I told J this Will County Forest Preserve District program at Monee Reservoir sounded crunchy; I don’t think he quite got it.
I met him at the University Park Metra station, which is not that far north from Monee. For me, it was brutally sunny and hot, but at least I made it through the first part of the program. I had to pass on the second half, a jaunt to another bridge that wasn’t even that far away. At the first, the kids found enough dragonfly and damselfly larvae and other pond critters to keep them engaged for an hour or more, and I wandered off to see what was on the other side (dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, one elusive Hemaris thysbe moth).
Despite my dropping out partway through, the leader was kind enough to give us ice cream sandwiches. He spent a lot of time answering my questions and showing me illustrative photos. By the time we left the building, where the air conditioning had failed a couple of days earlier, clouds had gathered and the temperature had dropped.
Monee’s not a big town but we found a great cheese and fruit plate, beer, and a light dinner at Labas Latte & Vino. And so back to reality . . . but at least I don’t have to live on 300 mosquitoes an hour.
Having survived an autumn visit to Camp Bullfrog Lake, and being fond of the Palos area for its hills, moraines, sloughs, woods, and forest preserves, I wanted to plan another stay. There are only two large cabins, and I was happy to get one of them for May, which I had figured would be at the height of fine spring weather. HA.
May 18, 2019
The adventure began in Homewood, where I met J. He was immediately distracted by an Operation Lifesaver “train” blowing its horn as it circled downtown Homewood. It looked popular and crowded, or we might have ended up angling for a ride.
Our first stop was at Cottage on Dixie, where, unbeknownst to us, we were about to have our last meal there. A month later the owner announced it was closing. A few days after that, the owner announced a grand reopening on July 18. My head spins, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the last Cottage meal after all.
We settled in briefly at Camp Bullfrog Lake, then set out for sandwiches at Ashbary House at the Old Willow Shopping Center, set against a wooded hillside. I love the way it looks.
Back at camp, a full moon (well, a few hours past) rose above the lake into the clouds, looking a bit like Saturn. The clouds and moon over the lake were the perfect complement to the campfire. Our fire-starting skills are better if still in need of improvement. A bucket of topnotch fire starter didn’t hurt, and with close nursing our fire flamed merrily for several hours and marshmallows. The full moon was an unexpected bonus. (Usually I pay closer attention to moon phases.)
May 19, 2019
The morning looked promising weather wise.
I found we had a lot of neighbors at the next cabin, with breakfast piled high atop their picnic table. One of their cars had Alaska plates. I marveled that anyone would drive from anywhere in Alaska to Illinois. I might never have gotten past, say, Montana or Wyoming.
After breakfast at Maple-N-Jams, we happened upon the Nut House in Bridgeview. I gained weight looking at the colorful displays, but managed to walk away with mostly seeds.
Upon returning to camp, we found the perfect excuse to skim old travel magazines and, in my case, read more about The Black Death — a lengthy downpour. Undoubtedly payback for the serendipity of the full moon.
With numerous sloughs and the Des Plaines River, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and Cal-Sag Channel running parallel to each other through this area, there are plenty of steel truss bridges. I love them. I wonder if the blue paint on some is relatively new to dress them up.
I thought we might see a lot of flowers in bloom at Little Red Schoolhouse, but maybe mid to late May was too late. Instead we found one of the ponds full of tadpoles, two northern water snakes, and a green heron trying to be still and invisible. Suddenly, it took off after another green heron we hadn’t noticed across the way. A brief yet epic battle ensued, and in the end I couldn’t tell which one hightailed it to the woods and which took over pond patrol.
On the other side, the great blue herons and great egrets of Longjohn Slough kept a watchful eye on each other, like boxers in their respective corners between rounds.
At Little Red Schoolhouse we’d seen a flier for a mushroom/fungus walk at Swallow Cliff Woods. We decided to investigate on our own. We didn’t get far down the trail before my pain levels rose and my energy levels flagged, just far enough to this tantalizing pathway. Someday.
I hadn’t noticed any mushrooms in the short distance we’d walked, but on the return trip we both noticed several (not the same ones in all cases). J is credited with the find of the day, a magnificent morel. I don’t think I’ve seen one “in the wild.” I began to understand why the naturalists had chosen Swallow Cliff Woods for their fungus walk. Now if only I could find (or recognize) slime molds in any form . . .
For dinner we headed to Jen’s Guesthouse, formerly Courtright’s. It was too wet to sit outside in the garden area against the wooded hillside, but the inside isn’t shabby.
Back at camp, we still hadn’t perfected the art of fire making but finally had enough going to toast marshmallows. When we were sure we’d had enough, we tossed in the Mystical Fire. I found out later we should have used three packs, but even one was . . . mystical. Or at least colorful.
May 20, 2019
We went to Lotus Cafe, which turned out to be part of Pete’s Fresh Market, and ended up with a breakfast-by-weight buffet. We also stopped at Strange Brew Cafe, which I recognized from last year.
Back at Camp Bullfrog Lake, we packed and took a last walk around. When I approached the pier, I was startled by a great blue heron perched on the railing, no doubt keeping an eye out for fresh lake fish (or even the eponymous bullfrogs). Just when I thought it was going to let me get close, it slowly flapped off to shore. They like to keep their distance. I don’t blame them.
While driving around we kept passing a historical marker sign and decided to investigate. This led us to St. James at Sag Bridge Church and Cemetery, which involved some steep hills. I can’t say for certain we found the historical marker, but i did spend a few moments checking out Our Lady of the Forest. It turns out the church is on the National Register of Historic Places. I’m reminded too that I want to read The Mystery at Sag Bridge by local writer Pat Camalliere, whom I’d met briefly at Settlers’ Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland.
Despite the I-355 extension and the encroaching warehouse-type developments, I’m still charmed by most of Bluff Road in Lemont. We stopped at Black Partridge Woods, walked along the picnic shelter side of the stream for a bit, then returned to the parking lot to find two male scarlet tanagers paying court — presumably — to a female. I don’t get to see these birds very often, so it was a treat and a thrill worth the entire trip — downpours, damp, and all.
We made another visit to Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. While no green heron lurked about that I could see, the great blue herons and great egrets were still skirmishing along Longjohn Slough.
For a light dinner we stopped at Spring Forest 2, where I love the terraced outdoor seating areas.
Finally for dessert, we headed to the Plush House to enjoy ice cream from the comfort of an Adirondack chair. And so ended another weekend adventure in one of Illinois’ more interesting areas.
Indian Ridge Marsh is a recent (2017) addition to the Chicago Park District, located a little southeast of Big Marsh Park near Lake Calumet. Norfolk Southern lines run down the ridge. While I was visiting, NB and SB freights met and passed each other.
According to Lost Indiana, it was once a Holiday Inn strategically placed to lure travelers on Dunes Highway. To me it’s a metaphor for most of the works of man — a short productive existence followed by a long deterioration haunted by aging, fading memories. It’s like an example of Life After People, only the people haven’t died, just given up.
And now that I’ve seen the Doctor Who episode “Blink,” when I see the Interstate Inn, which is not unlike the fictional “Wester Drumlins,” I’ll think of this bit of dialogue:
Note the date — 2 March 2019, the first Maple Sugar Time held at the newly designated Indiana Dunes National Park. No doubt it will be years before the signs are replaced.
As I’ve probably said before, Maple Sugar Time brings back one of the few bits of childhood I remember, if vaguely. My class — second grade? — made a field trip to a maple sugar farm (sugar bush) in March, I assume. I wish I knew where, but I’d guess it was owned by the family of a classmate. The world is enormous to a seven-year-old, so I remember it as far away and magical.
The day was dreary and foggy. Dense clouds of fog everywhere at ground level. Or maybe I’m confusing the outdoor world with the sugar shack, where the steam rose in clouds from the boiling sap. I’ll never know for certain. In a world before smartphone cameras we weren’t able to preserve even marvelous moments except in our faulty, failing brains.
I was given a piece of maple sugar candy to try. LOVE. Much better than plain white baking sugar or sugar cubes — some ineffable, ephemeral quality beyond mere sweetness. My mother must have given me some money because I bought a tiny bag of the precious maple leaf-shaped goodness. Even now, when my “allowance” is more substantial and all my own, I look upon maple sugar candy as a rare luxury.
Perhaps the other high point was the draft horses snorting steam into the fog. We may have gone on a wagon ride. If such a thing makes me happy today, imagine how it thrilled me 50 years ago?
Back to present-day Indiana. J and I indulged in our traditional start to Maple Sugar Time — the Chesterton Lions Club pancake-and-sausage breakfast served in a vinyl-sided tent that keeps out some of the cold and breezes. It’s like the year’s first picnic.
Our timing was perfect. We finished our 2 p.m. “breakfast” and found Ranger Bill with a group at the Maple Sugar Trail, ready to go. The hike covers how to identify sugar maples, and I learned the box elder is a maple.
We walked through the various eras of maple sugar making, from hot rocks to metal pots to Chellberg Farm’s sugar shack to more modern methods. As many times as I’ve been to this event, I’d never gone inside the sugar shack. While an impressive amount of steam arose inside (welcome shelter after the cold!), it came from boiling water. Current daytime temperatures are too cold for maple sugar sap to run. Maybe next week — current forecast is for temperatures in the low 40s. But the forecast changes every day.
The walk ended up at the Chellberg farmhouse. Since the building that formerly housed the store has been covered to an employee/volunteer center, the maple goods were for sale in the entry room. Yes, I did buy maple syrup, maple cream, and of course the luxury of my childhood, leaf-shaped maple sugar candy. In another room, we picked up a Dare maple cream cookie. They’re not just for the kids.
Outside we found Belgian draft geldings Dusty (2,450 pounds) and Mitch (2,350 pounds). Dusty left horse slobber all over my hand and bag. When a girl and her brother stood by him for a photo, he started to groom her hair. A little disgusted, she shoved her brother into her former spot. “That won’t help,” the volunteer said. “He’ll just reach right around him.” On cue, Dusty did just that. He wasn’t licking only people. Between visitors, he gave Mitch’s neck some good grooming strokes.
We said goodby to Dusty and Mitch and chickens and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park so I could get a yearly pass and because the beach is gorgeous (and less crowded) on a cold March afternoon. We walked around, but not on the shelf ice. It seems someone finds out the hard way every year that the sign isn’t there for decoration.
We tried the Speakeasy at Spring House Inn, but at this time they don’t serve meals so off we went to Chesterton’s Villa Nova to warm up on Italian cuisine (and add back any calories we may have burned off).
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.