Prairie Fever

Bird watching in Chicago

Chicago holds a central position on the migration route for millions of birds every spring and fall. About 250 bird species use the Mississippi Flyway, as it’s called, in the spring from mid-March to early June, and in autumn from late August to late October.

While passing through Chicago, migrant birds use the city’s ponds, parks, and natural areas as resting and feeding stops. Migratory birds can be seen throughout the city, but most often, they turn up near the lakeshore.

A couple of the best lakeshore spots for seeing the city’s avian visitors are Montrose Point and the Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary in Jackson Park.

Montrose Point, located just east of Montrose Beach, contains a 150-yard stretch of shrubs and trees often called the Magic Hedge. The hedge is well-loved by warblers, thrushes, sparrows, purple martins, woodpeckers, and dozens of other types of birds.

Jackson Park’s Paul Douglas Nature Sanctuary (also called the Wooded Island) lures in scores of different species of migratory birds. The 16-acre island was created as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. While there, be sure to visit the lovely Osaka Garden.

For more info:
Chicago Region Birding Trail
City of Chicago birding resources

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

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Climb the dunes at West Beach

While it’s true that West Beach is one of the more popular destinations at the Indiana Dunes, it’s also true that you lose the crowds rather easily once you escape to the 3.6 miles of hiking trails that loop through the area.

Dunes at West Beach.
Dunes at West Beach.

Located just 40 miles southeast of Chicago, West Beach is a perfect spot for a quick escape from the city. After you’re done climbing big dunes and scouting out water birds and unusual plants, you just might be compelled to pull out the picnic basket and change into your swim trunks (if the weather is warm enough, that is).

If you’re a first-time visitor to the dunes, you’ll soon learn that this park occupies a very unlikely piece of real estate. Who would have thought to put a good-sized national park smack dab in the middle of an area with the highest concentration of heavy industry in the nation? Well, in any case, I’m glad they did. And once you’re away from the beach, the nearby smokestacks tend to be forgotten.

Catch the hiking trail on the east side of the beach, and you’ll follow a long series of stairs and boardwalks that bring to mind the artwork of M.C. Escher. The stairs lead you to a series of high dunes topped with marram grass, jack pine, and cottonwood trees.

Coming off the dunes, the trail runs alongside a small lake fringed with cattails and blanketed with lily pads. Look for egrets, great blue herons, and kingfishers from the viewing deck alongside the trail.

Near where the trail crosses the park road, prickly pear cactuses grow in dense clusters; closer to the woods, milkweed plants and small sassafras trees push up through the sandy soil.

Pond at West Beach
Pond at West Beach

The final section of this trail climbs a dune ridge under a thick oak canopy. Small patches wetlands sit at the foot of some wooded ravines. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of the final dune for another spine-tingling view of the lake and the surrounding landscape. All that’s left now is running (or rolling) down the dune to the parking area below.

The National Park Service offers driving directions and a good map of the trail. During summer, the park charges an entrance fee for West Beach.

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

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October at the Morton Arboretum

Perhaps the best place in the Midwest to experience the crescendo of fall color is the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

Right now at the arboretum, the sumacs and white ashes are showing reds and purples, shagbark hickory is putting on a golden-yellow display, while hints of oranges and reds are beginning to show in the tops of some of the sugar maples.

In the arboretum’s 100-acre prairie, prairie grasses show russets, purples, and yellows with late asters blooming for added color.

“It’s the crisp, cool air, sunny days, and shorter day lengths that triggered the color change,” says the Arboretum’s Ed Hedborn, botanist and “Color Scout.”

Photo courtesy of the Morton Arboretum
Photo courtesy of the Morton Arboretum

By this weekend, the kings of fall color-the maples-will likely arrive with their striking golds, reds, and oranges. Also stealing the spotlight are ginkgos, with megawatt yellow leaves so bright, you might think the trees are plugged into an electrical outlet. Sweet gums usually bring a dark red or purple, while corktrees, black maples and larches round out the palette.

In addition to the explosion of color, the month of October also brings activities for both kids and adults to the arboretum:

  • Free wine tasting offered by Bonterra organic vineyards; through October on weekends from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • The Fall Garden Marketplace offers an array of merchandise; through October on weekends.
  • A Scarecrow Trail features nature-themed scarecrows designed by local Girl Scout troops; through October-8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
  • A taffy apple bar; through October on weekends.

While at the arboretum, visitors can hike 16 miles of trails, bicycle nine miles of roads, or take a 50-minute, narrated tram tour. The arboretum also hosts a restaurant with a great view.

Admission to the arboretum is free for members; for nonmembers, admission is $9; children are $6.

I will be signing copies of the new edition of my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, at the Arboretum’s Fall Garden Marketplace on Saturday, October 18, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

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Fall hikes around Chicago

Fall provides the perfect excuse to explore local trails: moderate temperatures, migrating birds, and a dormant bug population make the explosion of color all that more enjoyable. Here in the Prairie State, early fall is also the time when you can hike through a sea of prairie grass that is 8 to 10 feet tall.

Chicago hosts many great fall hiking options
Chicago hosts many great fall hiking options

Here are several great fall hiking options in the Chicago area.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park
The rugged trails on the west side of the park contain dense woods, wetlands active with water birds, and some of the biggest hills in Lake County. In early fall, swaths of big bluestem prairie grass reach 8-to-10 feet in height. Named for its attractive mauve stalks, big bluestem is the dominant grass of tallgrass prairies-the type of prairie that originally existed throughout the northern three-quarters of Illinois.

Trails on the east side of the park meet up with the Fox River and Grass Lake, and allow fine views of the exquisite Fox River wetlands. Explore nearly 15 miles of trails at this park located in Lake County near the Wisconsin border.

Geneva Lake Shore Path
Given the exclusive atmosphere at Geneva Lake, many visitors are surprised to learn that there’s a public footpath circumnavigating the entire lake. While walking through people’s yards may feel intrusive at first, this feeling diminishes once you see the many pleasant walkways installed by homeowners. Along the way, you’ll encounter flower gardens, carefully landscaped lawns, boathouses, and little villages. In the fall, the hills and bluffs surrounding this silvery lake light up with color.

Consider starting at the Lake Geneva Library and taking a 10-mile walk to the village of Fontana. For the return trip, catch a tour boat back to your starting point. Geneva Lake is located about 10 miles north of Harvard, Ill. in Walworth County, Wis.

Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
If you enjoy hikes through hilly terrain crisscrossed with intermittent streams and blanketed with dense woods, you’ll be charmed by this 3-mile hike in southwestern McHenry County. Situated up on a ridge left by the last glacier, this wonderfully wooded landscape provides visitors with an unusually isolated atmosphere.

The park’s 15 species of conifers don’t offer much color-wise, but they do provide a rich fragrance rarely encountered in the Chicago region. The hillsides of oak, hickory, poplar, sumac, and ash trees guarantee an abundance of fall color. Consider pitching a tent in the park’s small campground.

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Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in a second edition. A different version of this article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Windy City Sports magazine.

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Fall author appearances

Lincoln Park REI Grand Opening

Saturday, October 4, 11 a.m., book signing

Saturday, October 4, noon, presentation on Chicago-area hiking

I’ll be doing a booksigning and a presentation at the grand opening for the new REI store in Lincoln Park. The store is located at 1466 North Halsted Street, just south of West Blackhawk Street. During the weekend, there will be other speakers, as well as product giveaways at the store.

Morton Arboretum Fall Festival

Saturday, October 18, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Going on throughout the month of October, the Arboretum’s Fall Festival features an outdoor marketplace, wine tasting, theatre hikes, and various events for children. Drop in for a visit while I’m at the outdoor marketplace signing copies of my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago and answering questions about outdoor recreation in Chicagoland and Illinois.

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The best small campgrounds in northern Illinois

Large, busy campgrounds have never appealed to me. Instead, I like to pitch my tent at places that are fairly quiet with a minimal number of other visitors. Good camping spots also should offer hiking trails to explore, picnicking grounds conducive to cooking out and napping, and rivers and lakes that give one’s mind opportunities to wander.

Here are a few places in northern Illinois that qualify as top-notch camping spots. All of these destinations are included in my book, Camping Illinois.

Apple River Canyon State Park
Located about 130 miles northwest of Chicago, this off-the-beaten-path campground offers one of the most beautiful settings in northern Illinois. The campsites are nicely spaced out; thick groves of oak and maple provide campers with plenty of shade and privacy. The Apple River flows through a series of limestone canyons within the park. The walls of the canyons are dotted with mosses, lichens, and small bushes that grow in the crevices. Hiking trails allow visitors to catch the views from atop the limestone bluffs, explore the deep ravines, and wander alongside the Apple River.

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Sugar River Forest Preserve

Sugar River Forest Preserve
Winnebago County in north central Illinois claims an impressive collection of scenic, well-maintained forest preserves. One of the best contains an attractive campground set within a dense grove of pine trees situated near the Sugar River. The surrounding terrain features prairie, wooded bluffs, and a perfect grassy picnic area beside the meandering river. This forest preserve also offers 5.5 miles of hiking trails, as well as a collection of riverside walk-in camping sites (a great avenue for those of us city dwellers who ache for solitude). Sugar River Forest Preserve is located about 100 miles northwest of Chicago.

Marengo Ridge Conservation Area
Situated up on a ridge left by the last glacier, this wonderfully wooded landscape provides visitors with an unusually isolated atmosphere about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. The pine tree-laden tenting campsites offer lots of privacy; about half of them require a short walk from the parking spot. The hiking trails at Marengo Ridge are reason enough to visit this remote little forest preserve–they run through hilly terrain crisscrossed with intermittent streams and blanketed with dense groves of oak, hickory, and conifers.

White Pines State Park
This charming 385-acre park invites visitors to explore the hilly terrain, traverse the many log footbridges over Pine and Spring Creeks, and trace the route of the creeks as they flow past moss- and vine-covered limestone cliffs. From the semi-open camping area, you’ll walk less than a mile for breakfast at the park’s log-cabin style lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

A bit larger than the other campgrounds listed here, White Pines wins the prize for the niftiest stuff to do in the immediate area. Nearby are the pleasant little towns of Oregon and Dixon along the Rock River. Also close are Castle Rock State Park, Lowden State Park containing the 50-foot concrete statue of a Native American on the river bluff, and the strange, shrine-like John Deere museum and historic site. White Pines is located about 90 miles west of Chicago.

None of the destinations listed above are known for being overly busy, even on weekends. All bets are off, however, on holiday weekends. The best approach is to call the park and ask what they expect for a particular weekend. If visiting during the week, expect plenty of solitude.

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Chicago bicycling maps

A good bicycle map is essential to cycling in the city. Such a map will point you to less-trafficked roads, roads with bike lanes, and roads with an ample shoulder for riding. It’ll also tip you off to cycling paths, and, in some cases, local bike shops.

While cycling around the city, the map I use the most is the free Chicago Bike Map. This map shows bike lanes and preferred routes for the entire city. It’s free and incredibly useful—what more could you want? The downside of this map is that it’s made from very low quality paper and starts to fall apart almost immediately.

Other local cycling maps:

Chicagoland Bicycle Map. Produced by the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly the Chicago Bicycle Federation), this map is now in its 4th edition. It shows the best cycling routes through a particular area; the routes are then rated according to ease of use. Since this map costs $7 (ATA members receive the map for free), I decided to push the envelop on geekiness and have the map laminated. (While lamination renders a map practically indestructible, it does make folding cumbersome.)

Illinois Official Bicycle Map: Chicago and Northeastern Illinois.This map, published by the Illinois Department of Transportation, takes a different approach compared to the ATA map. Instead of showing a preferred route through a particular area, it shows suitability of all roads within a given area. This map loses much detail, though, once you get into areas with densely situated streets. Another freebie, this map is one of a series of nine cycling maps produced by IDOT focusing on the entire state of Illinois.

Northwest Indiana Bike Map. Just released in the spring of 2008 by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, this map fills a much needed gap in local cycling resources. The single time I’ve used this map, it proved enormously useful. It looks and feels much like the ATA map in that it shows a minimum number of preferred routes through a particular area.

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In 2010 FalconGuides will publish my books, Road Biking Illinois and Best Rail Trails Illinois.

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Paddling Chicago

Don’t let the summer end without exploring local waterways in a canoe or kayak. For those with an urge to paddle, here are a few resources to get you going:

  • The Chicago Area Paddling/Fishing Pages offer an array of resources about local waterways. The history and water quality information is particularly interesting.
  • The Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association is a membership organization that has a nifty blog with plenty of trip reports and news about local kayaking topics.
  • The Illinois Paddling Council offers information on safety and outfitters, as well as an extensive listing of places to go for paddling instruction and courses.
  • The local nonprofit organization Openlands helped develop a series of local “water trails,” as they’re called. In addition, they created a series of helpful maps showing local paddling routes, dams, and launching spots.
  • Paddleaway.com has the most detailed information about where to launch your canoe or kayak. The interactive map is great for finding sometimes hard-to-find launch sites. The website also lists local outfitters according to the waterways they serve.
  • Since 1979, the Friends of the Chicago River have been working to improve the health of the Chicago River. Progress has been made, but there’s still much to do. The organization is always looking for volunteers.

Speaking of paddling, the Chicago Tribune featured a front page article about Ralph Frese, the 81-year-old local paddling guru, environmental advocate, and longtime owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base.

For decades, Frese has championed the exploration and care of local waterways. He has also built canoes, including a 34-foot-long voyageur canoe model that he would sell for more than $20,000. The article focused on Frese’s coming retirement and his inability to find someone to take over his business.

Also, last year, Chicago Wilderness magazine published a piece about Frese and his long-term efforts in getting people interested in caring for local waterways.

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Like to hike? Check out the new edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago.

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Why I love my hammock

Not to analyze the situation too much, but one of the reasons I dig my camping hammock is the vaguely womb-like atmosphere it provides. The hammock I use—called the Hennessy Hammock—is a green cocoon that offers the most comfortable sleeping experience outside of my bedroom.

Hammocks are perfect for hot weather snoozing. Within a hammock’s soothing embrace, air circulates all around you, and you feel just a bit like you’re floating above the ground. (This quality also leads to the primary drawback of a camping hammock, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

Maybe I’m easily impressed, but the Hennessy Hammock (pictured here) seems to be an engineering marvel. You enter the hammock through the bottom. As you lay down, the hole you entered seals up as a result the fabric tension. Admittedly, once inside, it takes work to get everything situated, and you may have to wiggle and twist and push and squirm to get everything just right. But once you do, it’s perfect.

Stretching out inside this hammock puts you in a slightly diagonal position that is not flat, but it’s much flatter than most hammocks allow. It’s flat enough for me to sleep on my side. Bug netting held aloft by a center string covers the top of the hammock. A removable fly kept me dry in several heavy downpours.

The downfall of camping hammocks is that they’re useful for only part of the year—at least in the Midwest. After a total of two weeks sleeping in the hammock, I discovered that below a certain temperature, I get too cold. Even if I’m wrapped in a down sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees, I get uncomfortably chilled if the temperature approaches 50 degrees. Sleeping on an insulated pad adds warmth, but it tends to slip out from underneath during the night.

Another drawback: Because it’s awkward getting situated once inside, the Hennessy Hammock—and camping hammocks in general—are probably not the best option for people who make frequent visits to nearby bushes during the night.

Also, I learned the hard way to spray the outside of the hammock with bug repellent if I’m not using my sleeping bag while dozing in the hammock (I’ll spare you the photo gallery showcasing many dozens of mysterious bites on my legs that I acquired through the hammock’s nylon fabric).

Despite these shortcomings, the Hennessy Hammock is the bees’ knees for summer camping. It comes in various models ranging in price from about $100 to $250. Outdoor gear nerds will salivate over the weight: the model I have weighs 2 pounds, 10 ounces. It usually takes me several minutes to set up.

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For more info: Backpackgeartest.org offers reviews of a number of camping hammocks, including the Hennessy.

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Finding time to run

Last summer, while watching a friend compete in a half-Ironman triathlon in Michigan, my mind was adrift with thoughts about the triathlon participants. In particular, I wondered about their common characteristics. Beyond a superhero level of fitness, proficiency in three endurance sports, and the ability to put up with loads of discomfort, it occurred to me that each possessed an ability to squeeze lots of training time into their schedules. How else could you compete effectively in three demanding sports?

If these people have jobs and families and are able to make time to train for three endurance sports, then keeping up with one endurance activity should be snap, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As a runner and someone with friends and family members who run, I regularly hear about time pressures sidelining a running routine. People with jobs, friends, families are continually poring over their schedules with the hope of eking out a little time to run.

If you find yourself wanting to run more, but can’t find the time, maybe some of the following suggestions will help.

Make a home run. For most people, running home is a better option than running to work because you can shower afterward. Carry your wallet and keys in a small fanny pack and leave the work papers at work. Home is too far? Take a bus or train part of the way.

Run for lunch. If you’re running during the workday, it helps to have access to a shower in the building where you work or at a local health club. Alternatively, some people use a washcloth or disposable wipes to clean up afterward.

Go short and fast. Instead of running at your regular pace, focus on sprints, intervals, fartleks, or whatever you want to call them. For maintaining fitness, shorter, high intensity runs can be as beneficial as longer, slower runs. And usually, it’s over in half the time.

Get a running buddy. Don’t want your running to interrupt your thriving social life? Combine them. Run with a friend or a running group.

Run errands, literally. Get a small, snug-fitting backpack to carry necessary items as you run to and from the library, the bank, and the video store.

Scale back television viewing. A bit of TV now and then provides a relaxing-occasionally informative-diversion. Too often, though, the experience leaves us wondering how our time got sucked away. Reign it in.

Make a schedule and stick to it. Planning for the run is key. If you can’t consistently slip away with your running shoes at certain times every week, plan out your runs a couple days in advance.

Bring the kids. Head out to a nice long path, putting the youngest in a running stroller and the older ones on a bike to pedal alongside you.

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