Prairie Fever » A perfect guide to nature’s pleasures

A perfect guide to nature’s pleasures

by Lew Freedman
Chicago Tribune
Sept. 29, 2005. pg. 7

Ted Villaire has itchy feet. When he gets time off from his job working as a publications editor for the national offices of the Parent Teacher Association in Chicago, he goes exploring. Have backpack will travel.

And now Villaire is sharing all that he has learned in a handy guidebook for hikers, parents and others who seek an escape from skyscrapers. It’s called “60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Chicago.”

Villaire, 36, grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., in a family that frequently took camping and hiking outings, often in a 500-acre woodland behind his house.

When he moved to Chicago eight years ago, Villaire was a graduate student at DePaul without much ready cash for bar hopping, movies or other pricey entertainment. For amusement, he went hiking.

“Exploring the forest preserves was a way to do something that didn’t cost much money,” he said in an interview this week.

A walk around the block never has been sufficient for Villaire. Once he checked out the Cook County Forest Preserve District, he kept on going. During 2003 and 2004, while compiling the $16.95 book for Menasha Ridge Press of Birmingham, Ala., Villaire completed about 85 hikes in this area.

“There is a need for a comprehensive guide for Chicago,” Villaire said. “A lot of people don’t know where they can go to a place without an expressway or strip mall nearby.”

Villaire is right. And his guidebook fills a need. In a metropolitan area of 8 million people, with its overwhelming traffic and concrete rather than grass in most areas, providing getaway tips is welcome.

People want to commune with nature, take their kids to a park, but to do it without going somewhere overnight or by killing the entire day. That’s why Villaire’s book is so valuable.

It is also exceptionally user friendly. The book is notable for the diversity of trails suggested, but they have much in common. They are mostly an hour’s drive or less from Chicago, are rarely longer than 10 miles and are of limited difficulty because the region is basically flat.

“I tried to spread them out geographically,” Villaire said.

Terrifically handy for those who know what they want but don’t know where to find it, is the opening section dividing the hikes into lengths and categories. Hikes are listed in categories of 1 to 3 miles, 3 to 6 miles and longer than 6 miles. And hikes are placed in groups such as “Good for Young Children,” “Solitudinous Hikes,” and “Hikes with Wheelchair Accessible Sections.”

An almost too-good-to-be-true feature includes driving directions from Chicago to every hiking spot. What makes Villaire’s book so special is that he answers the average person’s questions before they can be asked.

Want to see wildlife? Check out the Dead River Loop at Illinois State Beach Park, Ryerson Woods or Volo Bog State Natural Area. Want to see wildflowers in season? Take in the Chicago Botanic Garden, Buffalo Rock State Park or Crabtree Nature Center. Want to hike along a river, a beach, a lake? Villaire has you covered.

Asked if he has a favorite among all his favorites, Villaire didn’t hesitate.

“I like the Indiana Dunes a lot,” said Villaire, who included four hikes at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and two at Indiana Dunes State Park, located on Lake Michigan east of Chicago near Michigan City, Ind.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “I love being on the dunes. You have the shoreline in the distance. There are a variety of environments. It’s unusual for the Chicago area.”

Indeed, sand dunes are at a premium in the Loop.

Villaire particularly enjoyed the wetlands at Illinois’ Moraine Hills State Park north of Chicago, grew to appreciate prairie hikes and was surprised by the Grand Kankakee Marsh Hike and LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area Loop.

“What I liked about those was the solitude,” Villaire said of the latter two. “It seemed not many people know about these places from outside the immediate area.”

Villaire completed only about a dozen of his hikes with company. Most of the time he traveled solo.

“A lot of people don’t like to get up early on a weekend morning,” he said.

The trails are there year-round and in many cases are used by cross-country skiers, too, but Villaire urges hikers to visit a trail in its prime time.

“The Morton Arboretum is great in fall when the leaves are changing,” he said.

And although most people consider hiking a summer activity when the kids are out of school, Villaire prefers hiking in the spring or fall.

“It’s cooler,” he said. “There are fewer insects and fewer people.”

Listen to the man. He’s a professional.

(Copyright 2005 by the Chicago Tribune)