather saying, 'It took us a hundred years to tame the land, and now you want to take it back,'" Guetersloh recalled, sitting in his boat just a few feet from the ancient cypress.

"What we're trying to do is protect the best of what's left. Because we've lost so much to modern drainage improvements, it's our job not to give up another inch of water."

ctc-travel@tribune.com