Prairie Fever

Hiking with kids means having fun

Hiking with kids means having fun.

There’s no arguing with the benefits of taking kids on a hike. It allows the family to spend time together, keep fit, and experience the pleasure of exploring the natural world.

When looking for a Chicago-area hiking spot to bring the family, keep in mind that some destinations will be better than others.

  • A visitors center with engaging nature exhibits is always a plus for kids.
  • Generally, younger children will prefer a shorter hike through a gentle landscape.
  • Avoid places that are overly busy. During summer weekends, Chicago’s Lakeshore Path or Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County can be overwhelming, not to mention dangerous, for a small child on foot.
  • Build a child’s interest by asking him or her to help choose the destination. Consider your own preferences, too. If parents are enthusiastic, it will likely rub off on the kids.

So your kids are on the trail, now what? The trick, as many parents know, is making sure the kids have fun. The June 2009 issue of Backpacker magazine contains a short article with some great tips on hiking with kids. Here are a few of the suggestions offered:

  • Start hiking early and quit before their energy goes on a sharp decline.
  • Make sure you match the kids’ interests and hiking ability with the right trail and the length of time hiking. Take a rest break every half hour or so.
  • Play hide and seek by having the kids run ahead on the trail. After everyone walks by, the kids can surprise the family from behind.
  • Ask kids to find items along the trail: a purple flower, a red rock, or a type of leaf.
  • Consider bringing items such as binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a camera.

Local parks and county forest preserves throughout the region offer a host of fun programs geared toward teaching kids about the natural world. Keep watch for activities in your community on these websites:

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Parents may find it useful to check out my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago. It lists the top kid-friendly hiking destinations in the Chicago area and describes each hike in detail.

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Rolling through the big woods of Wisconsin

mountain-biker

In northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest, the mosquitoes can be fierce in their search for blood. But once you understand the transaction–a bit of blood and a few itchy spots in return for basking in the great beauty and remote feel of the North Woods–the skeeters can be tolerated.

A thimble-full of blood seemed a minor sacrifice for a weekend spent enjoying what is widely regarded as the best collection of mountain biking trails in the Midwest. Chequamegon (pronounced “sha-wa-maghan”) National Forest contains nearly one million acres of rolling glacial terrain punctuated by rocky outcroppings, dramatic ravines, and hills blanketed with maple, oak, and pine. Dozens of backwoods ponds, lakes, and wetlands provide homes for wildlife such as beavers, loons and bald eagles.

So begins an article of mine that just appeared in Windy City Sports magazine. Read the entire article here.

(Photo above courtesy of Chequamegon Area Mountain Biking Association.)

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7 tips for planning a camping trip in Illinois

Tent camping at Johnson-Sauk State Park in northern Illinois.

Johnson-Sauk State Park in northern Illinois.

Preparing for a camping trip is mostly an intuitive process. In broad terms, you choose a destination, pack your food and gear, and then make your escape. Pretty simple. But as seasoned campers know, snags can occur rather easily in the process. The goal is to avoid becoming the camper who arrives at the full campground or the one who realizes the site he or she reserved sits alongside a busy expressway.

Here’s a list of tips on planning a camping excursion gleaned from my experience researching Camping Illinois, a guidebook that required many weeks of camping and traveling throughout Illinois. Some of the suggestions will be familiar; perhaps others are not.

1. Head to the public campgrounds. If you’re looking for scenic terrain, the best hiking and fishing, and generally well-maintained facilities, go to public campgrounds operated by a host of governmental agencies, from the local to the federal level. While there are exceptions, private campgrounds focus less on scenic beauty and more on a mildly resort-like atmosphere with game rooms, activities, and opportunities for socializing.

the walk-in campsites at Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois occupy a finger of land reaching into the lake.

The walk-in campsites at Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois occupy a finger of land reaching into the lake.

2. Chat with park rangers. Park staff people are not consulted enough. They offer a deep well of useful information that never appears within brochures and websites. As soon as you start to seriously consider a particular destination, give the park a call and share your plans. They’ll tell you about expected number of visitors for a certain time, amenities in the park, and, of course, if a campground is closed for maintenance, modifications, or soggy ground.

Illinois contains dozens of riverside campgrounds that often close with little notice due to flooding in spring and sometimes during summer. Once the floodwaters recede from the campground, a great deal of cleanup must occur. Strained park budgets and limited staff can prolong the cleanup process, sometimes for the entire season. I once visited a campground in southern Illinois that was shuttered because a landslide had blocked the access road four months prior to my visit.

Another reason to call the campground before arriving is to find out if hunters will be present. Many state parks allow hunting in fall and winter.

While checking in with the park staff, you can ask about nearby attractions, the best trails to hike, the best local fishing spots, favorite campsites, and what flowers will be blooming when you arrive. If wild turkeys or bobcats live within the park, park rangers will know. Just remember to be extremely polite and thank them for their generosity.

3. Expect plenty of company on holiday weekends. As an anti-social camper, I dread hitting campgrounds on holiday weekends. While researching Camping Illinois, I sometimes stayed in hotels on holiday weekends just to avoid the crowds. Not all campgrounds fill up on holiday weekends, but most do—especially the more popular campgrounds.

Here’s another reason to rethink the holiday weekend campout: In 2008, state parks in Illinois jacked up their fees considerably for camping during holiday weekends at sites with amenities like electric hookups.

If you feel compelled to camp on a holiday weekend and prefer a quieter camping experience, you might choose a campground with walk-in sites, which tend to have fewer visitors. The further campers must walk, the fewer people you’ll find. Another option is to hit one of Illinois’ backpacking trails at places such as Sand Ridge State Forest near Peoria, Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, or Forest Glen County Park near Danville.

The campsites at Rauchfuss Hill State Recreation Area in southern Illinois sit on high bluff above the Ohio River.

The campsites at Rauchfuss Hill State Recreation Area in southern Illinois sit on high bluff above the Ohio River.

4. Consider reservations on summer weekends. If you’re visiting a park with a reputation for being fairly busy (state parks within range of Chicago, for example), make reservations. Before you make reservations, though, contact the park. Staff will know the expected turnout for a particular weekend. Reservations are likely a prudent choice also if there is an event in the area, or if there are no alternative campgrounds in the immediate the area and your travel plans hinge on local camping.

In the Illinois State Park system, reservations are made through individual parks and must be mailed or dropped off in person (no e-mail reservations accepted). Reservations require the first night’s camping fee as well as a nonrefundable $5 reservation fee. Some parks have their own reservation form and others use a generic form (download the forms).

If reservations are accepted at campgrounds operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, make the reservations online or calling (877) 444-6777. For the county and local campgrounds that accept reservations, contact the local management agency.

5. Be prepared for bothersome bugs and plants. A nasty encounter with poison ivy can put a big damper on your outdoor vacation. Poison ivy is a common plant throughout most of Illinois: it occurs as a vine or groundcover, three leaflets to a leaf. It contains urushiol, which is responsible for the skin rash. After contact, raised lines or blisters will occur on the skin. Don’t scratch it. Wash and dry the surface, and then apply calamine lotion to dry it out.

Most often, mosquitoes and other biting insects are more of a nuisance than a danger. Using insect repellant, wearing pants and long sleeves, and avoiding areas where the insects congregate all are strategies to keep from getting bitten.

If you’re spending ample time outdoors you should know about the diseases spread by some insects. Individuals can become infected by the West Nile virus if bitten by an infected mosquito.  Culex mosquitoes, the primary varieties that can transmit West Nile virus to humans, thrive in urban rather than natural areas. Insect repellant and protective clothing are the best preventative measures. Remember to follow instructions on the insect repellant, especially when applying to children.

Ticks are often found on brush and tall grass waiting to catch a ride on a warm-blooded passerby. While they’re most active in early and mid-summer, you should keep an eye peeled for them throughout spring, summer, and fall. Deer ticks, the primary carrier of Lyme disease, are very small, sometimes only the size of a poppy seed.  For hikers, one of the most common places to find ticks is inside the top edge of your sock (ticks need some type of backstop to start drilling into the skin).

To minimize your contact with ticks, some people choose to wear light clothing so this dark-colored insect can be spotted right away. Insect repellent containing DEET is an effective deterrent. Most importantly, be sure to visually check yourself, especially if you’re out on a hike. If it’s prime tick season, you’ll want to check your exposed skin (particularly your legs, if they are exposed) every hour or so and then do a more thorough examination back in your campsite or in the shower. For ticks that are already embedded, tweezers work best for removal. Speaking of pesky insects…

6. Know the laws regarding firewood transportation.
The emerald ash borer is a green beetle, native to Asia, that has already killed 40 million ash trees in the U.S., and threatens to kill many more. To prevent the spread of this invasive insect, you should know the rules restricting the transportation of firewood. If you live in the 18-county area of northeastern Illinois or in certain parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, you may not bring firewood from home. Instead, you must acquire firewood locally. (Most campgrounds offer some nearby options for purchasing firewood). Learn what parts of the Midwest have firewood quarantines.

Dense woods surround this walk-in campsite at Sangchris Lake State park in central Illinois.

Dense woods surround this walk-in campsite at Sangchris Lake State Park in central Illinois.


7. Keep the packing strategy and the gear list as simple as possible.
I keep my camping gear in a couple of large plastic containers all in one location. After a brief process of weeding and consolidating, the containers go right from the storage shelf into the car. I don’t have to go room to room looking for gear, nor do I have to transfer gear to a new container. When it’s easy to pack and make my escape, I find that I’m likely to head out more often.

Instead of cramming the car with gear for every possible need, I try to bring just enough gear to make my stay safe and comfortable. The quantity and variety of camping gear will depend on the time of year, the destination, and the level of comfort that one prefers. Along with a tent, sleeping bags, food, and a flashlight, you may consider bringing items such as a gas stove, a lantern, and large water container. Some campers bring extra items that will add to their comfort such as a hammock, a small weather radio, and a tarp to hang above the picnic table to block the rain and sun. If you plan to hike, be sure to bring a daypack with padded straps to carry items such as snacks, water, raingear, an extra sweater, keys, money, sunglasses, a camera, and binoculars.

Unlike camping in remote parts of the country, while camping in Illinois you’re never far from civilization. Only a handful of campgrounds in the state will put you more than 30 minutes away from a convenience store and 1 hour from a hardware store or a sporting goods store.

Any suggestions to add? Please let us know in the comments below.

And now a message from a Prairie Fever partner:
While exploring what nature has to offer, take advantage of deals on vacation Rental Homes from Homeaway.

icago has set the tone in the region with a host of initiatives and programs that have made
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Start walking

man walking

The beauty of walking is its simplicity. It costs nothing, it’s always available, and, of course, it allows you to get from one place to another. Some people say walking inspires thought and helps them sort through life’s difficulties.

If you’ve considered embarking on a new walking routine, you may want to do a bit of preliminary research in order to answer a few questions. Should you use a pedometer? What’s the best walking technique? How often should you walk? All these questions and others are succinctly addressed in a useful little bochure recently released by the American College of Sports Medicine. The organization has a great collection of free brochures addressing an array of excercise and health-related topics.

In related news, a new survey ranks Chicago fifth best city in the nation for walking.

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Chicago hiking slide shows

Take a look at a couple slide shows I recently created highlighting hiking destinations featured in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago.

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Winter walks around Chicago

Winter at the Morton Arboretum

Winter at the Morton Arboretum

At the height of winter, when trees stand naked, streams and lakes freeze up, and the landscape is wrapped in snow, the woods of the Chicago region seem lifeless. With only the sound of wind and the occasional call of a crow, nature apparently has slipped into a seasonal coma.

But if you happen to take a winter hike a couple days after a fresh layer of snow has fallen, you’ll realize that you’ve been fooled into equating winter with total dormancy. Fresh snow soon gets crisscrossed by an array of critters: raccoons, foxes, coyotes, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, and a variety of birds. The imprints of paws, hooves, and claws reveal bustling neighborhoods within the woods.

Hunting for animal tracks in the snow is just one of many simple pleasures to be enjoyed on a winter walk. People hike in winter for a variety of reasons: some seek solitude and some go out looking for a cure for their cabin fever. Others go for the sights and sounds: snow hanging on tree boughs, the wind sweeping through bare trees, and chickadees flitting among branches.

Whatever your reasons for getting out, the first step is finding the right place to go. Here are a few local spots perfect for winter hiking.

Morton Arboretum
Length:
3.4 miles
Difficulty: Easy
At the Morton Arboretum tree lovers could be kept busy for weeks surveying hundreds of types of trees grouped according to geographical origin, species, and habitat. While the arboretum is known for its woody vegetation, the woodlands and savannas are also great places to look for animals and their tracks.

For a 3.4-mile counterclockwise loop hike through the east side of the Morton Arboretum, start at the Big Rock Visitor Station and follow the Main Trail as it heads west toward the arboretum entrance. (The Main Trail is a series of four connected loops, numbered from west to east.) Growing along the Main Trail are trees from Appalachia; plantings of locust, honeysuckle, viburnum trees; and trees from Asia, such as mock orange and koyama spruce. Birds like flickers, juncos, and cedar waxwings show up in these areas during winter.

After skirting the edge of Bur Reed Marsh, you’ll enter an area with 43 types of oaks from around the world. If snow has fallen, look for spots underneath the oak trees where deer have kicked up the leaves while hunting for the acorns. Entering the dense woodland, keep an eye peeled for animal tracks within furrowed lanes in the snow: The stands of shrubs and abundant deadfall seem to draw in the critters.

After completing the hike, don’t miss the favorite stop for winter hikers at the arboretum: A warm café with a view.

Little Red School House Nature Center
Length:
2.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy
The Little Red School House Nature Center provides a good destination for young hikers because the terrain is gentle and the trails are short. Plus, kids have a chance to warm up while they check out the funky exhibits in the nature center that once served as a one-room schoolhouse.

Start the hike behind the nature center on the Farm Pond Trail as it hugs the shore of Long John Slough, a 35-acre lake fringed by oak trees. Stay to the right at the next two junctions and follow the Black Oak Trail through patches of savanna, prairie, and woodland. After hiking nearly a mile, a sign on the edge of the trail identifies the former site of the Little Red School House. First built here in 1870, the school burned down in the mid-1880s and was quickly rebuilt. In 1932 the school was moved (pulled by one mule, they say) to a location nearly one mile east, and then it arrived in its present location in 1955.

On the way back to the nature center, the trail takes you by a display of old farm equipment and three large cages containing live birds of prey: a great horned owl, a barred owl, and a red-tailed hawk.

Before starting the next loop, duck inside the nature center to see more live animal exhibits, such as an American kestrel (a small falcon) and a boisterous crow. Kids will want to press their ears against a Plexiglas box containing a buzzing beehive, and they’ll likely enjoy some of the mounted specimens, such as the five-legged bullfrog named Mr. Lucky.

After warming up, continue the hike on the White Oak Trail directly across the parking lot from the nature center. Cross the multi-use gravel path, and then bear right at the fork. Watch for woodpeckers and chickadees moving among the trees within this gently rolling savanna. Before heading back, you’ll see Joe’s Pond, one of the many small bodies of water in the area left behind by glaciers.

Indiana Dunes State Park
Length:
7.5 miles
Difficulty: Challenging because of the length and the sandy dune climbs
Among the many regular visitors to the Indiana Dunes, few have seen the dunes in winter when snow covers these monster-sized sandy hills, strange ice formations develop along the shoreline, and views are enhanced by the absence of foliage.

Starting from the Indiana Dunes State Park Beach House, head to the right for a 2.7-mile walk along the beach. Look for deer, raccoon, and skunk tracks near the water. You’ll likely see some shelf ice along the shore. Shelf ice develops when the winter winds blow piles of ice against the shoreline. The ice freezes together forming dramatic ice sculptures, and sometimes the shelf extends hundreds of feet into the lake. (Don’t walk on the shelf ice—it’s not solid. Signs in the park offer stern reminders that falling in the water in cold weather is extremely dangerous).

At the marker for Trail 10, head inland into a dune forest of oak and pine. Attentive hikers may catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker. This elegant, crow-sized bird with a prominent red tuft on its head is rarely seen in the region. Also, keep watch for small groups of wild turkeys crossing the path in front of you.

Turn right on Trail 9, and soon you’ll come to a large blowout. A blowout forms when winds blow sand inland, carving out what looks like a large sandy amphitheatre. From the blowout, the trail traverses a dune ridge. Tall white pines and stately black oaks rise from the ravine on the left. Through the bare trees on the right, the Chicago skyline is usually visible 30 miles away.

After passing another large blowout and then dropping down from the dune ridge, stay to the right at successive junctions for Trail 9, Trail 10, and Trail 8.
Now, get ready to climb the big ones.

Following arduous climbs up Mt. Jackson and Mt. Holden, you’ll enjoy views high above the treetops of the dunes parkland and beyond. Climbing the staircase up Mt. Tom rewards you with expansive views of the lake’s shoreline to the west. Trail 8 takes you down the beach, where you’ll turn left and hike back to the parking lot.

Ice sculptures on the shore at Shabonna State Park

Ice sculptures on the shore at Shabonna State Park

Winter hiking tips

  • Snacks and liquids are highly recommended during any walk. This is especially true in winter when a thermos of warm soup becomes a source of deep happiness.
  • The old advice about dressing in layers still holds true: stay comfortable by peeling layers off and putting them back on.
  • Snowshoes are generally unnecessary for local winter hikes. Even when snow is more than six inches, trails get packed down quickly.

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Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently available in a second edition.

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Climate change turns up heat on Chicago

What’s outdoor recreation in Chicagoland going to be like in future years as the climate continues to change? Well, you’ve already had a taste of this transformation. Since 1980, Chicago’s average temperature has risen approximately 2.6 degrees. And according to a new report drawn up by leading climate scientists to describe various scenarios for Chicago’s climate future, the city could experience more extreme heat, heavier, more damaging rainstorms, growing flood risks, and greater loss of habitat for native plants and animals.

The city-commissioned report, called the Chicago Climate Action Plan, provides an in-depth view of the effects of climate change on area temperatures, precipitation, human health, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Here is a thumbnail sketch of details in the report that will inevitably affect local outdoor activities:

Temperature: With 15 of the last 20 years showing above-average annual temperatures, it’s very likely that Chicago summers will continue to be hotter with a higher frequency of intense heat waves. Moreover, a likely increase in humidity could make hot days feel even hotter. By mid-century, Chicago’s climate could resemble that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with summer temperatures reaching 90+ degrees on more than seventy days and 100+ degrees on more than thirty days.

Precipitation: As anyone who owns a pair of cross-country skis can attest, we’re already experiencing less snow in winter, and an earlier snow melt in spring. In years to come, expect more flooding and erosion as downpours increase in intensity. This could lead to trails getting washed out more frequently, and will likely create long-term trouble for parks and preserves prone to high water from nearby lakes and rivers.

Plants and animals: Those who enjoy identifying wildflowers and watching local wildlife may have already seen some changes happening in local ecosystems. Chicago’s “plant hardiness zone,” as it’s called, shifted to that of central Illinois in 1990. If left unchecked, plants from northern Alabama will be very comfortable growing in the Chicago region by the end of the century. Of course, when plant species go, the creatures that feed on those plants follow.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is mostly a human-made phenomenon resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases. Of the two main sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago, 70 percent of the gas emissions come from buildings or the energy production needed to serve them. Another 21 percent comes from the burning of fossil fuels to operate cars, trucks, buses, and trains. Most of the remaining greenhouse gas emissions come from waste and industrial pollution.

The Chicago Climate Action Plan states that the timeline for these changes depends on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The authors make it clear that there is time to lessen or even eliminate some of the negative effects of climate change in the Chicago area. In addition to laying out larger goals and action plans for business and government, the report offers plenty of suggestions for individuals.

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The Fox River Trail

Located only 30 miles west of downtown Chicago, the Fox River Trail has plenty of good things going for it. As this pathway hugs the Fox River for 33 miles between Aurora on the south and Algonquin to the north, it passes more than a dozen community parks and forest preserves. These quiet riverside parks offer great views of the big winding river.

In Elgin, the Fox River Trolley Museum sits alongside the trail. In Geneva, the 300-acre Fabyan Forest Preserve contains a restored Dutch windmill that dates back to the 1850s. Also alongside the trail at Fabyan are a pristine Japanese garden and the Villa Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Fox River Trail

The Fox River Trail

Along with the natural and historic attractions, the trail also passes through a string of enjoyable downtown areas. Some of the towns—particularly Elgin, Geneva, and Batavia—have done great work in creating attractive urban riverfront areas with flower and sculpture gardens, pedestrian bridges, and scenic walkways.

A runner in Norris Woods

A runner in Norris Woods

Since you’re never far from one of the nearby towns, there is usually a variety of restaurants, ice cream parlors, and watering holes not far down the trail. In East Dundee, you can choose between two locally-owned trailside coffee shops.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

The Dutch windmill at Fabyan Forest Preserve.

If you’re keen on a longer trip, the Fox River Trail allows you to connect with a handful of other Chicagoland recreation trails. Heading north, for example, will connect you with the Prairie Trail, which will take you all the way to the Wisconsin border.

And finally, the gamblers among us will be happy to know that the Fox River Trail might be the only long recreation path in the nation with two riverboat casinos located steps from the trail.

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Japanese Garden at Fabyan Forest Preserve

Nearly the entire Fox River Trail is paved; only a few short sections are covered with crushed gravel. The trail is eminently reachable via Metra trains.

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Ted Villaire, the author of this post, is also the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago (now available in a second edition).

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Recent links: Park closings and late-season paddling

30,000 names on parks petition
“An online petition drive aimed at stopping the closure of nearly a dozen state parks in Illinois has garnered more than 30,000 signatures, but that’s not enough for Jane Hovland, a 66-year-old grandmother from Clinton.”

2008 Chicago north side circumnavigation trip report
My launch site was on the northwest side of the Sheridan Road bridge over the Channel, right across from the Bahai Temple. The whole area was a construction site so I had to dodge a bulldozer or two and bump my way through torn up pavement to get down close to the water.”

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When cars and bikes collide

As a cyclist, what should you do if you’re in a crash with a car on Chicago streets? My friend Jim Freeman knows. He’s a personal injury lawyer whose clients are primarily Chicago cyclists and pedestrians. Recently, he answered some of my questions about steps to take after a crash, bike safety, and local bike laws. Here’s what he had to say.

What are the steps a cyclist should take after a crash?

1. Call the police.

2. Get witness and driver information. Do not depend on the police to get information from witnesses. In almost every case that comes to me, the client will say, “There were lots of witnesses, but I didn’t get any information from them. It should be on the police report.” In most instances, I get the police report and there are no witnesses listed. In a case where the question of fault depends on your word against theirs, an independent witness makes all the difference. So be sure to get any witness’ phone numbers and addresses.

3. Seek medical attention. If there is even the slightest possibility of an injury, you should request an ambulance and go to the emergency room. Adrenaline runs high after a crash, so you might think you are fine; but often there are latent injuries that are not immediately apparent. From a legal standpoint, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention at the scene of the crash.

4. Preserve evidence and take pictures. Your bicycle, clothing, helmet, and anything else damaged in the crash is evidence and should be preserved. Do not swap parts from your damaged bicycle. Leave it in its present condition and take pictures of the damaged bicycle and any visible injuries.

In your experience, what are the most common reasons for car vs. bike crashes?

About a third of my bicycle cases are “doorings.” Another third of my bicycle cases are “left turns” in which a cyclist is cut off or struck by a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction attempting a left turn.

Regarding bike- and pedestrian-friendly laws, how does Chicago compare to other cities?

The State of Illinois has some of the nation’s worst laws for cyclists. Cyclists are given a second class status. We are permitted to use Illinois roadways, but we are relegated to hugging the right hand curb, and we must yield to auto traffic under most circumstances.

As a city, Chicago has gone a long way to promote cycling through infrastructure improvements and legislative improvements such as The Bicycle Safety Ordinance passed earlier this year. The Illinois Vehicle Code was clearly designed with only motorists in mind, not cyclists. The changes really need to come from Springfield to improve conditions for bicyclists statewide.

Some states have much more favorable laws such as the stop sign/yield, red light/stop laws, which more realistically consider the practical differences between cyclists and motorists.

What are the most important strategies for avoiding crashes on a bike?

Headlights. Illinois law requires bicycles to be equipped with a white headlight and a red rear reflector. For some reason, cyclists in Chicago think it is acceptable to forgo headlights for a red rear light. If you are only going to have one light it should be a white headlight—not a red rear blinky.

Lack of headlights kills more cases than all other factors combined. If a cyclist is involved in an accident with a motorist at night and the cyclist doesn’t have proper lighting equipment, the cyclist can expect to be blamed for the accident.

Keep your eyes open and ride defensively. Understand that many motorists haven’t learned to look for cyclists. Assume they don’t see you or anticipate your presence. Stay out of the “door zone” and look into rear view mirrors of parked cars as you ride by. If you see someone in the car assume they are about to open their door.

What’s your background in cycling and lawyering?

I grew up in a small town in downstate Illinois. Like all the neighborhood kids I had a number of bikes over the years. In grade school I acquired my first road bike and started to spend time taking day trips in the country. The first few years of my undergraduate education were spent in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, so I took up recreational mountain biking. I moved to Chicago in 1996, which lead to my first urban cycling experience.

In 2002, when I moved to Logan Square, I discovered the joys of urban cycling and bicycle commuting, and I began to think of the bicycle as transportation rather than recreation. I became a religious year-round bicycle commuter and started racing. I also took a basic bicycle maintenance class, which marked the beginning of a more professional understanding of bicycle mechanics. In 2007, I took First Fixed, Second Overall in the Tour Da Chicago alleycat series, and I started teaching adult wheel building classes at West Town Bikes.

After graduating from law school, I worked for a plaintiffs’ firm, representing injured people for two years. Then I went to work for a defense firm where I worked for insurance companies defending people or corporations alleged to have caused injuries.  After four years of defense work, I left to start my own practice.

I originally thought I would have a diverse practice, but fairly quickly I started getting calls from injured cyclists. Now, I have a busy practice consisting of different personal injury cases, but the overwhelming majority of my work involves advocating on behalf of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Read Jim Freeman’s blogs: The Streets of Chicago and Chicago Bicycle Laws.

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