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East Fork Lake, in the Southern Region of Illinois, is a well-kept secret in a land of many secrets. The southern third of Illinois has been known as Little Egypt since the early 1800s. Exactly when it gained the nickname and the true reasons are lost to history, but historians suspect it had to do with the area being the confluence of some of the country's largest rivers: the Mississippi, Ohio, Wabash, Big and Little Muddy, Little Wabash, Saline, and Cache. Many early towns in the area hold classic Egyptian names, such as Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak. Others claim that, because the area was spared the severe winter weather of the 1830s, settlers from northern Illinois traveled here to buy grain to replace their failed crops. The similarity to the story in the biblical Book of Genesis caused people to call the area Egypt. Whatever the reason, the people of the area to this day still proudly tell all comers they are "from Little Egypt."
Although well supplied with rivers, much of southern Illinois has few lakes. In order to maintain a constant water supply, most towns have constructed reservoirs to serve residents' water needs. The city of Olney has built three, with East Fork Lake being the newest and largest by far. Vernor lake, with 45 acres, was built in the early 1900s, only to be replaced by 136-acre Borah Lake in 1956. By 1970, East Fork Lake's 934 acres had taken over as main water source for the City of Olney. The city owns all three lakes and has provided parks and pubic areas on each for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike. The lakes are accessible to boat traffic with a permit purchased from the city. The two smaller lakes have some restrictions on boat motor size and speeds; information can be obtained from City Hall and the satellite office on East Fork Lake.
East Fork Lake is home to most water sports. Public access docks are available on the north shore of the lake near the campground area. Water skiing, tubing, sailing and powerboating are enjoyed along with canoeing and kayakng. There is no swim area designated on East Fork Lake, but swimming is allowed from boats only in one area along the south shore. Nearby Borah Lake does have a swimming area, and the city of Olney has a new pool with waterslide and water umbrella.
Fishing is where East Fork Lake really shines: many anglers claim East Fork contains more large bass than any other lake in Illinois. Bass tournaments are held here regularly throughout the warmer months, but local anglers know both Vernor and Borah also contain plenty of whoppers. As a result, it's surprisingly easy to catch one's limit on all of the three lakes. An excellent stocking program assures the optimum number of fish remain available. Other fish in the reservoir include black crappie, bluegill, channel catfish, gizzard shad, largemouth bass, longear sunfish, red shiner, redear sunfish, threadfin shad, walleye, warmouth, white crappie and yellow bullhead. The many tree-lined coves and bays provide excellent fish habitat and are a small-boater's and paddler's delight. Non-boaters will find several fine shore-fishing spots along the southern shore. Much of the shoreline is undeveloped, making East Fork Lake the perfect lake for floating lazily along the shore enjoying the birds and wildlife.
Day use areas on East Fork Lake include Kiwanis/ Rotary Park, Millers Grove Park, and Bird Haven. All three offer picnic shelters and electricity. Some provide playground equipment and ball fields. Bird Haven was developed by Robert Ridgway, a naturalist, scientist, artist, and author in the employ of the Smithsonian. A world-renowned ornithologist, Ridgeway and his wife lived on the property and encouraged the residence of both birds and specialized plants. Unfortunately, much of the original property was destroyed when East Fork Lake was built. The remainder has been preserved for nature lovers to observe flora and fauna native to the area. Private RV parks are located along the north shore.
The area around East Fork Lake has a variety of lodging opportunities. Vacation rentals in the form of private residences, motels, guest cabins and lodges are plentiful in the immediate vicinity. Even non-fishermen can find many points of interest around East Fork Lake and Olney. The city of Olney offers an aqua-park, several public ball fields, tennis courts, the Carnegie Museum, and Heritage House Museum. Olney is well supplied with shopping and services, including a movie theater and community college. Two excellent golf courses are located very near East Fork Lake. One of the better known local attractions is the breeding population of white squirrels nesting in city parks and older residential areas.
A few miles north of Olney, the Newton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area supports several flocks of now-rare prairie chickens, as well as walking trails and fishing. Sam Parr State Fish and Wildlife Area, also near Newton, offers camping, fishing, hiking trails and hunting in season. Twelve miles east of Olney, Red Hills State Park is the highest point of land between St. Louis and Cincinnati. The adjacent 627-acre Chauncey Marsh Nature Preserve contains the best remaining example of what is called a Wabash Border Marsh Ecosystem. In late July and early August, beautiful pink and white hibiscus and hairy rose mallow are in bloom. Camping is available here.
East Fork Lake is 120 miles east of St. Louis and 30 miles west of Vincennes, Indiana. Primarily a farming area, the people are friendly and the pace somewhat laid-back. A strong sense of community is represented in one of the traditions common to this part of the country: the chowder. Similar to a New England chowder dinner, the chowder here is more of a community event that includes a meal. Usually scheduled after garden crops begin to ripen, the "chowder" -- usually including salt pork, potatoes and the local secret ingredients -- is cooked in huge pots for a community meal. Often accompanied by a festival of some type, competition between communities is fierce as to who makes the best chowder. No late summer visitor should pass up the chance to sample the local chowder.
Real estate is available in the East Fork Lake area. From residential lots to large farmland tracts, something can be found here to suit nearly any buyer. So, plan a vacation to East Fork Lake to become acquainted with the area. You may decide to come back every year for the local chowder -- and the bass!
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