Nothing is certain but death and Taxodium distichum.
That's the Latin name for bald cypress, the swamp-dwelling tree that can live for centuries -- or longer. While these trees aren't as old or tall as the giant redwoods of California, that doesn't make them any less impressive.
Two of these cypress stand at the end of a short trail at Cache River State Natural Area near Karnak, Illinois. Starting at Big Cypress Access, an appropriate name, the 250-foot trail winds through a series of big trees.
But these towering trees are babies compared with the pair of monuments at the end.
Both of these trees are supported by wide buttresses that spread out at the bottom of the trunks. They look out of place in this part of the country, like something transplanted from the Amazon Basin or even Middle Earth. Yet bald cypress is a native species to the swamps at the far southern end of Illinois.
The smaller tree features openings in the trunk, making it possible to peek inside.
Crawling inside is a bit tricky, but I was able to get a photo looking straight up through the trunk.
The larger tree, meanwhile, features a height of 100 feet and a circumference of 43 feet.
Those measurements would be enough to make this the largest bald cypress in Illinois. However, there's a slight catch. According to the official rules for ranking champion trees, the circumference must be measured 4.5 feet above the ground. This particular tree isn't very wide at that point, thanks to the way that the buttresses are tapered, so it misses out on the chance to be crowned a state champion.
Despite the technicality, this tree does have a solid claim to the title of oldest tree in the Cache River basin. It has an estimated age of more than 1,000 years.
No bald cypress would be complete without a collection of "knees" surrounding the trunk. Cypress knees are a source of debate to scientists, who haven't been able to reach a consensus on their purpose. The conventional wisdom is that the knees allow the tree to obtain oxygen when the ground is submerged in seasonal floodwaters. Another leading theory, however, argues that the knees, tied into extensive root systems, provide additional support for the massive trees.
Whatever their purpose, just be sure not to trip over them!
The Cache River area features many access points and hiking trails (more on that in future blogs). Nevertheless, with its easy walk and stupendous trees, the Big Cypress Access is the best place to start.
From Cape Girardeau, take Highway 146 east through McClure, Ware, Jonesboro, and Anna. Continue on Highway 146 past I-57 to the intersection with Highway 37. Turn right and follow Highway 37 south to Highway 169 and turn left. Just before reaching the town of Karnak, turn left on Urbana Road. This paved road soon gives way to gravel and silently becomes Porter House Road. Look for the parking area for Big Cypress Access on the right. Follow the short gravel trail to the big trees, which are hard to miss. (Note: It's possible to take a shorter route along the elusive "Paducah shortcut" that would shave off a few miles, but those directions are much more complicated.)