Killdeer chicks raced noisily along the sand beach. A beaver glided on the glassy surface, then dove for cover with a slap of its tail. The only people watching at Lake Boutin in Trail of Tears State Park on this early spring evening was a father and son strolling the shoreline.
That will change next month when one of southeast Missouri’s favorite swimming beaches and fishing holes fully reopens after being closed for complete renovation and repair after a 12-inch rain in 2008 extensively damaged the lake’s manmade dam.
“On a summer weekend, it’s absolutely packed,” Denise Dowling, natural resource manager of the park, said of the 24-acre lake. “It’s a free place to swim. Local people love it.”
The dam has been lowered and strengthened and the beach has been renovated. The lake has also received a fresh stocking of crappie and catfish, courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The lake, which will reopen its designated swimming area in mid-May, is named for Charles Boutin, a member of the State Park Board in the 1950s. Local leaders persuaded Cape Girardeau County to pass a $150,000 bond issue in 1956. The money was used to purchase some 3,400 acres of ruggedly beautiful land along the Mississippi River.
The people wanted to preserve as a park the towering limestone river bluffs, with their panoramic views of the river, and the deep wooded hollows full of unusual trees and wildflowers.
“The forest has more of an Appalachian flavor,” Dowling said. “There are tulip poplar, cucumber magnolia and American beech trees. The wildflowers include trillium, cranefly orchids, toothwort, the rare pennywort and a variety of milkweeds – we actually found a species of milkweed new to Missouri a couple of years ago.”
Because the park is on the Mississippi Flyway, the commuter lane for millions of migrating birds in spring and fall, it is a favorite for birdwatchers. Bald eagles, osprey and Mississippi kite can be seen from the bluff overlooks.
“In the campground, you can sit on a chair, get your binoculars and bird watch,” Dowling said. “I sat on the boat ramp one evening and watched the moon come up over the river. It was awesome.”
The supporters of the bond issue used to purchase the land, and donate it to the state, had one other request. They wanted the park to be named Trail of Tears for one of the more tragic episodes in American history.
A memorial to lives lost
In the winter of 1838-1839, U.S. soldiers led some 16,000 members of the Cherokee tribe on an 800-mile forced marched that relocated them from their homelands in the Southeast to Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way.
“They were in groups of about 1,000 and nine of those groups came through here,” Dowling said. “They were using ferries to cross the river, but it was an unusually bad winter and they had a lot of ice floes that stopped the boats. They camped on both sides of the river.”
The park’s visitor center tells the story, and includes a quote from an unidentified soldier: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
The park includes a pagoda that marks the grave of Nancy Bushyhead Walker Hildebrand, a Cherokee woman thought to have been buried at the spot.
“There is one known grave site in the park,” Dowling said. “There are probably more. We just don’t try to go out and find them out of respect. That one grave site serves as a memorial.
“We were fortunate that the citizens of the county knew how important this history was and wanted the park to be named Trail of Tears.”
A hidden, secluded jewel
While Lake Boutin is a main attraction, Trail of Tears State Park offers many other recreational activities.
The park has four trails totaling more than 15 miles, with primitive campsites for backpackers and sections open to equestrian use. The most popular hike is Sheppard Point Trail, which heads through steep ravines up a ridge to a bluff top overlooking the river. Sheppard Point Trail was originally two miles, but repairs from the 2008 rainstorm rerouted the trail and extended it to total three miles. “You have to work to get up there, but the overlook is really beautiful,” Dowling said.
The park has two campgrounds, including 17 sites with electric in a grove of trees near the river. “It’s right on the Mississippi, and a quiet place to camp, except for the train; you can watch the tug boats go by,” Dowling said. “It’s one of those hidden, secluded jewels.”
The Department of Natural Resources has set aside a particularly outstanding example of the river-break landscape as Vancill Hollow Natural Area, 300 acres in the middle of the park. Indian Creek Wild Area is 1,300 acres of wilderness that preserves the jungle-like bottomlands of Indian Creek and sheltered hollows that are home to ferns, mosses and flowering plants. The nine-mile Peewah Trail explores the wild area.
“Spring is my absolute favorite time here with all the wildflowers – the park is covered with ferns,” Dowling said. “But I’m learning to appreciate fall.
“Trail of Tears State Park is not just about the history. There’s a lot you can do here. You can just drive through and see how steep those valleys are, and the river breaks are really impressive. It’s a beautiful park.”