Horseshoe Curve, 10 minutes outside Altoona, Pennsylvania, is a world-famous National Historic Landmark — so the signs say. It’s not on the beaten track.
When my family used to visit their families in the Altoona/Bellwood area, sometimes we’d make a side trip to Horseshoe Curve. I still have a souvenir calendar from way back when. Note that it was not “World Famous Horseshoe Curve,” but plain old Horseshoe Curve.
I don’t think we paid admission. My dad wouldn’t have paid, or would have paid only a nominal fee, for something as nonessential as a trip to Horseshoe Curve. I remember only that at some point, I’m not sure when, he commented how “overgrown” it’d become, which made it hard to see much.
In September 1988, after I’d been absent for awhile from Pennsylvania, my aunt took me to see it again. I think the only way to get up then was steps, difficult for her because she’d lost a kneecap to a car accident. You can see why my dad said you couldn’t see much for the trees and brush.
In the early 1990s, a visitor center/museum was built, along with a funicular to get up to the top for those who can’t or don’t want to handle the steps. Now there’s an admission charge to see the Curve, more if you want to go into the visitor center/museum. You can go up to the Curve only during the posted season and hours. It’s pricey for a family, and there’s no break for Blair County residents.
I’ve seen Horseshoe Curve as a passenger on Amtrak 42 (eastbound) and 43 (westbound), the Pennsylvanian. On this visit I didn’t, however. A freight train accident with a vehicle ahead of the Capitol Limited had made me miss the connection with the eastbound Pennsylvanian, so I’d had to take Greyhound from Pittsburgh to Altoona. On the way back, the Curve is dark when the Pennsylvanian passes at around 5:30 p.m.
The public can’t access Horseshoe Curve during the colder months. When we made a quick stop the day after Christmas, we just looked up. I’ll have to make a trip sometime in late spring, summer, or early fall for a real visit.
Countless trains have passed downhill toward Altoona and points east since Horseshoe Curve was finished in 1854, engineered by J. Edgar Thompson.
Kittanning Run passes under Horseshoe Curve from the north. It’s too bad there’s not a more bucolic fence to protect the public from falling in.
Of course you want to hear that water flowing. The odd thing is . . . I don’t recall anything but the reservoir. You’d think I’d remember hearing or seeing rushing water, but I don’t.
Pushmi-pullyu pairs of black-and-white Norfolk Southern helper engines go back and forth on Horseshoe Curve all day. They’re needed going uphill to pull/push and going downhill to help control speed/brake. You don’t want a long, heavy, fully loaded train speeding downhill around a curve. These two are headed back up the mountain.
It’s Pennsylvania, so you will see coal trains. You can imagine how much they weigh. This one is going downhill east toward Altoona in Logan Valley.
If you watch the Virtual Railfan webcam, you may see “heritage units.” I’m not sure that’s what this engine is but it’s different from the usual Norfolk Southern engines and has a vintage air.
One day the Pennsylvanian was hauling this Ohio Central Sugar Creek car. It may be the vintage car that you’ll often see sitting at the Pittsburgh station.
Horseshoe Curve is gorgeous in autumn. Here the Pennsylvanian is headed down (eastbound) to Altoona, on time. The Pennsylvanian usually has six cars, but you may see seven around busy holidays like Thanksgiving. This train, between Pittsburgh and New York, partially fills the gap left by the elimination of the Broadway Limited, which ran between Chicago and New York. It’s partly funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and is popular with Amish and Mennonite travelers.
Poor scans of photos taken in 1988 remind me of my dad’s move to Pennsylvania. We had visited family there at least once a year during most of my childhood. As my dad got older, my parents and their family members started to have health issues, people died, and I went to college, we stopped going. By the time I returned to the Altoona area, it seemed strange, yet familiar. What felt oddest was getting there mostly by Amtrak vs. wending our way through southern New York and Pennsylvania on Rte. 219. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, with my mother and many of her family already gone.
Since it was one of my first visits in a long time, my dad’s sister took us to several area attractions. I’d never seen Baker Mansion. The kitchen trough for fresh fish fascinated me. I also recall servants’ quarters at the top of the house. I imagined helpless cooks and maids trapped in the attic while fire raged below, the small windows useless for escape.
We also went to an overlook, but I paid little attention to the name (if it was mentioned) or the location. We didn’t have Google Maps in our pockets for reference 30 years ago. I remember only the loveliness of the view — and that when I went to look over, I slid on shale or gravel and tumbled partway down the hill, my fall slowed, then stopped by a tangle of brush. I laughed, but wouldn’t be surprised if this was how my fear of falling down hillsides began.
During my Christmas visit in December 2018, I mentioned the photo to my cousin and his wife, who agreed I must be talking about “Wopsy” (Wopsononock Mountain). It’s directly across from Pinecroft.
From the top of Wopsy, we could see the housing development that replaced the woods on their hill, the old landfill, and perhaps a corner of their house or garage. I realized that the towers I see from their road are where we were standing on Wopsy.
Where once there were wooden fence posts there’s a long, high guardrail covered with grafitti; my cousin feels the area’s not that safe. Devil’s Elbow, which we may or may not have passed, is supposedly haunted by the “White Lady of Wopsononock.” If you don’t believe in the White Lady, you can check out Mindhunter on Netflix about the murder of Betty Jean Shade, whose body was found in an informal trash dump on Wopsy.
What made the death of Betty Jean Shade so different was the violence to her body, and in an effort to determine who killed her, investigators, through the aid of former FBI Agent Dale Frye, who served the Altoona area, turned to the fledgling FBI effort at its Quantico, Va., facility, which was attempting to perfect psychological profiling.
Phil Ray, Altoona Mirror
Betty Jean Shade was found in 1979, nine years before my visit. If I had known that, I don’t think I would have smiled so broadly. But the overlook is still beautiful.
Once or twice a year I travel by Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station — not cross country, just to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Capitol Limited, Pennsylvanian, and Wolverine routes pass through cities, small towns, farmlands, and rusted sections of the Rust Belt. I ride the Wolverine during the day. The journey east on the Capitol Limited is all after dark, but on the return west we are in Indiana when morning dawns.
Steel and power
Amtrak passes through northwest Indiana, where in the late 1800s and early 1900s much of one of the nation’s most diverse ecosystems, the Indiana Dunes, was bulldozed over or carted off (see Hoosier Slide). Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability shows the making of places such as Gary, Indiana, and the long-term costs of short-term gains.
I’m not sure Amtrak goes through Gary, but it stops at Hammond-Whiting, where the view from the train overlooks like an industrial post-apocalypse. That’s the nature of trains — industry and train tracks go together like chips and salsa.
If you were to travel through only northwest Indiana by Amtrak, you’d think the world is made up of industry, utility poles, and casinos. By car, you’d also see billboards for fireworks and adult stores, and countless personal injury and illness attorneys.
On the train, I sleep sporadically. One early morning I woke up to find the train stopped near this structure and garish lighting in Cleveland, Ohio. What could be more representative of industrial eastern America?
Weeds flourish, trees struggle, oily water lies in pools, buildings and train cars rust aggressively, and stuff is strewn everywhere. Human beings seldom appear, although parked cars indicate their presence. In black and white, in color, in summer, in winter, the view is bleak.
A bit of nature
I’m fascinated by where cemeteries appear — sometimes unexpectedly in the woods or at state parks like the Smith cemetery at Kankakee River State Park, Illinois or the Porter Rea Cemetery at Potato Creek State Park, Indiana. This one is on Mineral Springs Road in Indiana, where I94 passes over the train tracks. I couldn’t tell at the time, but it belongs to Augsburg Church, a Lutheran church in Porter. It’s about two miles from Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, which are part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, past most of the worst of the industrial areas.
When I see puffy clouds, an eggshell sky, and verdant trees on a June day in Michigan, I can’t wait to get to my destination to soak it all in.
Whether you call it Cellular Field, Guaranteed Rate Field, or Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox is sometimes a surprise highlight for Amtrak passengers. If you look at the satellite view of the ballpark, though, you won’t believe the number of train tracks to its west. On the starboard side of the train, eastbound Amtrak passengers can enjoy the view of Universal Granite and Marble.
Apparently a scrapyard in Michigan City, Indiana, has mastered Monty Python’s art of “putting things on top of other things.”
I couldn’t figure out the purpose of this attractive building with cupola, but was surprised to realize later it’s in Michigan City, Indiana, not far from the Old Lighthouse Museum. The Hoosier Slide mentioned above was across from the lighthouse on Trail Creek where it empties into Lake Michigan, near this building. That would have been something to see from an Amtrak train. Now the Hoosier slide site is covered by a NIPSCO coal-fired plant. Progress. Rest in peace, Hoosier Slide. May we not forgot what we have lost and never known.
This wavy fence in Michigan City, Indiana, baffled me. I’ve seen them elsewhere, I think, but I don’t know the purpose other than aesthetic.
There may be millions of nondescript, decaying buildings across the U.S., but I haven’t spotted many more nondescript than this one.
The appearance of this building belies its message that Dowagiac, Michigan, is the “Grand Old City.”
I noticed this long red building on the edge of a small stand of trees in Parma, Michigan, east of Battle Creek. In the satellite view, a dirt road from another building, likely a house, is the only access to it. I’m intrigued by the tall chimney.
With no immediate neighbors, this house, likely part of a tree farm, looks lonelier than it is.
Farm buildings dot the back roads, and rails, of middle America.
Some houses in Pennsylvania towns like Johnstown are spaced closely together, with nearly touching side walls or an alley almost too narrow to squeeze through.
These houses on a hill are farther apart. I wonder if they would have been high enough to escape the Great Flood of 1889—or any since. The area’s geography makes it prone to flooding even without breaking dams.
Johnstown, too, has nondescript commercial buildings.
Some Amtrak stations, like the modern monstrosity in Ann Arbor, are cold and utilitarian. Next door, Ann Arbor’s former station has been converted into an upscale restaurant, Gandy Dancer.
Old school stations remain in use in Michigan and Indiana.
Often there’s not much to see in the dark, but I spotted the same rotting cars from the EB Capitol Limited. Nearby I found a National New York Central Railroad Museum. If they’re intended to be exhibits, they may use a little work.
Coming and Going
The morning Dan Ryan Expressway from Amtrak.
This is what you, and New Buffalo, Michigan, look like to an Amtrak passenger.
As children, we liked to watch for the caboose at the end of long freight trains. When the news pronounced the demise of the caboose, I was distraught. When I can, I watch the scenery recede from the last car of the Pennsylvanian, unimpeded by a caboose, remembering the miles of track and the cities, towns, stations, farms, taverns, fields, rivers, creeks, houses, plants, and stores behind me — and ahead of me on the return.
Finally, all journeys must have an end. Mine passes over the Calumet River through Chicago’s steel history.
After sitting on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited for several of the wee hours in Cleveland, I realized I was going to miss the Pennsylvanian (7:30 a.m. from Pittsburgh). At the Pittsburgh station I found out a freight train ahead of the Capitol Limited had hit a vehicle.
Amtrak sent us over to Greyhound, so I got to see the scenery from Pittsburgh to Altoona by bus. The skies were gray and bleak.
Here’s the coal-fired Conemaugh Generating Station, which puts out an impressive cloud. It looks thick enough to walk on.
Still, along the way the snow-dusted hills beckon.
I was reading an episode in Anne of Avonlea in which a terrifying black cloud emerges on a sunny May day, bringing wind and dropping hail, leaving devastation behind, when I left to meet J in Homewood. It was windy enough that my Fitbit Blaze was fooled into recording that I had climbed 12 floors (in reality, a few steps).
After lunch at Redbird Cafe, I noticed the buildup of impressive clouds. The day I thought would be sunny and comfortable was turning into crazy weather day, with “snow” making a brief appearance in the AccuWeather Minute by MinuteTM forecast before changing to “rain.”
While at the Three Rivers rest stop on I80, I saw I’d gotten a call from the I&M Canal Boat folks—the mule-pulled canal boat ride I’d booked had been canceled due to wind. We decided to head to the Starved Rock area anyway, possibly to go on one of the next day’s rides if the weather were better.
While it’d been windy at the rest stop, it hadn’t seemed extraordinary. Now, however, we noticed dried corn husk debris from the fields whipping around us, and leafy twigs were starting to litter the interstate. J. even ran into a small fallen branch—no time to stop or swerve. I half expected to see a skinny-legged witch fall out of the sky or Conrad Veidt to appear, saying, “Wind! Wind! Wind! WIND!”
After a stop at Jeremiah Joe, we checked out the river, which had been calm as a mirror at the end of July. The wind, about 25 mph with 50 mph gusts, was rippling the water toward the southern shore. I thought about the mules and wondered if they could get blown off the towpath. On E. 875th Rd., a government truck blocked our lane because a tree had fallen down the hillside—presumably torn up by the wind.
Given the wind and the corresponding chill, hiking didn’t appeal to me, so we went to Starved Rock Lodge for dinner. By the time we left the lodge around 6 p.m., the wind had died down, leaving behind torn branches and twigs and a strangely calm evening.
21 October 2018: Ottawa, Utica, Lasalle
Overnight, I saw the temperature dip to 23ºF. Brrr. And it was 90ºF only a couple of weeks ago.
Sunday dawned sunny and brisk, so there was an excuse to go to Jeremiah Joe after breakfast and a soak in the spa.
The next detour was Lone Point Shelter at the eastern end of Starved Rock State Park. I walked out on the floating dock, where two pre-teen boys, one with a little white dog, did their best to make me seasick. One boy said something about falling in, so I told them the carp would eat them. One of them looked skeptical. “Carp don’t have teeth,” he said without confidence. I resisted pointing out they wouldn’t need teeth at a certain point of decay. Meanwhile, a big boat chugged between the opposite shore and an island. The size surprised me until I realized the river accommodates massive barges, of course.
We stopped at Nonie’s Bakery and Cafe in Utica to pick up sandwiches to go for dinner on the road since we were going to get a late start back. Nonie’s is a quaint place in a house that looks like a house, inside and out.
After Nonie’s we stopped at a different pedestrian bridge over the Illinois and Michigan Canal in Utica. I wonder what will happen to bridge and detailed signs once the canal is filled in, as I read is planned in the not-too-distant future.
Now we set out for our main objective—Lock 16 Café and Gift Shop in LaSalle. The kitchen closes at 3, but we made it there in plenty of time for a late lunch and to look over the goods. Who can resist a “Moe and Joe” mule t-shirt? Not I.
The ride, complete with ghost stories, was to start at 5, so we wandered around the lock (Lock 14, not 16), where a number of men and boys were fishing for trout—one fellow had four on a line in the water. I wondered how far the canal goes.
I didn’t see any sign of mules or tack. I knew Joe had died last summer. After boarding we found out Moe, age 45, had died of Cushing’s disease a couple of weeks earlier. The remaining mule, Larry, had hurt himself where the belly band would go. Smart mule. One passenger said, “What? No Shemp?” Our guide told a credulous boy that the canal ride to Chicago would have taken 24 hours compared to a week for a carriage.
Our host told us amusing tales about the mules competing with each other (pulling the boat out of the canal when in tandem, or completing the hour-long trip in 40 minutes when one was in front of the other). If one pulled, the one left alone would have panic attacks, so a nanny goat was procured to keep him company—until the two teamed up to pick on her. Even gone, Moe and Joe were stars.
Our ghost storyteller was paranormal writer Sylvia Shults, who started off with a tale from Seneca, Illinois, about spontaneous combustion. Reflect on that the next time you want to say, “I’m so mad at her! She burns me up!”
On my previous mule-pulled canal ride, on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal starting in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., the boat had passed through a lock first thing. I remember the boat lowering and seeing the slimy green-covered wall appear (or I think I do—I may be confusing it with a boat ride in Chicago).
There are no locks on the short I&M ride, and Lock 14 (immediately behind where the boat is docked) looks like it hasn’t been used in years. In this case, the boat, dubbed The Volunteer, passes under a bridge at Joliet Street. As it falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, passengers are required to remain seated as there could be a jolt if the boat bumps near the bridge. It did, and there was. If I’d been standing, I’d have keeled over. Wooomff.
As soon as I could I walked up the steps to the Texas deck, while J. alternated between above and below. Naturally, just after he went below a great blue heron flapped its ponderous way toward us. “What is THAT?” a woman asked me. I was tempted to reply, “A pterodactyl.” It’s a rare moment when I’m the resident bird expert.
I watched from the bow as The Volunteer approached a trestle, beyond which is the Little Vermilion River Aqueduct. I could see that we would have to start to make our way back—the canal narrows and appears to be shallow. I learned later the canal had been restored in this location specifically for the canal boat ride. Someday we’ll have to see more by walking the I&M Canal trail. On our return trip, a woman on the boat called out to a woman on the trail: “How far does that path go?” They had to yell back and forth several times, but I think the walker said Ottawa. I’ll be lucky if I can make it past the trestle.
In Google Maps’ satellite imagery, the canal is a frightening neon yellow-green, although it looked okay as far as I could tell (and the men and boys fishing clearly the intended to eat their catch!).
This ride was timed just right to head back toward the golden glow of the setting sun, which wasn’t blindingly bright. Despite the distant pounding from Illinois Cement to the east, the trip was calming, and I wished the glow could last a bit longer.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Shults was selling and signing her books so before disembarking I bought a couple after telling her I was interested equally in history and ghosts. She recommended a book on an asylum in Peoria . . .
We had a long trip and a work day ahead, so reluctantly we headed toward the parking lot prepared to leave. It was then I spotted the silhouette of a mule, similar to the metal cutouts of historical figures we’d seen dotting the area. Then I noticed it had a couple of tones, unlike the cutouts. Then it swung its head. It was Larry the mule! We ran over to meet Larry and found him eating apples from Ms. Shults’ hand. After she’d run out of goodies an older man came along this carrots and marshmallows, and a woman pulled a little grass as a treat. It wouldn’t surprise me if Larry returns to his farm in Utica in early November weighing a wee bit more, even after a summer of canal boat pulling.
After the visitors bearing gifts left, Larry, who’d walked away from me several times to follow them, suddenly started pushing my left arm around with his head and exploring my sleeve with his big mule tongue. Alas, I had no apples, carrots, or anything else a hungry mule might be interested in. If I ever get a chance to go back to LaSalle for a mule-pulled canal boat ride, I’ll know to bring healthy mule bribes, er, treats.
While returning from a walk on the “ancient dunes” trail at Eggers Woods, one of the Forest Preserves of Cook County that’s almost in Indiana, I spotted this doe and two three-quarters grown fawns on and to the side of the trail a short distance from the parking lot. They have lots of room to roam at this park a few blocks from I-90, but friend J and I saw at least five to six deer near the trail and/or lot. While this looks like a challenging stance and she kept an eye on us, she didn’t seem inclined to scare easily. They’re used to hikers without guns, I suppose. Some of the deer seemed thin to me, which isn’t good for them with winter around the calendar corner.
It was about 77ºF with a few clouds when I left Hyde Park by train to meet J at Homewood, where we had lunch at Redbird Cafe. I had the brilliant idea of going to Flossmoor’s Old Caboose Ice Cream Shoppe—brilliant except that it wasn’t going to open until 4 p.m.
After J went home to shut down his computer, we hit I-80 for Starved Rock Lodge, where I’d reserved a “sunset” cabin (on the west side). On the way we stopped at the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall in Marseilles along the Illinois River across from Illini State Park. Only one couple arrived during our time there. and I moved off in case they were there for someone they knew. We found a great blue heron further down, keeping an eye out for dinner. Marseilles seems to be a friendly place. One home garage sports signs such as “GO AWAY” and “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE IN RANGE.” At least stopping in Marseilles gave us an excuse to ditch I-80 and take the Illinois River Road the rest of the way.
From one of the informal waysides between Ottawa and Starved Rock State Park, we spotted another great blue heron among the tall grasses across the river. We also noted something periodically breaking the surface of the water—fish?
At Starved Rock Lodge we checked in, checked out the cafe and the cabin, and went to the dining room. We finished dinner just in time to go back to the waysides to watch the sun set over the river. Although the sky wasn’t as brilliantly colorful as it’s been in the past, the river seemed eerily calm and glassy.
On the short way to the pool building at the lodge, J pointed out the call of a barred owl nearby, or at not a very great a distance. It accompanied us down the brief walk. I would love to hear a barred owl every night, “cooking” me to sleep.
After I’d been soaking in the spa for about 10 minutes, the couple who’d been sitting in it when I arrived returned and, red-faced, admitted they hadn’t known how to turn the jets on. After that we sat outside listening to the summer chorus of insects and hoping to hear the barred owl again (it must have moved on or gone silent). I could have stayed outdoors all night . . .
July 29, 2018
On the way to the lodge cafe we encountered people looking intently at the base of some bushes. Tiny gray birds with, I think, white mustaches were running around, then disappeared into the greenery. I still haven’t figured out what they were.
After getting surprisingly good coffee at the cafe we went to Nonie’s Bakery and Cafe in Utica. I love restaurants in houses (Nonie’s, Ivy’s Bohemian House in Chesterton, Captain’s House in Gary, Front Porch Coffee and Tea Company in Ely, Minnesota), and after a little wait in line breakfast was surprisingly quick and good. My only regret was sitting inside rather than out on the porch.
The visitor center parking lot was packed, so we set out for Matthiessen State Park, which for reasons I can’t explain now I’ve always found confusing. I’m not sure if they have new signs or I was more lucid than usual this time, but after going down all the steps and crossing the muddy bridge (very carefully, on the only dry area), we found signs pointing to Upper Dells (right) and Lower Dells (left). To the right, stairs I’d never noticed before led downward to one of a spot with a view up toward the bridge. We could walk across the water without using the stepping-stones because the level was low due to lack of rain. A gate at what looks like a drop sports a sign warning you of danger—and not to remove the sign if you don’t want to be responsible for the death of others. The gate does nothing for the picturesqueness of the scene, but it’s likely necessary as we will hear later.
Back on the bridge, we could see many people all over the place in the lower dells, placed randomly and tinily enough for a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or maybe a “Where’s Waldo?” scene. Given the numbers and the state of the dells parking lot, it looks like Matthiessen may be starting to catch up with Starved Rock in popularity.
Next, we went to the least popular of the three parks, Buffalo Rock, where we ate the sandwiches we’d taken out from Nonie’s. When we’d visited Buffalo Rock previously, we hadn’t known about the bison, so this time I made a point of seeking them out. The pair was lying down at the end of the enclosure, as far from people (and the motorcycle racket) as they could get. No roaming for them.
In an odd moment, a woman ran up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “SANDY!” I drew back, she looked at me, and said, “You’re not Sandy?” I’ll never know who Sandy is or how I was mistaken for her.
While at the lodge cafe we’d found a postcard of a massive field of sunflowers taken at Matthiessen. We found this at the “river” entrance to the park, next to model airplane flying field. Alas, the sunflowers were well past their prime, which reminded me again how short spring and summer seem to be.
Back at the lodge we chilled a couple of local beers we’d bought at the cafe the day before and drank them on the bench outside the cabin door, enjoying the fine day and the sounds of the outdoors. I could live like this.
We went to Ottawa for dinner at the Lone Buffalo, where we were exiled to the sidewalk. My love for al fresco dining began when my aunt took me to a very old school Italian restaurant in Washington, DC, Roma, where we dined in a secluded garden area overrun by grapevines on trellises surrounding the outdoor booths and populated by European house sparrows relentlessly begging for crumbs.
We spent a little time at one of the sunset spots, where I found a partial body — possibly a mink? After that, we again enjoyed the night air and the cacophony of dog day harvest flies.
July 30, 2018
On Monday, we picked up breakfast sandwiches at the lodge cafe and ate them outside, then walked around the grounds near the cabin, reluctant to check out. Our lunch-trolley-boat tour started at 11 with a better selection than I expected, followed by an informative, entertaining, more extensive trolley tour than I expected. (I’d thought the trolley would simply take us to the boat.)
We went through “North” Utica, learning what had happened to South Utica. Our guide recommended Mix’s Trading Post as well as some new shops (e.g., spices) on the main street. The tour consisted of “myths” and “legends” mixed in with some possible history, including the Starved Rock murders.
We stopped at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, where we learned that the Illinois is naturally shallow, but of course the dam has raised the water level. The driver pointed out one small narrow island south of the lock and dam, telling us thousands of feet of it are submerged—it’s much bigger than it looks. This explains something that had mystified me—why so many snags appear along the river between Ottawa and the Starved Rock State Park entrance. The river is full of such islands, wholly or partially submerged.
Our last stop was Lone Point Shelter, which we’d never been to as I’d foolishly assumed it was no more than a boring picnic area. It’s a picnic area with boat access on the Illinois River. There we waited for our ship, well, boat, to come in.
We’d been told the guide is a retired geology teacher who knows rocks. We sat near the pilot, who quietly gave us tips on where to look.
The Illinois is full of Asian carp. There’s an ongoing and perhaps belated fear that they’ll make their way into the Great Lakes system—but I don’t know much about them other than their devastating effect on habitat and wildlife. On embarking, we’d noticed chest-high clear plastic shields around the deck. I assumed they were to keep tourists, especially children, from falling out, although I’d never seen this on other boats. We soon learned this protective wall is not to keep us in, but to keep the carp1 out. They can leap impressively high. Later our guide told us they’re covered in mucus and have many blood vessels close to the surface, so when one slammed into a passenger, the man ended up covered in carp slime and blood. And this was supposed to be a pleasant little cruise. No carp made it aboard this day, however, but not for lack of trying. During the hour-plus of the tour, periodically a carp, disturbed by the boat’s passage, leaped against its hull, eliciting startled screams from several women. It felt a little like running a gauntlet—an unpredictable one. The pilot and the guide remained unruffled.
Aside from carp, we spotted herons, egrets, and even a flock of white pelicans in the distance. There weren’t any eagles in our immediate future, although the pilot had optimistically told us we might see some.
For the first time, we saw Starved Rock from the perspective of the river. We’d hiked the river trail several years ago, and I thought I recognized a few spots along the way, including one where a bench overlooks a wrecked boat that’s been there for years. Our guide told us something about it, but I missed it. The boat, which isn’t large, looks mostly whole on one side and stove in on the other, if I remember right. I don’t know if I have any photos of it from the trail. The pilot and guide remarked on how the Illinois was the most placid they’d seen it in months.
We could see many hikers through the trees, and I waved to some of them (some waved back).
Our guide gave us the names of the bridges and creeks we passed; I wish I could have taken it all in, taken photos, and written it all down, all while anticipating the bang of the next carp against the boat. For a moment I could almost imagine myself Lewis or Clark, if Lewis and Clark set out in a boat with silver-haired retirees.
While on the way to Buffalo Rock the day before, we’d noticed a big, haunted-looking house set back from the road and began speculating about it. It looked unoccupied, but I don’t want to land in jail (or hospital) for trespassing, so we didn’t stop to take photos. On the boat tour we learned this is Spring Valley House or Sulfur Springs Hotel, built in 1849 and closed only 13 years later due to the decline in river and stagecoach travel. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, it’s owned by the state of Illinois. Part of the Old Kaskaskia Village site, the property is closed to visitors, but I wonder if they’d mind photos from the driveway?
Besides birds, carp, and historic sites, the themes of the day were St. Peter sandstone and rescues. Our guide (the geology teacher) told us about fracking and why St. Peter sandstone’s rounded grains make it preferable to Arabian sand for fracking. As I know from personal experience, it can be a slippery walking surface. We learned there had beenfour rescues this year to date in/around Wildcat Canyon. Climbing is forbidden, but that doesn’t stop children and the determined. As we passed one rock, our guide told us a woman had fallen from it only a few weeks before—onto her face. She was airlifted to Peoria with a broken eye socket, among other injuries. I recalled watching children under 10 climbing and wondering if I would have been an overly cautious parent; theirs seemed unconcerned. A few weeks after, I read that a boy, about 7 or 8, had fallen to his death.
Today three or four adults were on the rock the woman had fallen from. The lowest, a woman, must have changed her mind for as we watched she started to make her way down cautiously. One potential tragedy averted.
All too soon it was time to return to the trolley for the trip back to the Lodge. As we disembarked from the boat, a raccoon was checking out the Lone Point Shelter full of hope but bereft of food.
At the lodge, we at ice cream, and I made final purchases at the cafe (fudge!). Outside the cafe, we used a machine based on old-school fun to press images of local attractions into pennies. Fifty years after childhood, my souvenir needs are easily satisfied.
In Utica, we stopped at Roxie’s, where you can get everything from good chocolate truffles to old-school candies, including wax lips and candy cigarettes. Who knew that someone somewhere still makes this stuff?
We checked out a pedestrian bridge over the I&M Canal that our driver had pointed out. What’s left of the canal is choked with plants, making it hard to imagine its heyday as part of the link between the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. Since then I’ve read that Utica plans to fill in its portion of the canal in 2019. What an ignominious end!
Our final stop was at the new spice store, which seems an unusual addition to the main street’s other offerings. By then it was close to 5, and we couldn’t delay the inevitable return to reality (except with dinner at R Place in Morris). At least we could leave with visions of pelicans, carp, mansions, and risky rescues dancing in our heads.
1 The term “Asian carp” includes several species. The carp leaping at our boat were most likely silver carp. According to USFWS: “Silver carp spontaneously leap from the water when they feel threatened or hear loud noises such as a boat motor.” Silver carp can grow to four feet long and weigh 75–100 pounds. Video of silver carp in the Illinois here.