Monday, June 26, 2017

Des Plaines River Dam(n) Obstruction Gone!

Two Chicago area rivers, the Des Plaines and Fox, had 25 dams, most of which were built 100 or more years ago for agricultural, sanitary, or transportation purposes -- in most cases, purposes no longer relevant. Most, like this dam on the Des Plaines River in Lake County's Dan Wright Forest Preserve, are low-head dams, probably built by a local owner for agricultural reasons -- to pool water for irrigation, or to facilitate getting farm machinery across the river before the suburban sprawl resulted in numerous bridges being built.  This dam is 140 feet across, two feet tall, and has a 25 foot concrete apron on the low side. I've kayaked and canoed over it half a dozen times while participating in the annual Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon. Years ago, a V-shaped notch was cut in the dam to assist paddle craft heading downriver. You can see the V-cut near the middle, to the right of the mid-river green algae bloom.

Many paddlers, unaware of the V or unable to get their boat into it, had problems. But there are other problems created by the dams. They prevent movement of fish and other aquatic life upriver and downriver, the pools created cause oxygen levels to fluctuate and create over-abundance of algae, river banks deteriorate, and flora and fauna suffer. Water quality in the rivers dramatically improve when the river returns to free-flowing status.

When the dam was removed in Riverside in 2012, the number of fish found upstream doubled, and the number of species rose from 6 to 29 in just weeks. Now 70 species make their home in the river!




The State of Illinois has been funding dam removal, but the state's dire financial straits from having no budget approved for two years has left the removal projects unfunded. The Forest Preserve District of Lake County has fronted the cost of two dam removals to the tune of about 3/4 million dollars and might see the money recouped in the future, but they aren't counting on it.

Here are a few photos of the dam removal in progress during 2015 and 2016. I took these from the Des Plaines River Trail bridge which is just a 100 or so feet downriver from the Dan Wright Woods dam. In the photo below you see work on the east end of the dam...






...and last year they removed the west end of the dam...




Today I took the "finished" photo seen below, and with this dam removed, the canoe marathon this year, for the first time in its 60 year history, had an unobstructed river for the entire 18.5 mile course! 




INTERESTING NOTE: Nationwide, 72 dams were removed in 2014 which opened up 730 miles of waterway. In the last 20 years, 971 of 1185 American dams have been removed!



Thursday, June 1, 2017

Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield Zoo (also known as Chicago Zoological Park) opened in 1934 in south suburban Brookfield, Illinois. It gained fame and popularity for being at the forefront of the movement to shun cages, preferring instead to separate animals from each other and from visitors by using moats and ditches.  I came here numerous times as a kid in the 1950's and '60's, and though our local Lincoln Park Zoo (established 1868) in Chicago was only a few miles from our north side home (and it was free!) we still made the long trek out to Brookfield regularly. I even recall going there on a 6th grade field trip with my favorite teacher, Mr. Palinscar. 

This visit marked my first time back in decades, not having been here since my kids had been young in the '70s and '80s, but grandsons are a wonderful excuse to resurrect a tradition, right!




I was not aware that grizzly bears were such accomplished swimmers until I watched this guy dive into the water, swim to the bottom, cavort about for about 2 minutes, then resurface...






















The emus were in a large caged area...




...along with the large wallaby population, and the kids had a great time watching...




....and even touching the wallabies when they ventured onto the sidewalk to investigate the visitors and the strollers...





The reindeer/caribou had an impressive rack...






The dolphin theatre is an impressive structure. The dolphin show is a separate extra charge but is an excellent show...























The parakeet room was also popular...







The anteater was making the rounds of his large enclosure...




...as his roommates were taking it easy up above...




The penguins were a favorite of my young grandsons...



.. and so was the polar bear.




The giraffes were out and strutting their stuff. It was interesting to read that Commonwealth Edison weekly delivers freshly cut branches and leaves by the semi-full which are then hoisted into trees for the giraffes to eat.



The zebras are always fun to see...





...as are the two-humped camels...





The amur tiger is the biggest cat in the world and can grow to 670 pounds...








Clouded leopards have the longest canine teeth in relation to the size of the skull of any carnivore...








Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Everglades National Park


Everglades National Park is the only sub-tropical wilderness in the United States. It contains 1.5 million acres of wetlands, but despite its immense size, the park only protects 20% of the entire Everglades ecosystem which runs over 100 miles south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.  Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called this 60 mile wide slow moving river the "River of Grass," and it, along with a complex ecosystem of sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, estuarine mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands comprises the Everglades, of which the national park is a small segment.

There are three entrances to the park, none of which are connected.  The Everglades City entrance provides water access from the northwest. The Shark Valley entrance off Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) offers a 15 mile paved loop open to bicycles and provides a tram ride. The main entrance is via Homestead and offers the most recreational opportunities, including hiking, biking, and two campgrounds. Here's the park map. All three entrances have visitor centers.

The park is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve. and a Wetland of International Importance. It is one of only three sites in the world to have all three designations.

The park is a breeding ground for tropical wading birds, has the largest mangrove system in the western hemisphere, is home to 36 threatened or protected species, supports 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammals, and 50 species of reptiles. The largest reptiles are alligators and crocodiles, and south Florida is the only place in the world where both species co-exist. Below is one alligator photo I shot alongside the Shark Valley bike trail, but in my numerous bike rides there, I've seen hundreds of gators.




Crocodiles are less prevalent, and here are two I've spotted around the Flamingo area of the national park.








Other wildlife I've photographed in Everglades National Park are here.

And I videoed a Great Blue Heron catch and swallow a fish here.



One of the few areas you can bike and hike in the park is the Shark Valley loop. Halfway around the 15 mile paved loop is this 65 foot tall observation tower which provides panoramic views of the northern part of the park as well as gators that often sun themselves on the grass around the tower.





The other biking venue is the Long Pine Key Trail, which is an old rough roadbed open to mountain biking. It is located at the Long Pine Key Campground area just inside the Homestead entrance.




After dozens of driving trips to the Rocky Mountains and seeing the elevation signs on mountain pass roads, this sign in Everglades National Park always tickles my funny bone...





The Flamingo area is at the end of the 38 mile long Homestead entrance road. You'll know you've arrived when you reach the pink buildings! This is the southernmost part of continental USA. (The Florida keys all the way to Key West are islands, of course.)




The only lodging is at the campground. In 2005, two hurricanes struck the area in August and again in September, destroying the old lodge and cottages, restaurant, and gift shop. A makeshift restaurant with outdoor, screened eating and a trailer for cooking offer limited fare now.










On the drive to Flamingo, you'll see the Dwarf Forest or Skeleton Forest on both sides of the road, with at least one boardwalk out into the forest...









The campground at Flamingo is one of the rare places where you can enjoy both sunrises and sunsets over the ocean...




The Coastal Prairie Trail starts at Loop C of the Flamingo campground and runs 7.5 miles west. While maintaining the trail a few years ago, I nearly stepped on this pygmy rattlesnake that was enjoying his red salamander lunch...




Road Scholar (Elderhostel) has a biking program in the Everglades area, and here are photos and videos of that program.




Thursday, March 23, 2017

Biking Kentucky's Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail

Mammoth Cave National Park now has a bike trail!  

In 1859, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad opened its mainline between these two cities, and the line was only 8.7 miles from the Mammoth Cave tourist attraction which first began cave tours in 1816. (Yes, cave tours have been offered for over 200 years, surpassed in our country only by Niagara Falls as the nation's oldest tourist attraction!) After the Civil War, as many as 50,000 tourists rode the train and then switched to stagecoaches to travel to the cave, and in 1886, the rail line to the caves became operational. In 1904, the first automobile drove to the cave, hinting at the future, and in 1931 the train made its final run.

The trail is NOT a rail-trail. It follows the approximate route of the  former railroad, but it is not uniformly flat like most converted rail trails. This trail has three very steep uphill climbs that need to be walked by most riders. The development of state and park roads replaced sections of the old rail line, necessitating re-routes up high hills.





The trail runs about 9 miles to the town of Park City, formerly called Glasgow Junction. It begins near the park campground, not far from the Mammoth Cave Hotel. The trail is mostly crushed gravel with a few boardwalk sections, and I found it in good condition. A mountain bike or hybrid bike works best.




Photos can not depict the steepness of the grade, but your body will know! Don't be afraid to walk all or part of the uphill -- we call that cross training!




I was here in March so only the evergreens had color. When the entire forest blooms, I'm sure it is magnificent!



Sloan's Crossing Pond is called "A wet place in a dry land" and was caused by a sinkhole that filled with water and now provides a bit of an oasis. There is a .4 mile boardwalk encircling the pond, with benches at several points.





There are four cemeteries along the trail. Below is a photo of the Locust Grove Cemetery which is on the trail and adjacent to the park entrance road. Another cemetery, the Furlong Cemetery, is on a spur trail at the top of the westernmost steep grade. The Shackleford and Zion Cemeteries are more at either end of the trail. There are scores of cemeteries in the park where over 1800 people lie in rest. A database of the cemeteries is here.