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 . . .
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.
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.