Monday, August 27, 2012

Back to Badgerland

We had fleshed out a route back to Wisconsin that would break some new ground with a swing through some southeastern U.S. states with a loop through the Carolinas. However our calendar impressed upon us the need to get back to Wisconsin sooner rather than later. The Carolinas were ever so tempting but they would have to wait for another time. Besides, we didn't want to feel rushed. So, we developed a route that would take us along the west side of the Mississippi River and still break some new ground.

Lake Bruin SP site
Our first stop found us still in Louisiana at Lake Bruin State Park. Hwy 105 took us along the western side of the Atchafalaya River as far as Simmesport to pickup Hwy 15. Traveling the western side of the Mississippi River we passed through the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, The Red River State WMA, and a few units of bottomland woodlands of the Bayou Cocodrie NWR.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Lake Bruin State Park is locally known for its fishing opportunities. No doubt because of its 3,000 acres of lake surface. From our site we watched several Red-headed Woodpeckers working on nest cavities...and directly behind our site, a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers were hard at worked cleaning out their nest cavity. We had planned to stay two nights at Lake Bruin however, when we arrived we had been informed that in order to stay two nights, we would have to pack up and move to a second site. Well, if we were going to have to pack up and move it would be to move further north to another park. Have to say that the park was lovely but park staff were far from being terribly helpful.
The next day found us skirting the Tensas River NWR and entering Arkansas. Our first roadside break was in Lake Providence, AR at the Biyerly House Visitor Center. Probably one of the most charming visitor centers we've encountered in our travels, the Queen Anne Rival Period architecture captured our attention along with a most friendly volunteer hostess.

Biyerly House and boardwalk in Grant's Canal Park
Directly across from the Biyerly House was Grant's Canal Park complete with picnic tables and a gazebo shaded by tall cypress trees. A 600-foot long boardwalk provided ample space to stretch our legs. The volunteer in the visitor center joked about a visitor who had inquired about whether or not there were any snakes in the lake. Her response was, "If there's a lake, there's snakes" and proceeded to tell us how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous varieties. We chose to error on the side of caution and avoided any and all snakes (which there were plenty of in the lake).
Acting upon a local's advice we stopped again just up the road at The Dock Restaurant. Not much to look at from the outside but we found the Cajun style food delicious along with a nice view of the lake.
The "largest oxbow on the Mississippi" at twenty miles in length was out next stop as we parked at Lake Chicot State Park. Not unexpected the park's writeup listed fishing and boating as the first two main attractions...with birding listed as third. Most encouraging so we opted to stay to stay two nights and check out the local birds.

Box Turtle
Lake access wasn't a problem as the park had several large docks. And while the park's interpretive center had stimulating information about how the Civil War had impacted the area, we were more attracted to the one mile long Delta Woodlands Trail. This was where we encountered our first really good look at a box turtle. We're so used to seeing turtles in aquatic habitat that seeing one on a trail in a forest was a nice twist. Alas, the bird activity was slow but again, near our site in a pecan grove ringed with cypress, we saw many more Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpecker
Planning ahead to our next stop, we didn't have too many options for a state park so we settled on the Lady Luck Casino in Caruthersville, MO. Aloing with our previous stops in AR, stopping in MO allowed us to add both states to our "states we've trailed through" list.
We've stayed at other gambling casinos in other states and while these are not our first choice of desirable sites, they tend to be very inexpensive or at times free. Our route to Caruthersville nicked a section of the White River NWR and just barely missed the St. Francis National Forest. We crossed into Missouri north of Blytheville, AR.
We have no idea how well lady luck would have treated us at Lady Luck - we don't gamble. But the site was clean and comfortable the RV section was about half empty come nightfall. The next morning we stopped at The Round House Restaurant on our way out of town. Friendly service, inexpensive (if not memorable) portions but, MO doesn't have a statewide smoking ban. This made the atmosphere uncomfortable. If you smoke we can highly recommend The Round House. If not, you might want to check for other non-smoking dining out options in MO.

Lower Cache River
Ivory-billed Woodpecker display
120 miles up the road we now found ourselves on the east side of the Mississippi parked at the Hilltop Campground outside Goreville, IL. We've used the Hilltop on other routes back to WI so were we familiar with the area. In past visits we've hiked at nearby Ferne Clyffe State Park (loaded with Mourning and Worm-eating Warblers). Deciding to stay a little longer this time, one of our day's out included stops at two of the three main sections of the Cache River State Natural Area, an area that covered over 14,000 acres.

Big Cypress Tree Trail and Barred Owl
 Cache River afforded several opportunities for exploring a variety of habitats that included wetlands, cypress/tupelo swamps, upland hardwood forests and barrens. We found Barred Owls during a hike on a boardwalk in the Big Cypress Tree Trail. Newly arrived Dickcissels filled the fields around the Barkhausen-Cache River Wetlands Center...a must see stop. Sitting on one of the display shelves was a pair of mounted Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Some of our Wisconsin friends may recognize the name "Barkhausen". The property was named for Henry N. Barkhausen, a former director of Illinois Dept. of Conservation. The same Barkhausen family was responsible creating the Barkhausen Wildfowl Preserve in Brown County, WI.

Barkhausen Wetlands Center and Dickcissel
No visit to the Goreville area would have be complete without stopping at our favorite winery, Owl Creek Vineyard. Conveniently, our route through rolling countryside took us through prime Henslow's Sparrow habitat where we found several males singing on territory.

a break at Owl Creek Vineyard
Next up and only 126 miles away was Ramsey Lake State Park marked by rolling hills and a quiet wooded site. We needed a little quiet time following extensive exploring from the previous two days so we stayed pretty close to the RV and ventured out for a few local hikes.

Ramsey Lake SP site
Our last stop in Illinois was at Hickory Hollow (also known as Hickory Hills) Campground. A pleasant enough and convenient overnight before rolling Wisconsin on May 9, one day short of Carol's birthday. While at Marge's we celebrated Carol's birthday, sorted through some of our storage bins, and managed some birding at local hotspots. May 11 found us back in our "summer" home in Dale, WI at Todd and Cindy Ward's, looking forward to a full calendar of events and getting in touch with family and friends.

Dwarf Iris (top) and Trillium (below)

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