My name is mud: Filming of new documentary gets bogged down
I didn’t expect to make a film about wetlands by driving into one. But that’s just what I did two Fridays ago.
Let me explain. I headed south out of Chicago early on the morning of Dec. 2, on my way to “the Bailey Tract,” 2,290 acres of wetlands about 100 miles south of Champaign. The goal was to film some of the wintering cranes and waterfowl at the location for my documentary, “Fluddles,” which is due out in Fall 2023. The thing is, this is quite a remote area, and it’s fairly new so it has very limited signage and public presence. It was the start of “The Magic Stump Movie Weekend,” so I needed to be in Mattoon by nightfall to show the film, which just came out in September.
I had a couple of location pins saved where others had seen interesting birds in the tract. As it turned out, the pins weren’t especially precise, just in the general vicinity of the wildlife areas, some not near wetlands at all. I decided I’d try the back roads into the tract, thinking that I’d eventually encounter what I anticipated—a vast section of shallow water.
I drove south down Higgin Switch Road in the general direction of the first pin. I made a left onto 400 North, a gravel east-west road in Richland County that appeared to head right into or across Fox Creek. It was a scenic, wooded road that skirted some ponds before it dead-ended into the creek. It might have been possible to drive across at certain times of year—and judging by the tire marks, some folks had—but I decided to turn around and resume my search. There was some mud at the turnaround point and with temperatures near 50 it wasn’t frozen at all.
Here’s where I should share that I drive a Prius. It’s a wonderful car, but with its low-slung profile, front-wheel drive, and 76-horsepower engine, it really can’t handle snow or mud. Still, it came as a surprise when the car started spinning its wheels halfway into the U-turn. Every time I revved the engine, the car settled deeper into the mud. Forward, reverse, it made no difference. I was sunk into my chassis, with quarter panels splattered in glacial outwash clay that would make a ceramicist jealous. For eons water has washed down the creek through Richland County before meeting the Little Wabash River and trickling all the way to the Big Wabash and into the Ohio.
I stepped out of the car and into the mire to assess the situation. Pushing the car would be useless. I tried a piece of cardboard and nearby river cobbles for traction to no avail. Next, I looked up the nearest towing company, about 10 miles away in Olney (ALL-nee). I gave a call and spoke with the bemused owner of the firm, and he wanted no part of the situation. “I’ll pay,” I said. “I’m not interested,” he replied. “I’m busy and I don’t want my wrecker to get stuck out there. Ask the farmer there.”
I thought about any homes I’d seen on the way down Higgin Switch and 400 N. I recalled a couple, but they were few and far between. Then there was the question of whether anyone would be home, have the ability to help, or even want to help. On the other hand, I hoped I might run into a someone with the hospitable demeanor of rural life.
I called birder Ron Bradley, who lives about 90 minutes away (and by the way, appears in “The Magic Stump”). I knew he had birded the area and wondered if he knew someone close by. He did, and ultimately I ended up calling a repair shop that never did pick up the phone. It was a long shot, but worth a try. (Thanks, Ron, for your help.)
At this point, it was time to venture out on foot, so I started west on 400. I came to a homestead pretty quickly, not as far as I remembered driving. There were a couple of cars parked out front and the light was on. I walked up the drive and knocked on the storm door.
A mustachioed 30-something answered the door. I explained the situation, and he was glad to help—it was almost as if he was expecting me. “It happens surprisingly often,” he told me later. He had a day off work and was taking care of a newborn. “Baby’s sleeping now. Let me call my neighbor,” he said.
Within minutes, a big pickup truck appeared with an older man at the wheel. He stayed with the baby while my helper and I jumped in the cab. We eased back down the road toward the Prius. Within minutes, our vehicles were tethered together by a basic metal chain. He backed up the truck while I revved my engine. The ol’ Prius came free and planed out on the safety of gravel two-track. I was effusively grateful.
It ended up being a great weekend, with two film screenings and many fun sightings as part of the field trip with Red Hill Birding. Did I find any interesting birds at the Bailey Tract? Yes, and it’s funny the way things work sometimes because the experience may have a material impact on the narrative of “Fluddles.” There will be more time to discuss that in the future, once all the mud is cleaned off my car and the Illinois soil has long since frozen over for the season.
And I swear this wasn’t a cheap stunt to draw attention to “Fluddles.” 😀 But regarding “Fluddles,” this is the second film in the Prairie State series about Illinois’ natural wonders. All we have is one very brief teaser as of now (above), but I expect we’ll have a trailer soon.
A “fluddle” is a term birders have given to flooded agricultural fields. They provide habitat and forage for a diversity of waterfowl and other species such as pheasants, cranes, plovers, and more. There’s a movement afoot that celebrates the natural beauty of these areas, which were once widespread in Illinois.
(If you’d like to learn more, or support this project and get your name in the credits of the film, you may click here.)
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