December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’m a little slow but one day years ago when I saw a woodpecker at Promontory Point I realized there are two in the field guides that look very similar—the downy and the hairy. One is smaller but I could never remember which.
Smaller isn’t a good field sign if you haven’t seen both and you’re not sure of the relative proportions.
On a July 2018 visit to Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, two woodpeckers happened to land on opposite sides of the same feeder, facing each other. In that moment, I couldn’t miss the most obvious differences between the two, despite the similarity (mostly) of their plumage.
The downy is quite diminutive when seen across from his larger cousin, the hairy. More than that, the downy sports a delicate stub of a bill compared to the hairy’s railroad spike—the bill is almost the length of the hairy’s head.
Finally I got it. I will not have trouble identifying either again. There are other differences, but that bill is the most obvious. Now I have in mind: “downy=diminutive”—body size and bill.
As a side note, the downy is the one you’re more likely to see at your typical suburban bird feeder. I can’t be sure at this late date, but the downy is likely the one my dad fed with free suet from the local butcher.
According to Audubon, the hairy requires larger trees and is less likely to show up at suburban feeders or city parks. I’ve seen enough of them at the nature center to know that area (and their feeders) suit the hairy just fine.
In December I’d checked out Horseshoe Curve from the parking lot, but hadn’t been up to the top since September 1988 — er, 31 years ago . . . Not long after, a visitor center and 288-foot funicular were built and opened in 1992. Not knowing anything about the funicular, I was surprised to find it doesn’t run constantly, only on the hour and half hour.
We spent about 15 to 20 minutes looking over the exhibits while waiting. I appreciated the one showing how the Curve had been carved out — I’ve never been able to visualize it or how it would have looked before. Another highlighted the wreck of the Red Arrow in 1947, which killed two dozen and injured more than 100.
The funicular cabins, which were made in the Durango and Silverton Railroad shops in Colorado, ascend and descend at the same time. They pass at a circle part of the way up (or down). I expected the cabin to veer to its right, but they swing to the left to pass. Very British.
Up top the cars from the summer derailments (two!) are visible but not close. We’d picked up a list of scheduled trains at the visitor center, but am not sure we matched any that went by to it — certainly not the “Oscar” (trash train) heading west. In addition to the Oscar, we saw an intermodal plus helper locomotives returning in pairs as they do. No Amtrak — the eastbound Pennsylvanian had gone through earlier. I’d be on the westbound Pennsylvanian later in the afternoon, while it was still daylight.
While we watched the trains we found ourselves plugging our ears. One thing I didn’t remember from all those years ago was the screech of metal on metal, the wheels and brakes as they fight the curve and the incline.
It seemed fitting we got a wave from the locomotive of the last train we saw — one of the few times I’ve seen a woman engineer.
Our final shopping stops were Hillside Farm, where I bought whoopie pies, and Ridgeside Cider Mill, where V. picked up their first cider of the season and I added to my soap collection.
Years ago a relative had posted about Tytoona Cave (more formally, Tytoona Natural Area Cave Preserve), the name an awkward mashup of “Altoona” and “Tyrone.” Previously, its location had seemed a mystery to me, and December wasn’t the best time to visit it. I’d looked again recently and found out it’s connected (more or less) to Arch Spring in Sinking Valley which my cousin had pointed out to me a couple of years ago. Now I could find it easily on Google Maps — as it turns out, it’s on T495 off Kettle Road, less than a half mile from Ridgeside Cider Mill. Off we went.
There’s a slight cutout parking area, with the trail entrance marked by green barrels. Steps, some eroded, built in 2001 by the Tytoona Cave Preserve Committee and members of the Huntingdon Co. Cave Hunters, lead down into the sinkhole. Normally a stream flows into the cave, but it was bone dry. This made walking in without hiking shoes a lot easier.
If you walk far enough into the cave, you can sign a register. I didn’t make it nearly that far. I didn’t have a flashlight, and was surprised by how dark it became a short way in. It’s easy to see why people in Tytoona Cave videos wear helmets with headlamps — it’s too dark to see the low ceiling that your head will hit.
The stream bed through the sinkhole may have been dry, but there was running water somewhere in the darkness. In this video, the cave walls and ceiling amplify the sound, but I suspect the cave’s water would make a respectable noise without the help.
It felt weird and creepy to hear water rushing nearby without being able to see it. If I’d had a light, a helmet, and a better physique, I wonder if I could have gone as far as the register or even the first sump . . .
On the way out, we saw a poster about Pennsylvania bats. Short version: Tytoona Cave is not the best place to find them.
And so back to packing for the return trip on the Pennsylvanian and Capitol Limited.
My journeys on the Capitol Limited and Pennsylvanian were uneventful. The Capitol Limited arrived in Pittsburgh 40 to 50 minutes before the Pennsylvanian left, so it was a little close — but no Greyhound this time. I got my eastbound trip around Horseshoe Curve, although by looking to the inside I missed the derailed center beams on the outside – on both sides. (There were two derailments at the Curve this summer.)
I arrived in plenty of time to go on an outing to load up on spring water at Elk Run near Tyrone. Many, many bald-faced hornets were feasting on the plants by the stream.
We also stopped at a farm in Sinking Valley to pick up what turned out to be the last corn on the cob of the season and later shuck it for an evening “mountain pie/hotdog cookout and corn boil.” I wish I’d taken a photo of my ham and cheese mountain pie. Delish.
Having worked out Lyft, my next objective was Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I’d been there before without noticing it’s down the road that runs north of Parker Mill. Gallup Park is on the way to both. After how many years of visiting Ann Arbor, I’m finally figuring out the geography.
I also spotted several places from which the Huron River looks accessible. After visiting Minnesota’s North Shore a couple of times, reading The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and digging into a textbook on earth science, I’ve developed a new appreciation and love for rivers and all their variations (streams, brooks, creeks — or “cricks,” as my dad would say). They shape the land and weather, offer passage to humans and wildlife, provide food, contribute to the economy, join and separate nations, and hold countless secrets from throughout the ages. Just ask the Tiber.
At Matthaei, I found one of the things I’d been seeking — a bowl of plants surrounded by kaleidoscopes. I wanted to we if I could improve on my previous efforts to record it. It’s not easy to aim the phone camera precisely at a kaleidoscope eyepiece, hold the clunky phone sideways steadily, and spin the bowl. I didn’t succeed at spinning the bowl either slowly or at an even speed. I swear my anxious exertions and the pain of standing for a few minutes made me pant..
I headed through the rest of the greenhouse, but didn’t look or linger — it was too hot, for one thing. I went outside, hoping to find flowers laden with butterflies and bees. Instead I found neither much in the way flowers nor butterflies. Perhaps earlier in spring or later in summer.
Next, I wanted to a better video of the wind-spinner sculpture I’d seen on a previous visit. If I had a yard, I’d want something like this in it. My dad, I think, would have loved it (but not the price tag, I’m sure, for anything similar).
I turned toward the Gaffield Children’s Garden, where there’s a “rustic” trail through a wooded area, with benches along the way. It would have been perfect but where there’s shade, there are mosquitoes. Many mosquitoes. At one point the one bothering me turned into a dozen swarming me.
I left the rustic trail for an Adirondack-style chair in a dappled area — slightly cooler than full sunshine, but not as infested as full shade.
A tiny bird, species unknown to me, landed on a birdhouse and called back and forth with another bird, with long breaks for preening. A few people came along, but most of the time there was no one about. I liked the feeling, a little like being retired, although I’d have expected more summer visitors.
Gaffield has pretty features, even if they are artificial. I can imagine I’m enjoying a bubbling mountain stream. (I can’t, however, imagine the mosquitoes away.)
After more wandering and sitting, a peek at carnivorous plants, and a better video of the spinning plant bowl, I stopped at the gift shop and bought souvenirs, including an embossed Green Man tote bag as a gift. If there’d been one more left, I’d have been even poorer.
While looking at stalled traffic from the window at work, I’d noticed that most cars are black, white, or gray. That’s why, when I got into my return Lyft, I praised the car’s light metallic green color. The driver told me the only way she could afford a new car was to drive it for Lyft. On the flip side, it had accumulated 12,000 miles to date. That’s a lot of rides.
And so ended my last afternoon in Ann Arbor this trip. Until we meet again
Having survived an autumn visit to Camp Bullfrog Lake, and being fond of the Palos area for its hills, moraines, sloughs, woods, and forest preserves, I wanted to plan another stay. There are only two large cabins, and I was happy to get one of them for May, which I had figured would be at the height of fine spring weather. HA.
May 18, 2019
The adventure began in Homewood, where I met J. He was immediately distracted by an Operation Lifesaver “train” blowing its horn as it circled downtown Homewood. It looked popular and crowded, or we might have ended up angling for a ride.
Our first stop was at Cottage on Dixie, where, unbeknownst to us, we were about to have our last meal there. A month later the owner announced it was closing. A few days after that, the owner announced a grand reopening on July 18. My head spins, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the last Cottage meal after all.
We settled in briefly at Camp Bullfrog Lake, then set out for sandwiches at Ashbary House at the Old Willow Shopping Center, set against a wooded hillside. I love the way it looks.
Back at camp, a full moon (well, a few hours past) rose above the lake into the clouds, looking a bit like Saturn. The clouds and moon over the lake were the perfect complement to the campfire. Our fire-starting skills are better if still in need of improvement. A bucket of topnotch fire starter didn’t hurt, and with close nursing our fire flamed merrily for several hours and marshmallows. The full moon was an unexpected bonus. (Usually I pay closer attention to moon phases.)
May 19, 2019
The morning looked promising weather wise.
I found we had a lot of neighbors at the next cabin, with breakfast piled high atop their picnic table. One of their cars had Alaska plates. I marveled that anyone would drive from anywhere in Alaska to Illinois. I might never have gotten past, say, Montana or Wyoming.
After breakfast at Maple-N-Jams, we happened upon the Nut House in Bridgeview. I gained weight looking at the colorful displays, but managed to walk away with mostly seeds.
Upon returning to camp, we found the perfect excuse to skim old travel magazines and, in my case, read more about The Black Death — a lengthy downpour. Undoubtedly payback for the serendipity of the full moon.
With numerous sloughs and the Des Plaines River, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and Cal-Sag Channel running parallel to each other through this area, there are plenty of steel truss bridges. I love them. I wonder if the blue paint on some is relatively new to dress them up.
I thought we might see a lot of flowers in bloom at Little Red Schoolhouse, but maybe mid to late May was too late. Instead we found one of the ponds full of tadpoles, two northern water snakes, and a green heron trying to be still and invisible. Suddenly, it took off after another green heron we hadn’t noticed across the way. A brief yet epic battle ensued, and in the end I couldn’t tell which one hightailed it to the woods and which took over pond patrol.
On the other side, the great blue herons and great egrets of Longjohn Slough kept a watchful eye on each other, like boxers in their respective corners between rounds.
At Little Red Schoolhouse we’d seen a flier for a mushroom/fungus walk at Swallow Cliff Woods. We decided to investigate on our own. We didn’t get far down the trail before my pain levels rose and my energy levels flagged, just far enough to this tantalizing pathway. Someday.
I hadn’t noticed any mushrooms in the short distance we’d walked, but on the return trip we both noticed several (not the same ones in all cases). J is credited with the find of the day, a magnificent morel. I don’t think I’ve seen one “in the wild.” I began to understand why the naturalists had chosen Swallow Cliff Woods for their fungus walk. Now if only I could find (or recognize) slime molds in any form . . .
For dinner we headed to Jen’s Guesthouse, formerly Courtright’s. It was too wet to sit outside in the garden area against the wooded hillside, but the inside isn’t shabby.
Back at camp, we still hadn’t perfected the art of fire making but finally had enough going to toast marshmallows. When we were sure we’d had enough, we tossed in the Mystical Fire. I found out later we should have used three packs, but even one was . . . mystical. Or at least colorful.
May 20, 2019
We went to Lotus Cafe, which turned out to be part of Pete’s Fresh Market, and ended up with a breakfast-by-weight buffet. We also stopped at Strange Brew Cafe, which I recognized from last year.
Back at Camp Bullfrog Lake, we packed and took a last walk around. When I approached the pier, I was startled by a great blue heron perched on the railing, no doubt keeping an eye out for fresh lake fish (or even the eponymous bullfrogs). Just when I thought it was going to let me get close, it slowly flapped off to shore. They like to keep their distance. I don’t blame them.
While driving around we kept passing a historical marker sign and decided to investigate. This led us to St. James at Sag Bridge Church and Cemetery, which involved some steep hills. I can’t say for certain we found the historical marker, but i did spend a few moments checking out Our Lady of the Forest. It turns out the church is on the National Register of Historic Places. I’m reminded too that I want to read The Mystery at Sag Bridge by local writer Pat Camalliere, whom I’d met briefly at Settlers’ Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland.
Despite the I-355 extension and the encroaching warehouse-type developments, I’m still charmed by most of Bluff Road in Lemont. We stopped at Black Partridge Woods, walked along the picnic shelter side of the stream for a bit, then returned to the parking lot to find two male scarlet tanagers paying court — presumably — to a female. I don’t get to see these birds very often, so it was a treat and a thrill worth the entire trip — downpours, damp, and all.
We made another visit to Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. While no green heron lurked about that I could see, the great blue herons and great egrets were still skirmishing along Longjohn Slough.
For a light dinner we stopped at Spring Forest 2, where I love the terraced outdoor seating areas.
Finally for dessert, we headed to the Plush House to enjoy ice cream from the comfort of an Adirondack chair. And so ended another weekend adventure in one of Illinois’ more interesting areas.
Indian Ridge Marsh is a recent (2017) addition to the Chicago Park District, located a little southeast of Big Marsh Park near Lake Calumet. Norfolk Southern lines run down the ridge. While I was visiting, NB and SB freights met and passed each other.
Lightt was a short-lived video app I still miss. I didn’t have time to master it but I liked some of its effects. This video and a few others demonstrate motion parallax, which I had to look up after I noticed it.