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 were 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.
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 is 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.
After a leisurely breakfast and some moments in the sunroom overlooking the lake and the wind turbines, we packed and, after the now-traditional stop at Tim Horton’s, headed north on Route 5 to Old Fort Niagara. On Grand Island, we debated a detour to Beaver Island State Park, but there wasn’t enough time.
I’d been to Old Fort Niagara perhaps twice. Once a couple of my friends had come with us — I remember this because somewhere I have a closeup of our faces as we sat in the back seat of my dad’s van. Also among my photos there’s one of my dad and mom walking across a bridge or embankment in the middle distance. The enormous weight gain that had snuck up on him jutted out prominently, while a couple of yards behind him my mother struggled to keep her hair from blowing in the wind. It’s not a flattering photo, but I like it because it’s one of the few unposed photos I have of them together.
My dad may have taken me one more time, after my mother died and I had graduated from college. I can’t remember if we went to both Niagara Falls and Old Fort Niagara, or just Niagara Falls, but I recall eating lunch in a parking lot and feeling how odd and wrong it was to be on a little adventure without my mother.
When I’d been to Old Fort Niagara before, I’d been struck by the number of college-age boys dressed in redcoats, firing muskets and cannons — funny to think that, like me, those kids have aged into their fifties. On this day, the fort wasn’t overrun by college-age redcoats, but by characters of various ages from several wars and conflicts, from pre-Revolutionary War to the Korean War and beyond — in tribute to Memorial Day. It was a little disconcerting to see GIs at the old fort.
We listened to part of a long presentation about uniforms and the story of Betsy Doyle, who during the War of 1812 ran hot shot up the stairs of the fort’s French Castle. I struggled to get up the stairs even once without toting deadly hot shot.
I’m sure I saw a lot more of the fort on this day than I had before, but I’ve never seen as much as I could. It was a beautiful day, too, with a slightly hazy look that I associate with this area, located across from Canada at the mouth of the Niagara River. It truly feels like a place out of time.
On the return trip, i took a photo of what I’d always thought was a wrecked barge jutting up from the Niagara River north of the Peace Bridge, with trees thrusting through the deck. Since then I’ve read it’s an old water intake station. There go all my assumptions and memories, as I remember my dad pointing it out to me.
On our last pass down Route 5, we made a final stop at Red Top Hots, although it wasn’t quite the same without BL freezing in the lake breeze. After stopping at the house to say goodbye to BL and family, we picked up a perfect souvenir of western New York — Weber’s horseradish mustard, which I don’t remember from my childhood at all.
Next we hurried to Chestnut Ridge Park to find the eternal (not really — it gets blown out frequently but can be relit) flame waterfall. Google Maps seemed determined to send J’s car down a footpath through dense woods, but I wasn’t convinced. As we meandered around a bit, seeing lots of high schoolers in the backs of pickup trucks (which surprised me), finally we asked a man walking his dog where to go. It turns out there’s a parking area for the trail off 277 that was easy to find, but in the meantime we’d lost an hour or an hour and a half of daylight by the time we arrived at the trailhead. I wish I’d remembered my way around Chestnut Ridge! We did get a brief glimpse of the toboggan run . . .
The trail to the falls isn’t too rough, although it’s steep in places, with rocks and logs in the way along the creek. By this time, fatigue had set in from several days of walking and standing, and I couldn’t make it past an uneven part of the trail near the water, even as young people leapt past me and others walked by without a care. As J. continued on, several people offered to help me, but I was physically and psychologically stuck, deterred by what may seem to most to be a tiny obstacle, but it was too much for me at that point in time. J. did see the falls, which he said were farther off than he thought based on what people were telling him. Although there wasn’t a lot of water, the flame was lit. I wish I’d seen it.
We left for Geneseo at about 8:15 p.m., traveling through East Aurora, Warsaw, and Perry on Route 20A, all of which J. liked. One deer crossed the road, and J. spotted a second. Along the way we passed dozens of wind turbines, just like in parts of Illinois on our way back from the Illinois River Road. Route 20A is more twisty than most roads in Illinois, and J. found himself hard pressed to keep out of the way of impatient locals, pulling over when possible to let them pass. At last, shortly before 10 p.m., we arrived at Temple Hill Bed & Breakfast, to be greeted by our friendly host, her friendly dog, and welcome rest after an exhausting but exhilarating few days.
Intrigued by South Creek Road, J. and I set out before breakfast to drive down as much of it as we could. (I wasn’t looking at maps — no need to.) It ends in Eighteen-Mile Creek County Park, which as serves as a state-designated fishing hole. There’s not much of a conventional park here — just a gravel parking lot without even a portable john. A paved trail cuts into the woods, turning into a dirt trail with a side trail that looks like it goes down to the creek. We were going to be late for breakfast even if we hurried back (on the walk to the parking area, I got a friendly reminder call!), so we didn’t make it down. Later I read that Eighteen Mile Creek County Park is (take your pick) (1) abandoned (2) undeveloped. One website said there had been a proposal or plan to turn it into a golf course. No, no, no, a thousand times no . . . the same site also noted that the path we’d found doesn’t go to the creek, but one a tenth of a mile further on does. Reason to return . . . for now, it’s a relatively untamed spot that had drawn several cars to it by the time we left. Although the area is reverting to nature, J. found what to us appeared to be stone gateposts, with upper and lower hooks still attached. If I had known about this spot, I might have made an effort to go there. It would have been a strenuous ride up and down the mild inclines, though. Knowing me, I’d have flown over the rails into the creek. Four miles and twenty minutes to a bit of paradise — I could have managed it then and might even have appreciated it.
What’s a trip to western New York without a visit to Niagara Falls? I hadn’t been there since 1987, when I went late in the afternoon on a dreary day of threatening weather. Today was sunny and getting warmer by the minute, as we’d found on our morning walk. After a luxurious breakfast we left, making a stop at one of the Tim Horton’s along the way. With the help of Google Maps, I steered J. wrong briefly while in Buffalo, but soon we were back en route, and I was seeing familiar sights like the Pillsbury building, the Tifft Nature Preserve (which I’ve never visited), and the Peace Bridge.
Then we came to Grand Island, where the imposing bridges have been painted a blue that almost blends into the sky. The geography, which I’m sure I never understood, was coming back to me. I remember once or twice taking a more scenic route to Niagara Falls, but my guess is that it may have involved crossing the Peace Bridge and driving along the Canadian bank of the Niagara River.
I’d failed to take into account one important detail — with Memorial Day on Monday, the area was crowded with traffic and people, probably more so than usual. Someone in a hurry even managed to take a paint chip off the back on the driver’s side (as often happens, it didn’t register until later, but he heard and felt it). We found ourselves in a distant parking lot, waiting for a shuttle to take us closer to Goat Island. I don’t remember that at all from years ago, but while the populations of Buffalo and Niagara Falls have declined, the number of tourists who want to see this attraction seems to have expanded exponentially.
In my 18 years in New York, I’d never gone aboard any of the Maid of the Mist boats. From what I can recall from my brain’s faulty data banks dating to the 1960s and 1970s, the Maid of the Mist was a popular, modestly scaled service, but today it’s a big operation that moves people with the precision of a factory conveyor belt. I told J. that the people ahead of us disappearing into the bowels of the next Maid in line were destined for some hideous end (Soylent Green?), never to be seen again (the people visible on deck could simply be a regular cast planted there to make you feel complacent). As it turns out, the scale wasn’t my imagination or a distorted childhood memory — the boats I would have seen when I was, say, five years old carried about 100 people, while today’s Maid has a capacity of 600. I wish I’d had a chance to take the trip as a child, even without an iPhone or Nikon to record it.
As an aside, operations on the Canadian side are run by a different company, so when you look down you’ll see a boat loaded with blue ponchos (American side) and a boat loaded with (maple leaf) red ponchos (Canadian side). Rival rain gear!
After passing through the pre-boarding points of the Maid of the Mist experience with assembly-line efficiency, we picked up our own blue ponchos from a giant shed and were shepherded on board, where we found a good spot with a view, not too many heads in front of us, and a bar to cling to. The ponchos are effective at keeping out the spray from the falls — my arm got wet mostly because water ran down the sleeve as I held onto the vertical bar.
The Maid of the Mist stops at the more attractive Horseshoe Falls first, lingering long enough for us to appreciate the beauty and power of the water and its deafening roar. I’m still amazed a boat can approach so closely, to be swallowed by the mist. My dad, more knowledgeable than I, used to find my fear that it would capsize amusing. Today the boat stayed in place seemingly effortlessly as I struggled to take photos while trying to keep the iPhone and camera dry.
Next the Maid swings back toward the American Falls, where the remnants of several rock slides prevent too close an approach and there’s less mist further out to obscure photos. I’d rarely been to Niagara Falls on such a sunny day, when even the lines of the water looked crisp in the bright light.
After leaving the Maid, we spent a long time in the observation area, which has magnificent views. Although I tried, it was hard for me to imagine the real “Niagara Frontier” the way the first people in the area had seen it. (I can’t picture the abomination of the Niagara Mill District, either, even after seeing vintage photos of it.)
By now I was getting tired, it was late in the afternoon, and we needed to get back to pick up my cousin and his wife for dinner, so we skipped Old Fort Niagara when I realized how far away it was and turned south toward Grand Island and the B&B for a brief cleanup and rest stop.
Next we headed into Hamburg and through Water Valley toward Eden. I can’t explain it, but I love the drive through Water Valley, which is little more than a bridge over a dip in the landscape where the creek runs. I always felt like I’d been transported instantly and magically from town to country, from present to a recent past. Past Water Valley, Braymiller’s Market, where we used to stop for ice cream or custard, is still there, looking unchanged.
For a short time there was a European cheese store on Route 62, where my dad willingly stopped so I could buy cheeses and a powdered Swiss drink that came in a jar with a red label and lid and had a robust flavor like a grain. I can’t remember the name anymore, even after I found it once or twice at the old Chalet in Hyde Park.
The shop looked quaintly European to my young mind, and I loved the cool atmosphere inside, dim after the brightness of the outdoors. I was heartbroken when one day we stopped to find it closed — no yelp.com then to warn us of these things. The building is still there, housing a Subway sandwich shop complete with the original Swiss-themed exterior artwork. As of June 2015, the franchise is up for sale for the reduced price of $55,000. How interested am I in franchising?
After dinner at Pegasus in Hamburg, we took my cousin and his wife home, where we visited for a couple of hours. I learned some new stories about both my dad and cousin. He told me the union had leased their hall next to Tony’s (formerly Jim’s) because they didn’t need that big of a space. I said Ford seems to be doing well and keeps its buildings well maintained, unlike some of the rusty plants in south Buffalo (and survived, unlike its neighbor, Bethlehem Steel). He noted, however, that in its heyday the Ford Stamping Plant had up to 5,000 employees, while now it has perhaps 700. It’s no wonder they don’t need that big union hall. He also mentioned what a fabulous place Old Fort Niagara is with all its history, which cemented the idea of going there. After taking a couple of photos and bidding them a very reluctant farewell after 11, we returned to the B&B, which we still couldn’t find in the dark!