I’ve long wanted to stay at Dunes Walk Inn, so I made a reservation for May 4. This is before the season starts, along with a two-night minimum. I had the Furness suite, which was like having a tidy apartment with a deck and a residential view — a home. Furnleigh Lane, wide enough for one car, adds to a certain country feel, even if nearby Rte. 20 does not. At the end of Furnleigh Lane lies a cemetery across the street from the Schoolhouse Shop. Lovely area for a little Dunes adventure.
With an early enough start, my travel companion J and I made it in time for the first Chesterton European Market of the year. I have no idea how much cash I spent — if only I could lose weight as fast as my wallet does.
After the market (during which I snuck into O’Gara and Wilson), we stopped at Red Cup Café, then set out for Rise ‘n’ Roll in Valparaiso. They had beet pickled eggs, a Schirf family favorite! Yes, please. I don’t know if beet picked eggs are an Amish/Mennonite thing, a German thing, or a Pennsylvania thing (or a combination — clearly they’re not just Pennsylvanian). Those made without the beets aren’t nearly as good.
After I had spent what felt like a couple of paychecks on food and more food, we went to Lucrezia Café for dinner. It’s usually too crowded to consider, but maybe we beat the dinner crush. Afterward, we visited the state park beach briefly — it was colder than I’d hoped.
May 5, 2019
Breakfast was at Third Coast Café, followed by a quick stop at the Little Calumet River boat launch down the road. The flooding that had made the trail impassable for months had receded. The trees had been thinned out, too, to an extent that looks like devastation but is likely better for the wetland.
What to do? We went to the Schoolhouse Shop, where I found out the back patio was open. It was warm enough to sit outside, so after I had collected a shopping basket full (and then some), we got coffee and sat outside for close to two hours. Their feeders were attracting a lot of birds, including several species of woodpecker. The owner said they’d seen pileateds flying around, too. A ruby-throated hummingbird or two showed up, but never long enough for a good look. As we were thinking about leaving, a red-breasted grosbeak showed up (it knew my camera was in the car). What a perfect off-the-beaten-track spot.
For lunch we headed to Hunter’s Brewing, which has traded in the long community tables for more conventional seating. It felt strange. I like Hunter’s because you can try different beers in small sizes.
I wasn’t feeling up to a hike, so I suggested the state park nature center — another hotbed of bird feeder action.
When I got out of the car, I was surprised and delighted to spot a female pileated woodpecker digging into a tree next to one of the trails. She’d started to attract a crowd from inside the center, and the hikers who noticed her stopped to gawk or gave her a wide berth so as not to scare her off. She continued to work the tree as the visitors took photos and video until someone came along with a dog. She finally flew off into the woods, although even then not far. I could almost hear her laughing like Woody Woodpecker.
In the back room overlooking the feeders, we watched cardinals, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, etc., even a hummingbird (or two?).
Later a determined raccoon ambled up and climbed past the baffle, coming to rest on it (no doubt bending it). It gorged on seeds until one of the nature center staff shooed it away. It didn’t go far, however, and returned within minutes each time. She took a photo to prove the baffle hadn’t done its job.
One man, who was not quite the bird expert he pretended to be, mentioned he wanted to see a rose-breasted grosbeak. He left after a long visit — about three to five minutes before a rose-breasted grosbeak appeared. Typical.
I didn’t get any good shots, but seeing the pileated woodpecker so closely and clearly made my day.
The nature center closed, so we went to the Longshore Tower off the west parking lot overlooking the state park beach. We discovered the tower is accessible, with disabled parking near a sloping paved path compared to the stairs from the west lot. A grandmother had wheeled her grandson up there. After I arrived, they politely demurred to each other about when they should leave. “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” Eventually someone decided to go, and they went.
After checking out the view, we walked up a trail to the top of the dune. True to form, J. made it to the top, while I fell short by several feet — at the point where the steepness tested my ability to take one step forward without sliding two or three back.
Finally, we left, but it was early enough I decided to check out the road I’d seen that goes out into Wolf Lake. Once I’d figured out how to look for it in Google Maps, it wasn’t hard to find — if you’re willing to cross railroad tracks, hit many bumpy spots, and splash through water on low spots in the road.
We found we’d been on part of this road before one autumn, but as pedestrians. At a certain point it had been closed, probably for hunting. I recognized the spot at which I’d stopped walking and waited for J., who’d gone ahead for a short distance. Little had we known the road continued most of the way over the lake. Time of year matters.
After driving through the woods we came out near a low spot where the lake sloshed onto the road, parked for a bit, and took in the late afternoon scenery. Canada geese meandered up and down and across the road, goslings in tow. I don’t worry about them becoming an endangered species soon.
We drove to the end of the road, past a number of anglers. The road is part of the Illinois-Indiana state line. I read that game officials like to patrol it to make sure anglers have a license for the waters into which they’re dipping their lines. If true, that’s hilarious. The fish, of course, are indifferent to such niceties of residency.
Near the end, we found a nature sanctuary on a slight elevation and walked down part of the trail. Later motorcyclists, who’d been revving their engines near the top, rode down it and into the wetlands. I wonder if that’s a “thing.”
By now the sun was setting, and most of the anglers and other visitors were leaving or packing up. The regular entrance/exit was closed so we navigated to an alternative exit on a side street. It would be easy to get lost around there.
And so ended another little adventure on the tranquil note of a lake sunset accompanied by the roar of motorcycle engines.
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).
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.
Very dangerous path ahead
Hikers have fallen and
Have been seriously injured
If you remove or deface this sign
You may be responsible
For another person’s death
Return the way you came
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.
The adventure began with an email from Openlands about “Paddle the Lake Michigan Water Trail” events in the far north suburbs (Ray Bradbury country). JB and I had gone to one of these a couple of years ago in Jackson Park. Wilderness Inquiry owns the canoes, and they bring paddling to people who wouldn’t have much opportunity, like city kids and the disabled (which I am when it comes to getting into and out of a canoe). They had a life preserver large enough for me (impressive!) and were patient with my difficulties.
We paddled around the lagoon, seeing a great blue heron take off from shore at canoe level. It’s a different world from a canoe, where you’re less of an outsider/intruder and more one with the water — even if you can’t swim. You’re almost like a bird yourself, maybe a loon bobbing on the water.
The Jackson Park paddle was cut a little short by choppiness coming into the lagoon from Lake Michigan, but we were out for a while, probably at least 45 minutes, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the kids (and maybe an adult or two) were paddled out. We’re not hardy voyageurs, after all.
On Sunday it took about 30 to 40 minutes longer than it should have to get to Illinois Beach State Park thanks to a 4th of July parade in Waukegan that had closed down an extensive stretch of Rte. 137, which is the only practical way into the park. By then of course I had to find a restroom.
After those preliminaries, a conservation office pointed us toward Openlands’ tent by the lake, but we discovered we should have followed the “free canoe rides” sign pointing mysteriously inland, as it turned out the lake was too choppy for beginner paddling. We hightailed it west across the parking lot and down a service road and found the canoes at a pond by the campground.
We were just in time for the last paddle of the day. Wilderness Inquiry’s largest life jacket still fits me. Yippee! Enough people arrived after us to fill a canoe. I even managed to get in without too much struggle, thanks to the setup. So far, so good.
Just as we were scootching around to balance weight side to side and settling in, it started to rain, slowly at first, but soon with bigger drops coming down faster. That’s okay, they told us. We can go out in the rain as long as there’s not lightning. They asked if anyone wanted out. To all our credit, no one moved (not that I could!) or spoke up. Soon the cloud either moved on or emptied out because the brief downpour ended as abruptly as it had begun.
This pond, which I had not known about, is big enough to paddle but not too big for beginners or small children. We went around it perhaps three times, giving us a chance to practice turning and stopping (JB and I are pretty good at this by now). As we started out, a fish leaped out of the water and fell back before I could get a good look. Our trip leader told us the pond is full of bass. It was also surrounded by male red-winged blackbirds on slightly better behavior than they’d shown earlier in the spring. I mentioned that in Chicago frustrated residents have been known to call the police on the territorial birds. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “wing cuffs.”
Meanwhile, I was keeping an eye on the darkening western sky, even as the east remained bright. We returned to shore, and I got out with some extra time and a helping shoulder to lean on. (I feel pressured because anyone forward of me has to wait for me, although they were patient, too.) We chatted with one of the Wilderness Inquiry guys, who was hoping to go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, then finally left.
As we walked down the service road, we stopped to take a few photos of the flowers and a monarch who was landing selectively on a couple of butterfly weed plants. I still watched the “gathering gloom” and suddenly decided an expedited march to the car might be warranted just as thunder boomed. Moments later the temperature plummeted dramatically from the low to mid 90s. We made it just as the skies opened up with a thicker, more sustained downpour accented by sporadic thunder and lightning. We joined a lot of beachgoers in fleeing the park. What perfect timing all around, despite the late start, the parade detour, the pit stop, and the mini-hike to the pond.
We rewarded ourselves with coffee and a brownie at It’s All Good, but the restaurant we wanted to go to had no power. Plan B was a family Mexican restaurant and so home. My kind of day.
After a comfortably warm and mostly sunny week, the weather had taken a turn for the chilly. With a little more time available in Erie, we fueled up at Tim Horton’s, then visited the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, where we got lighthouse and park stamps plus goodies from the gift shop.
Next we drove farther out onto the Presque Isle State Park Peninsula, far enough to get to the beach with the Presque Isle light. J. made it to the light, but after crossing the in what felt like gale-force winds and having sand driven into my mouth and pebbles into my bare calves, I decided I could live with a slightly more distant view of the light.
By the time we tore ourselves from Presque Isle, it was time to make tracks if we wanted to get to Maumee, Ohio, at a reasonable hour. There wasn’t enough time for a detour to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wasn’t too disappointed given the gloomy, wet, windy weather, which softened the pain of returning from a wonderful trip just a teeny bit.
At breakfast, J met Joe Hurley, who wrote Ten Million Steps: A fresh look at America and Americans from Cape Cod to California on Route 6, and walked away with autographed copies. He knows how to travel. Afterward, we said a long goodbye to the hens, who didn’t care that we were sad to leave and that vacation was almost over.
We stopped in Coudersport at Sheetz for fuel (gas and coffee and Mallo Cups) and discovered Old Hickory, a building in a state of decay that would put Miss Havisham to shame. Eliot Ness is said to have visited the inn — I wonder why?
After passing through Port Allegheny and Smethport (“Home of Wooly Willy”), we came to Mount Jewett and the road to Kinzua Bridge State Park. On the way the eagle-eyed driver spotted a sign for “Maple Syrup 500 Ft.” Determined to get maple syrup somewhere on this trip, we stopped, parked, and rang the bell. The back door was unlocked, and several windows were open, despite a threatening sky. We rang again — no answer. A half mile back, a pedestrian had tried to flag us down, so I could only speculate that he was a stranger who’d killed the family and was trying to get away (although in the direction of the park, where the road ends), but when the police came the neighbors would remember only us and how the car had been parked for a while as we knocked and peered in the back shop. It was a mystery. I’ve read too many true crime stories.
At last we arrived at the park, where a visitor center with park offices is under construction. For being a little out of the way, the park seems popular. Out on the skywalk, one man told us he’d brought his wife in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. She couldn’t quite handle 300 feet down, however, let alone thousands.
I asked a man familiar with the area about the F1 tornado that had taken out half the bridge. Tornado watches and warnings are a weekly, even daily occurrence in the Midwest, but not in western New York or Pennsylvania. He said a tornado will arise now and then, but its path usually zigzags and its duration is usually short. The mountains and irregularity of the surface probably inhibits a tornado’s ability to build a full head of steam. The 2003 tornado, however, was strong enough to take down half the (compromised) bridge. It’s a lovely area, and there are trails down the slope for those with more time.
On the return, we stopped again at the place with maple syrup. To my relief, the people were home (unless, of course, they were murderers covering for their crime — how would strangers like us know?). The mundane explanation was they’d gone to a ball game and forgotten to turn off the “Open” light and shut up the place properly. That was their story, which must be true as I haven’t seen any gruesome stories from Mount Jewett in the news.
Rain came, and when we arrived at the Kinzua Dam area, a mist hovered over the water in places even as the skies repeatedly tried to clear up. I’d been to Kinzua Dam at least once with my parents — long before it became part of the “Pennsylvania Wilds” — but I don’t know how many times. The dam was relatively new then, controversial because it flooded treaty land. On this day it seemed familiar-but-not-quite. I’d been here before, but not often or long enough for it to seep into my being’s core memory. I was left with an impression, not a picture.
While the dam and the water are impressive, I was more fascinated by the numerous ribbon waterfalls running down the bluff through which the road had been cut, the water seeming to disappear at the base. If my dad had been there, he might have tried to collect water from them in a plastic jug for the rest of the trip, although in the 1970s signs had popped up near many of Pennsylvania’s roadside springs warning of contamination from coal mining activities. Back then this disappointed me, and I wondered why post warning signs instead of cleaning up the pollution. Young and naive then, I still question that approach. I wonder if any of the springs we used to pass are viable today.
Next we found, almost by accident, the easy-to-miss parking lot for Bent Run Falls. The trail, steep and uneven, was muddy and slippery after the rainfall. The early part is overgrown, so I was able to get only glimpses of the water flowing along. I couldn’t get very far, and J. didn’t want to leave me behind so he didn’t get much farther. I’ve seen photos of the falls from a few different vantage points that looked lovely, but I’ve no idea where you have to go to see them from that perspective.
Our next stop was Jakes Rocks (no possessive apostrophe), where at a few places along the road you can get great views overlooking the lake. As is typical. when I spotted a colorful millipede sauntering around the parking area, I spent half my time stalking it, trying to take a closeup. Undaunted, it never slowed down enough for me to get a crisp photo within the frame. I resisted picking it up.
Reluctantly we left and headed toward Warren, where we hoped to find a restaurant. When we got there, nearly all of the local places were closed or closing, except for one bar that didn’t look popular, so we settled for Perkins.
Given the time of day and where we were, we decided to stay in Erie. By now it was getting dark and threatening, then it rained hard enough to make seeing much difficult. Just as it seemed the conditions couldn’t be any worse, J. swerved slightly, just enough to miss hitting a deer that had leapt at us from out of the streaming darkness, perhaps trying to join his five or six deer brothers we’d seen earlier on the road, dead.
After we had dodged the deer — barely — I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t think conditions could be any worse. Almost on cue, the hail started. To me it now seems that any trip home must be attended by bad, even dangerous weather. After the rain, the deer, and the hail, and the accompanying adrenaline rushes, finally we made it to Springhill Suites in Erie in one exhausted, shaking piece.
After breakfast in the barn, we turned toward Pine Creek Gorge at Leonard Harrison State Park (the eastern overlook). Before we could get there, however, J. had to stop at an unexpected Harley-Davidson dealership in Galeton (Larry’s) for t-shirt gifts. After looking around for a bit, I returned to the car and watched two older men lust after a bike parked a few spots down. The owner appeared and shared the specs and some of his adventures on it (I heard “Tennessee” among others). The one man never stopped moving around the bike, drinking in its details like he couldn’t stop. To me it seemed unremarkable, but he looked like an art collector sizing up a reputed da Vinci.
The drive along country roads always seems longer than expected, especially when their condition isn’t great and there’s the ever-present threat of deer and/or trucks. We made it, however, and found a long, deep, curving gorge, the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” the green of the forest nearly unbroken except for the creek.
Pine Creek Gorge wasn’t always so verdant. After we took many photos and J. wandered a short way on a trail down (I wasn’t up to it), we watched a video at the visitor center that showed the voracious cutting of the gorge’s old-growth white pine and eastern hemlock. Where men of the time saw money and profits, I saw only destruction and devastation. First the white pine was cut, then the eastern hemlock, then the hardwoods. Clear cutting replaced selective harvesting, leaving denuded hills behind. My heart broke to see the “Grand Canyon” reduced to the “Pennsylvania Desert.” Did no one foresee the result of clear cutting, or care?
Today, thanks partly to the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, second-growth forest covers the gorge, and wildlife has returned. This north central part of the state, including Allegheny National Forest, has been branded the “Pennsylvania Wilds,” which attracts outdoorsy tourists such as hikers, cyclists, fishers, skiers and snowboarders. The men who profited from destroying the forest are long dead, their best legacy a reminder of the foolishness of benefiting in the short term at the expense of the future. I hope the Wilds can be sustainable as a tourist attraction because there are so few places like it left.
We picked up a couple of Pennsylvania State Parks and State Forests Passports, the state’s answer to the National Park Service’s stamp book program. You don’t have to be a kid to get a kick out of filling your book with stamps!
On the way back we stopped at an unusual church (United Methodist Congregation) and took photos. Later we realized it was featured on postcards we’d bought.
We visited Wellsboro, which is an impressive old town with impressive old houses lining the streets, and stopped at Peggy’s Candies and Gifts for Hershey’s ice cream. If you’re thinking of the Hershey Company (1894), you’d be as wrong as I was. Hershey’s ice cream (also 1894) is a different company with a different history. I thought there have to be trademark attorneys itching to tackle that, and I wasn’t wrong.
The weather looked better than I expected for the visit to Cherry Springs State Park — the long-term prediction had been for clouds and rain. We left around 8:45 p.m. so we’d have some light to see on the unfamiliar roads with their ubiquitous deer. When we arrived at the parking lot, a man ensconced in his car pointed us toward a nearby field with some picnic tables for regular folks.
For a long time we weren’t sure we were in the right place, probably because no one else appeared. We wandered over to the astronomers’ field, but there was no one there, either, and J. agreed we probably weren’t supposed to be there (it’s set up for professionals and amateurs with telescopes and has better restrooms).
The reason there were only a few people, mostly near the parking lot and usually for a short time, wasn’t the weather — it was surprisingly good. It was the moon. The bright, bright quarter moon.
The first few years of my life were spent near a pretty dark field (by Chicago standards), but I had forgotten how painfully bright even a quarter moon is. We could see a lot more stars than anywhere else, but the moon’s reflected glare obliterated most of the less brilliant stars, leaving some familiar planets and constellations in view. It was quiet, peaceful, and comforting to see the night sky in a way I haven’t been able to for decades. Many Americans have never experienced the magic of the night sky the way our ancestors did, and that is awful and sad.
J. took some photos, and we stayed until about 1 a.m. (If only we could have held out until 3:30 or so, the moon was due to set, although then the light from the dawning sun would have followed soon after.)
Before we left, J. said, “What’s that?” and in the cold moonlight I saw what looked like a weasel shuffling among the uncut grasses. I shone the red flashlight on it and discovered I wasn’t far off — it was a skunk, a member of the mustelid family. It seemed unconcerned, so I got closer than I should have, given a skunk can spray up to 10 feet accurately. I didn’t see any warning signs, and when it wandered off I didn’t follow. It’s not often I get to see a skunk that’s not flat and covered in gore.
Again I was relieved to get back to base without hitting Bambi, his mother, or any of his millions of relatives.
Because we were the only guests at Temple Hill Bed and Breakfast, we were treated to breakfast al fresco on the deck overlooking the back lawn. It was so perfect that I hated to leave. We had to get an eyeglass repair kit (can’t have a driver who can’t see), then stopped at Byrne Dairy for me to look around and then Cricket’s Coffee Company because neither of us can resist a good coffee shop. We scored some condiments, including mustard and nut butters.
Eventually we tore ourselves away to return to the park, where we stopped at several of the overlooks. At one I read a sign pointing out a barely visible waterfall below and noting that another of four waterfalls could be seen at the Wolf Creek Picnic Area, so we had to go there too. From a pedestrian bridge over Wolf Creek, you can see a series of teeny drops along the creek bed, like miniature Niagaras, with the road bridge in the background. In an instant Wolf Creek evoked memories of sunbeams interrupted by shadows playing over rocks and drops as I walked along the creek bed without a care at Chestnut Ridge Park during a church picnic. Wolf Creek became a surrogate for one of the richest of my childhood experiences.
The real waterfall, the most visible of the series mentioned on the sign, drops on the other side of the pedestrian bridge. I don’t remember seeing Wolf Creek with my parents, but then there is so much that I don’t recall.
J. satisfied some of his shopping urges at the Glen Iris Inn, where we spent a long time taking photographs of the Middle Falls, which many believe are the most scenic of the park’s three major waterfalls. It’s funny that I recall the falls, but not the inn. I am sure that one day Virgil and I and possibly my aunt walked along the rail line if not part of the trestle.
Instead of driving back through the park as we had the day before, we passed along its eastern edge, where the roadside sported horse-and-buggy signs indicating that it’s Amish country. It’s a lovely rural drive and on this day the robin’s egg blue sky was punctuated by amazing clouds that I couldn’t quite capture.
Our destination was the North Shore Grill on Lake Conesus in Lakeville, giving us an opportunity to see one of the Finger Lakes (if only the smallest). There’s nothing like enjoying a great meal and drinks outdoors on a lake shore around sunset. I walked to the end of the dock to take all of it in — if only I could take all of it with me.
After another sumptuous breakfast, we left for Letchworth State Park, which has a fascinating history that includes the abducted Mary Jemison and business mogul William Pryor Letchworth. It’s amazing to me to imagine places like Matthiessen State Park (Illinois), Morton Arboretum (Illinois), and Letchworth State Park (New York) in private hands. Can you picture waking up every morning and strolling to your private waterfalls and/or along your stretch of a river?
First we stopped at Mount Morris Dam and one of the gifts shops, where I spent an alarming amount on books and postcards. They even have the vintage-looking wooden postcards, which can be mailed for extra postage. We sat in the picnic area to try a treat and just to soak in the day. When New York weather is good, it’s wonderful.
I remember Mount Morris Dam vaguely. It looked dry around it. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes dumped a massive volume of rain on Pennsylvania and western New York — that’s when I learned hurricanes from the south could affect us so far inland. Mount Morris Dam, completed in 1954, was pushed beyond its limits (some water was released to avoid the river pouring over the top), but without it much of Rochester may have ended up flooded (or in Lake Ontario?).
We continued driving south through the park, stopping at the Gardeau Overlook and at the Lower Falls Restaurant for a leisurely, relaxing lunch.
Next we tackled the Lower Falls Trail, which is supposed to have 127 steps, although some people who were returning told us they’d counted at least 128. I can’t say an extra step makes a difference unless it’s exceptionally steep (a couple were). I can manage, albeit slowly and sometimes with a helping wrist.
Of the three major waterfalls on the Genesee at Letchworth, the Lower Falls are said to be the least scenic. You can cross a bridge over the river to get a better look at the falls and Tea Table Rock, which some people walked onto. On the other side, water drips down from the rocks with slippery mud underneath, making it a great place to stand on a warm day. J. went a little past the bridge, but I was trying to save my energy for the walk back and my knees for the 127/128/1XX steps up. I haven’t looked up how far the trail goes, but with more time and energy I imagine we could have seen much more. I can’t say for sure that I’d ever seen the Lower Falls or been to the restaurant before — perhaps, perhaps not.
At Inspiration Point, the views of the gorge are especially spectacular. Fortunately for us, William Pryor Letchworth was a generous man with foresight who wanted to preserve the gorge from a particularly grisly future subject to the whims of industry, economics, and greed. I’ll have to read more about the history of Letchworth in the books I spent my vacation money on.
J. also got his first look at the Upper Falls with the railroad trestle passing above them. This bridge, in place since 1875, is being replaced by an updated design that won’t have piers in the gorge. I’m glad I could see the old bridge one more time and now wish I’d walked it. I am sure my brother and I walked along part of it once, long ago on a beautiful day, surrounded by trees, sun, and shadows.
As it was Memorial Day, little was still open by the time we were ready to eat, so we went to Mama Mia in downtown Geneseo for doughy, cheesy food right before the rain that had been threatening finally let loose.