May 4, 2019
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.
March 31, 2019
I’d gotten an email about volunteer opportunities at Indian Ridge Marsh, which I had not heard of before. Referring to Google Maps, I saw it’s near Big Marsh Park and Hegewisch Marsh, so J. and I decided to check it out.
It turns out it’s a couple of blocks east of the landfill south of Big Marsh. When we arrived, I realized it’s exactly the fenced area we’d passed at night a few years ago that looked dark, grassy, and empty of industry and that had intrigued me. I’d wished then that it was open to the public and to visit it during daylight hours. And here I was, even if unwittingly.
Indian Ridge Marsh lives up to the “marsh” part of its name. Parts of the trails we saw were under water, and the first one we took (south) was so waterlogged I sank into it up to my ankle and almost got stuck (reminding me of a similar experience on the way to Lusk Canyon/Indian Kitchen in Shawnee National Forest).
The other trail looked wetter, but wasn’t as soft. It led to water divided by a ridge, with another ridge to the west. On Google Maps, the water looks like almost like somewhat regularly shaped holding ponds. I wonder if this is their natural configuration or their steel industry one.
Rulers in the water to the north and west of the E–W ridge, where the trail runs, show water depth. You’re invited to participate in “crowd hydrology” by texting the depth to a number, after which you get a reply text, and the depth appears on a website. Our March 31 measurement at the western ruler was 2.4 feet, which binoculars helped my aging eyes to see.
Train tracks run on top of the N–S ridge, and we watched as NB and SB Norfolk Southern freights met and passed, with the SB stopping for a while.
Across the street from the parking lot and to the south a cut through a ridge reveals the Calumet River and an active industrial area. Past that a steel bridge on Torrence crosses the river. Next to the south end of the bridge a deer crossing seems out of place, given the immediate surroundings.
We parked in a little area north of the bridge and walked across a wooden bridge to more wetland areas, which may have been Heron Pond Park. Although we couldn’t see it from our vantage point, I’d seen a swan from the street. If I had wings, I’m not sure I’d want to hang around an industrialized wasteland. I can only imagine how important Lake Calumet and these neighboring marshes were and are to migratory and resident birds.
When we headed west toward Big Marsh and came to the landfill, we found perhaps a dozen deer munching away on its grassy slopes, oblivious to the warning signs. Further north at Big Marsh, a great blue heron was poised over a channel, flapping off majestically to the opposite side of the water at the sound of the engine. Beyond it more deer were having supper. The sign south of the bridge makes me wonder how far these little herds wander out of the marshes into those nearby industrial areas.
Finally we ended up at ye neighborhood tavern, Small World Inn Bar & Grill, where we were the only outsiders, sitting at a table instead of at the bar. If you’re in the mood for cevapcici (Serbian skinless small grilled sausages of beef, lamb and pork), this is the place for you.
More about Indian Ridge Marsh here (PDF).
All you can do is predict a Midwest spring will be unpredictable. Get your bike ready but keep your scarf and mittens handy.
April 14, 2019
All-day blizzard conditions.
April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday)
A week later, a great egret keeping an eye out for fish dinner at Washington Park lagoon.
December 27, 2017: After seeking elk in the outlying areas of Benezette, we found a little herd at the campgrounds in town, which they favor. I handed my phone off to my cousin, who was in a better position to capture them. Benezette is part of the area that’s been rebranded “Pennsylvania Wilds” to attract adventurous tourists of the have kayak, will travel variety.
I experimented with taking a photo with an iPhone through a Swarovski spotting scope at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center/Starved Rock Lock and Dam. Hey, give me credit for trying. It’s surprisingly difficult to align the iPhone lens with the spotting scope viewer without a big glob of glare.
iPhone photographs of butterflies and clearwings at Perennial Garden, Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois.
14 October 2018
While returning from a walk on the “ancient dunes” trail at Eggers Woods, one of the Forest Preserves of Cook County that’s almost in Indiana, I spotted this doe and two three-quarters grown fawns on and to the side of the trail a short distance from the parking lot. They have lots of room to roam at this park a few blocks from I-90, but friend J and I saw at least five to six deer near the trail and/or lot. While this looks like a challenging stance and she kept an eye on us, she didn’t seem inclined to scare easily. They’re used to hikers without guns, I suppose. Some of the deer seemed thin to me, which isn’t good for them with winter around the calendar corner.
October 6, 2018
It’s not easy to reserve a large cabin at one of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County campgrounds, which became very popular very quickly. I managed to book one at Camp Bullfrog Lake in the Palos Hills region of southwest Cook County. The “hills” are moraines where the leading edge of a glacier halted and material at the leading edge piled up. With hills, woods, rivers, and sloughs, and the only canyon in the county (tiny Sagawau), this is one of the more interesting areas within reach of Chicago.
Camp Bullfrog Lake lies across 95th Street from Maple Lake, which is popular with boaters and fishers. Boats and kayaks are also available for rent at the campground, where we watched two men and a tiny figure paddling away.
The campground lay under heavy, low cloud cover, but the grim sky didn’t deter one group of revelers from playing cricket in the roadway. We passed them on our way out to procure what I consider to be a camping essential for amateurs — firestarter. (We already had our complimentary bundle of wood from the 24-hour office/store.)
For dinner we stopped at the Irish Legend on Archer Avenue, which I didn’t recognize but had been to once before in January 2013. Nearby, Jen’s Guesthouse (not a B&B) has taken over the space formerly inhabited by Courtright’s, which I do remember visiting a long time ago. It was a fine dining restaurant set against a wooded hillside. I loved it.
Back at Camp Bullfrog Lake we struggled to get a fire going. Eventually it caught, then died down several times only to flare up again on its own (zombie campfire?). With so much anxiety over keeping the fire going, s’mores were too much effort, but we burned, er, toasted more marshmallows than is healthy.
To the east (although I didn’t know the direction at the time) a glow in the sky might have appeared to be a lingering sunset on a less cloudy day, but likely was light pollution, source unknown (Chicago Ridge Mall?). As the campfire burned and reignited, stars began to appear, mostly overhead and to the west. At some point it dawned on me that gaps must have opened in the oppressive cloud cover of the day.
October 7, 2018
After the evening sugar high, next morning we went to Maple -N- Jams Café, a small storefront restaurant with a big menu and a wait. You can’t go wrong with a name like Maple -N- Jams (except grammatically).
Next we stopped at Strange Brew Café.
As it turned out, our visit to the area coincided with the 53rd annual arts and crafts fair at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. You can judge an event’s popularity by the number of LEOs required to direct traffic. We were sent around the corner, so to speak, to the Pioneer Woods parking lot, where we caught one of the circulating school buses hired to shuttle folks back and forth. I must note that school buses today have a lot less leg room than they did in, say, 1976.
When we arrived at last we found artists spread out in and around the schoolhouse and the nature center, along with folk musicians, a couple of food trucks, and the surprisingly ubiquitous St. Roger Abbey bakery display. The nuns speak perfect English with a strong unmistakeable French accent. A woman looking over the goods asked if they are Catholic. “Yes, yes,” said the nun. The woman seemed to indicate skepticism or doubt. “When you see a nun with a habit and cross, what else would we be?” She realized instantly that this may have seemed a bit combative and apologized repeatedly. The woman didn’t seem to know what to think. “What kind of accent is that?” she asked. I escaped with a loaf of rustic bread and my sarcastic tongue held firmly in cheek, with difficulty.
Before we got to St. Roger Abbey’s temptations, we’d walked through the schoolhouse, down the path to and along Longjohn Slough, and through various levels of the nature center, crowded with artists’ booths among the fossils and wildlife displays. I’m not even sure I’d ever been on the topmost level before, or maybe I didn’t recognized it in the hubbub. I ended up with candles and a couple of bookmarks that are “great for kids” (I didn’t mention they’re for me).
After listening to the final song of the day while we ate vendor fare, we headed to the little pond (slough?) off one of the trails where I’d seen a belted kingfisher once before. The last of the hayrides, which we’d found out about too late, was about to leave from the clearing across the way.
With that, we squeezed into the next bus, then wended our way to Saganashkee Slough. There we found the REI Boathouse, essentially a container housing kayaks and other equipment for rent for those who want a paddle around the slough. It’s an interesting idea; I wonder how popular it is during the season. I’m impressed by the size of Saganashkee Slough, which to me looks like a real lake but is part of the Cal-Sag Channel somehow (“Saganashkee” is the “Sag” part of the Cal-Sag name). According to the FPDCC website, “A slough — pronounced ‘slew’ — is a somewhat colloquial name for a shallow wetland or pond.” Many of the lakes and sloughs in the area have helpful depth maps, and ice fishing is allowed at some.
For a moment I felt like I could be in northeastern Minnesota.
We also made an unplanned stop at Sag Quarries.
For dinner we picked Ashbary Coffee House at the Old Willow Shopping Center. I couldn’t do this justice in a photograph. It’s a series of house-like buildings set against a wooded hillside in a way that makes the roofs appear to be slightly stepped. The effect is magnitudes more interesting than your typical strip shopping center.
The chili and panini were great on a grim, gray day, but the slot machines, while not in use, detracted from the charm. They seem to be a big thing in the southern and southwestern suburbs.
And so back to Camp Bullfrog Lake, where we bought a bundle of wood for $5. Again it took a while to get a fire going, then it had to be resuscitated several times. Next door outside Cabin 7. a horde of teenage girls was celebrating a birthday with a fire, song, and dance, and, as we saw the next morning, Silly String.
Alas, there were no breaks in the clouds this evening, and at about the time I had roasted my last marshmallow I started to see telltale flashes, soon followed by rumbling. Yes, just as I was confident the fire had finally taken hold in the wood, it began to pour.
From inside, however, we watched the fire burn survive a few outright downpours in addition to the steady rain for at least another 30 to 45 minutes. It didn’t just smolder and throw sparks. It flamed. Perhaps it did better for lack of our nurturing attentions, aka interference.
October 8, 2018
For breakfast we sent to Spring Forest 2, which had been closed the evening before. Like Jen’s Guesthouse, the Irish Legend, and Ashbary Coffee House, Spring Forest 2 is on a stretch of Archer Avenue, but on the opposite side. While the breakfast menu is very limited, a $2.50 breakfast burrito was just the thing. We ate on the porch, where the seats and tables were dry, but behind the house is a descending series of garden seating. Even wet from the overnight rain, it’s an interesting, charming setup. I love the multiple levels and again couldn’t do them justice in photos.
We stopped at Ashbary House, which wasn’t open, so we went to Kirsten’s Danish Bakery for coffee and something pumpkin.
Having fueled ourselves, we turned to Black Partridge Woods on Bluff Road, a gem of a nature preserve with a lively stream bubbling underneath a stone arch bridge. Here, bluebells bloom among the trees in spring. It would be idyllic — except someone decided to run an extension of I-355 over Bluff Road about a quarter mile away. It’s hard to appreciate the bubbling of the brook over the near-constant roar of the interstate. Bluff Road is hilly, twisty, and rustic away from its intersections. Now at one intersection a massive concrete warehouse-style building is materializing across from what may have been once peaceful houses on a country lane. I should be content that Black Partridge Woods with its spring-fed stream hasn’t been paved over.
Next we headed to nearby Waterfall Glen, named for Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, not for the picturesque CCC-built low-head dam on Sawmill Creek. Waterfall Glen surrounds Argonne National Laboratory, and it usually takes me a while to figure out I have to search for “Rocky Glen Trail” to get to the right parking area. Otherwise I find myself trying not to look guilty at one of Argonne’s guard houses as I did now.
After Google helpfully suggested “Rocky Glen,” we found ourselves on familiar ground—a roadway closed off to cars, a left-hand turn on a trail, then a walk along Sawmill Creek to the low dam. There often seems to be hordes of people here, including this day. I’d forgotten that it was a school holiday, Columbus Day, so there were lots of people milling about and walking in the water.
I’d read that a trail runs along the creek and thought I’d seen it, so we started down its muddy spots. It passes through trees for a short distance before it opens onto a length of even stepping stones below a shored-up hillside. At the point where the creek turns south, you see the dam in one direction and a part of the creek you can imagine to be somewhat wild in the other. I could have stayed there all day if my body would let me. For a short time we were the only people around, but soon people and pets started to appear — almost like we’d been followed.
I think I could be happy living near a stream like the one at Black Partridge Woods or Sawmill Creek at Waterfall Glen — as long as no one thought to build an interstate extension or highway or concrete block nearby.
Our next stop was another favorite, the Plush Horse in Palos Park, a “venerable ice cream shop” in a house located in an area that seems more developed than I remember. Sigh. The inside was raucous with children and teenagers, so I sought refuge outside on a comfy Adirondack chair that made eating an ice cream cone a challenge, accompanied by yellow jackets — it’s that time of year. Not content with buzzing us, one decided to take a long stroll on my mouth, where its little feet tickled my lips and the threat of its stinger ensured I would do nothing about it. It’s amazing how long a minute or two can seem.
After dessert at the Plush Horse, I found Mediterranean cuisine at a new place, Simple Taste, in a fading strip shopping center. We were the only diners in the late afternoon/early evening hours. I had baba ghanoush and zucchini noodles — both of which hit the spot not taken up by Plush Horse ice cream.
And so another camping adventure ends, with a full heart and belly.
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.