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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Tunnel Hill

Our canoeing program that I wrote about last week only had two full days of activities, and since it is quite a drive to get there, we decided to stay a couple of extra days on our own and explore the area further. We drove to Vienna, IL, and bicycled on the Tunnel Hill rail trail. The whole trail is 45 miles long, mostly in the Shawnee National Forest. It begins in Harrisburg, IL, traverses the sandstone bluffs and ends in Karnak, IL, along the Cache River, with a 2.5 mile spur that takes you out to the Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center. We didn’t ride the entire length, but we did see a good portion of it.

The first day we rode from Vienna south. Along the way we pedaled mostly in the shade of the surrounding trees. The trail follows the old Norfolk Southern railbed. The rails have been removed, of course, and the trail surface is hard-packed crushed limestone. The afternoon we were there we saw more deer using the trail than people! That could be because it was late afternoon, fairly warm, and a Thursday with a predicted possibility of rain. The deer were grazing in several places along the edge of the trail and sauntered away casually as we approached. A box turtle impeded our progress temporarily as we stopped to photograph him. We passed Heron Pond, part of the Cache River State Natural Area, where we saw a heron and several red-headed woodpeckers, along with lots of red-winged blackbirds. The opposite side of the trail was land owned by the Nature Conservancy, so the trail was quite scenic, often crossing over creeks and streams as we progressed. Due to the time and possibility of wet weather we only biked about 7.5 miles down the trail before turning around and retracing the route back to the car. A couple of indigo buntings flew across the trail in front of us.

The next day we left from Vienna again, this time heading north. Before we left Vienna we took time to inspect the monument at the site where the bike trail intersects with the Trail of Tears. In 1828-1839 the U.S. government forced thousands of Cherokee out of their homeland in the Smokey Mountains to resettle in Oklahoma. When they arrived is southern Illinois they were stopped for the winter by the frozen rivers, and many died there as they waited for the thaw to come. The monument is a totem pole surrounded by the flags of the states the Trail of Tears crossed.

Again we were shaded by towering trees, and as we moved north the bluffs became more evident. Streams cut through the rock and we crossed more and more trestle bridges, the longest one being the Breeden Trestle which is 450 long and 90 feet above the rocky creek below.

Since we set out mid-morning and it was a clear, cool day we saw more people on the trail, but in no place was it crowded. About seven miles out we heard a loud motor that got stronger and stronger as we continued down the trail. This contrasted drastically with the peaceful atmosphere we had encountered everywhere else on the trail. I surmised that it must be a mine or a quarry, but I was wrong: it was a giant hedge clipper! A major power line crossed the trail at one point, and the trees needed to be trimmed to keep them away from the lines, but because this was a rocky, hilly, and remote area, it was fairly inaccessible. The solution was a helicopter hovering over the trees with a sawing device dangling beneath it methodically moving up and down the tree line, keeping the branches away from the lines. The cuts were so straight and even that the trees looked more like a giant hedge flanking the power lines on either side. That was quite a sight! Fortunately the bluffs soon absorbed the racket and we returned to our peaceful journey.

Nine miles from Vienna is the high point of the trail from which is gets its name. The original tunnel built in 1872 was over 800 feet long, but a section of it collapsed in 1929, shortening it to 543 feet today. Because it was a rail line, the grade is fairly constant, a mere 2% grade, so even though this was the high point physically, it was no strain to get there. Having lights on your bike is recommended, but even then you can lose your perspective in the tunnel and get too close to the wall, so walking through the tunnel is a good option.

We turned around shortly after the tunnel to start our return trip so in all we covered about one half of the total trail. Unfortunately it was then time to say good-bye to southern Illinois until next time.