In 2014, we are launching a journey through the Illinois River Watershed.  We’ll start from the spring at the headwaters of the Illinois River and from there we’ll visit the headwaters for the main tributaries throughout the watershed.  It will be a year of discovery, of documentation, of learning and planning for the future.  The headwaters that we visit will be an opportunity for us to get a glimpse into the past and to envision the future.


January 28th marked our first step of this Journey.  The IRWP team converged upon the spring headwaters of the Illinois River just south of Hogeye, AR.

The Illinos River headwaters near Hogeye Arkansas

The Illinos River headwaters near Hogeye Arkansas

It was a sunny morning with temperatures hovering around 18 degrees.  Frigid overnight temperatures afforded the team the opportunity to see “frost flowers.”  These delicate structures occur when ice is pushed out of plants in long, thin layers.


A frost flower at the headwaters of Illinois River

A frost flower at the headwaters of Illinois River

The cold water flowed over limestone gravel mixed with pieces of sandstone and shale.  Cold fingers and frost-nipped noses were quickly forgotten as everyone became engrossed in the water, rocks, trees, and other parts of the river’s system.

During our visit, local residents Hal Brown and Dr. Art Brown described some of the history of the area, including the use of local rock in the construction of Hal’s home.


Hal Brown describing the topography of the Illinois River headwaters to the IRWP team

Hal Brown (center) describing the topography of the Illinois River headwaters to the IRWP team

Looking around the area while hearing about its history, it was only natural to wonder what this area might have been like in earlier times.  What was the watershed like and how was the land used 50 years ago.  Or 100?  What can we take away from those who came before us?

It’s easy to think about water and water quality issues when we think about watershed resources.  But the resources found in a watershed include much more than just the water.  The soil, the plants, and the animals that depend on the health of the watershed also make up some of our resources.  Historically, many of the plants that we may use for simply for landscaping today were important resources at the turn of the 20th century, and even before!

Native perennial flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees are attractive and helpful when used in the creation of rain gardens and other low-impact development (LID) features.  They help slow down runoff and filter water as it percolates into the groundwater system.  They are well adapted to regional weather patterns and can flourish without the use of chemicals.  They also attract butterflies and hummingbirds to provide hours of viewing enjoyment.

Many of these plants, however, were also valuable resources to native peoples and early settlers. Wild edibles such as blueberry and pawpaw provided fruits that could be eaten.  Acorns from oak trees could be turned into flour, used as animal feed, or even soaked and eaten by people during lean times.  Plants like sassafras and mountain mint were used to make teas.


Clockwise from upper left catmint - virginia mountain mint - witchhazel - hyssop

Not all plant resources were used simply for food.  Some native plants such as catmint, hyssop, oak bark and witch hazel were used for medicinal purposes such as digestive aids, allergy treatments, astringents, antiseptics, and sedatives. River cane was an important plant among the Cherokee Nation.  The stems were collected and used to make chairs, baskets, pipe stems, fishing rods, and shining clay pots.

The health of both our soil and water depend on responsible land-use practices.  As we think about both the historic and present uses of our watershed resources we must also look to the future.  What can we learn from the people who used these resources in 1914, in 1814, or 1714 and even earlier?  What will the watershed be like in 2114?


IRWP Team and Doctor Art Brown at Illinois River Headwaters

IRWP Team and Dr. Art Brown (far right) at Illinois River Headwaters

Become involved with the many dedicated partners of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership to help ensure its continued protection and improvement!  Visit to learn about volunteer opportunities and to sign up to receive our newsletter.


Follow along on our Watershed Journey through our board on Pinterest!


Related Posts:

Lake of the Watershed

2014: Making It Count

Watershed Landscape: Plant This… Not That!