Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Snippets from the 2017 Christmas Concert by The Village Singers

One of my adventures every year is performing in concerts with The Village Singers of Lake Zurich, Illinois. This year's annual Christmas Concert was another big success with over 225 in the audiences!

Below is a video with a 40 second excerpt of each song -- the whole concert in 11 minutes. Enjoy!

Our group's website is here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Biking Illinois' Schoolhouse Trail

Madison County Transit doesn't just run bus routes.  They also have 9 inter-connected recreational trails totaling over 130 miles, utilizing former railroad rights-of-way.  Their buses are all equipped with bike racks, thus providing convenient service to bikers. 

The Schoolhouse Trail is a paved 16 mile trail between Madison and Maryville, Illinois, just northeast of St. Louis. It follows the former Illinois Traction System/Illinois Terminal Railroad that ran from Springfield to St. Louis and connects with the MCT Foster Heritage, Nature, Nickel Plate, and Watershed Trails along its way.

This map shows its close proximity to three different Interstate highways and how it hugs the shore of Horseshoe Lake for a third of its distance.

The eastern end of Schoolhouse Trail starts at MCT's Goshen Trail about a mile east of Maryville's Drost Park (seen below) which offers parking, restrooms, water, a beautiful lake, and picnic facilities

Drost Park's parking area is in Maryville. From I-55, exit number 15B onto Illinois 159 (Main Street) and then go east on Main Street and north on Parkview and watch for the brown sign to Drost Park.

My favorite section of the trail takes you through lovely hardwood forest with occasional nice homes showing through the trees.

You'll emerge into suburbia, pass Metro East Park and Recreation District facility and trailhead, pedal under I-255, pass Schoolhouse Branch, cross State Highway 111, and intersect with a connection to the MCT Nature Trail.

Horseshoe Lake State Park will be next and you might also see the St. Louis Arch across the lake far in the distance. Nearly 300 species of birds have been seen here during summer season, and the park drains the southern section in late summer which draws waterfowl such as heron and egrets to feast on snails and clams.

There are a couple of paved paths that take you the short distance to the state park road from the Schoolhouse Trail...

You can bike the park road around one side of the lake and cross the dam/causeway for more distance on your ride. Washrooms, water, picnic tables, and fishing are available. 

The trail then continues another four miles beyond Horseshoe Lake State Park, crosses Illinois  Route 203 on a girder bridge, and turns north to its terminus in Madison, Illinois.

Photo credit and thanks to Ellen W.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Hiking Giant City State Park in Illinois

Located in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, Giant City State Park offers outdoor lovers camping, horseback riding, hiking, archery, rock climbing, rappelling, and fishing. After a week together on a volunteer trail building crew, Carol, Diane, Jane, and I decided to hike the mile-long loop trail before heading back to our respective homes, and we wanted to see how the state park got its name.

The park derives its name from apparent "streets" that take hikers through chasms between sandstone bluffs formed 12,000 years ago, all the size of buildings, as if the "street" were in a city made by and for giants.

Lush moss, ferns, flowering mints, hundreds of species of wildflowers, and more than 75 varieties of towering trees add color to the sandstone bluffs that dominate the terrain.

One does indeed feel small while within this city seemingly built by and for giants.

"Fat man squeeze" was closed. Apparently slim people actually climb into and then up this tiny fissure, popping out atop the rock bluff. But this area is also popular with rattlesnakes and copperheads which are now looking for a place to hibernate -- not a good time to go in there and disturb them!

One area has graffiti from the 1800s laboriously carved into the rock. Today's "artists" have it much easier with their spray cans (which is strictly forbidden of course) and these carvings are considered archeological artifacts and not graffiti. This reminded me of my two canoe trips down Utah's Green River where we've stopped at a place called Registry Rock to see the carvings by the early pioneers.

The sandstone was formed 250 million years ago as sandbars and dunes in a great river delta. Earthquakes (the Madrid Fault is nearby) have uplifted, cracked, and crumpled the earth to form the Shawnee Hills as well as these bluffs with their giant fissures and cracks. Erosion by wind and water of the softer rock and the results of slightly acidic rainwater have all combined to create these "streets" through the rocks.

Lichens and mosses slowly covered the rock surfaces and then they died and became soil for ferns, herbaceous plants, and trees.

Of course, the early pioneers had never seen skyscrapers, so these sheer bluffs must have seemed like the "streets of a giant" to them and hence the name they gave the area. These walls provided protection from wind and weather, but remember, back in those days, Illinois still had black bears and mountain lions hunting in these hills, and the critters no doubt liked these areas too.

Balanced rock, though weighing tons, seems to have slid downhill and gotten stuck in this location, likely thousands of years ago during the glacial melting.

Here's a shot of Balanced Rock from another angle...

People have occupied this land for 12.000 years and no doubt Native Americans and others have used the caves as shelter from weather and predators.

Chiseled steps and flagstone borders can be seen on the trail, all the result of the hard work of three Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) companies -- hundreds of young men who worked in the park in the 1930s, building shelters and the state park's lodge building seen below, as well as erosion walls, embankments for the creek, steps, bridges, and miles of nature trails. The next two photos show the lodge they built. Oh yeah -- the park's restaurant is famous for its chicken all-you-can-eat dinners on Fridays and Sundays. I ate here 20 years ago when I was here backpacking with my sons, and our trail construction group ate here on Friday after our week of trail construction was done. Great meals both times I was here!

The lobby of the lodge...

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Biking Illinois' Tunnel Hill Trail

The Tunnel Hill Trail in southern Illinois is 56 miles in length, mostly through forest or heavily-treed areas. The right-of-way began in 1872 as the Vincennes (Indiana) and Cairo (Illinois) Railroad, and one of its developers was Civil War general Ambrose Burnside who is best remembered for his facial hair which gave us the term "sideburns," a transposition of his last name. The railroad had a series of owners -- at least seven including some well-known lines such as New York Central, Penn Central, and finally, Norfolk Southern. In 1991, Norfolk Southern gave the majority of the right-of-way to the State of Illinois, and the first segments of the trail were opened in 1998 and completed in 2001, though some additions were later added at each end.

The lowest points on the trail are at each end -- 340 feet above sea level at Karnak on the south and 370 feet at Harrisburg on the north -- with the highest point midway at Tunnel Hill with its elevation of 680 feet. Not much gain in elevation by mountain standards, but high for Illinois and high enough that the builders decided to tunnel through the big hill rather than going over it, and hence the name, and thus there is at maximum a comfortable 2% grade to the tunnel from either end.

For over 50 years, the tunnel had been over 800 feet long, but a collapse in 1929 reduced its length by 300 feet. The photo below shows the current south side entrance with its surrounding tall sandstone walls on each side and you can picture in your mind that there used to be a "roof" over the trail here which has since fallen. You can also see the tunnel exit at the far end. The year "1929" is carved into the top of the concrete entryway indicating when this new entry was built.

Here's the view as I exited the tunnel at the far side as I pedaled north.

I biked the trail on three successive days from three different trailheads, Tunnel Hill Trailhead, the town of Vienna, and the southern terminus at the Barkhausen Wetlands Center near Cypress, Illinois. The next photo is of the trail north of the tunnel, a lovely heavily-wooded area with steep drop-offs on one side or the other, and sometimes both sides.

A lot of dirt had to be moved to build up the grade along much of the trail's length, and there is often water on one side or the other as you bike.

The southern trailhead is the visitor center for the wetlands amenities in the area and has plenty of parking and modern restroom facilities. It also has interesting displays for the Cache River State Natural Area which is Illinois' only cypress and tupelo swamp. Yes, Illinois has a swamp, and in fact it is the northernmost such swamp in the USA. Here's my post about this amazing swamp.

The small town of Vienna has the most elaborate trailhead facilities with a rebuilt station, a visitor center, playground for kids, washrooms, water, etc.  It also has this totem pole as a tribute to the Trail of Tears which passed here. The explanatory plaque and a closeup of the totem pole are the next two photos.

There is also a map of the various spurs of the Trail of Tears...

The trail utilizes 23 original trestles, some of which still have their original side walls (with additional railing added above for safety) as seen below. The trestles range in length from 34 to 450 feet in length.

The longest trestle is the Breeden Trestle seen here...

You occasionally see evidence of more blasting along the trail to create the right-of-way back when it was built.

When you start at the Barkhausen Wetlands Center, the first 2.5 miles are on a spur line, and I spotted this grouping of three mile marker signs, all showing 350 miles from wherever the line had started, but each signpost obviously from a different era of the railroad.

This bridge takes the trail over the Cache River near the southern start of the trail at the wetlands visitor center.

As many trails do today, they have some repair stations along the route. This one was at Karnak where the above spur trail meets the main trail and then starts its northward journey.

The Barkhausen Wetlands Visitor Center  is near the town of Cypress. Take I-57 exit 30 to state highway 146, then turn right on highway 37. The visitor center is on the left a mile south of Cypress. There are washrooms here.

The Tunnel Hill parking area (which is .2 miles south of the actual tunnel) is off I-24 exit 14 to US highway 45 and go north 6 miles. Turn left on Tunnel Hill Road and the large lot is on the right in a mile. There are also washrooms there.

The Vienna trailhead is in town on highway146, which has exits from both I-57 and I-24. There is plenty of parking, washrooms, playground, and the town has a diner and several fast food places.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Paddling Cache River State Natural Area -- Illinois' Cypress & Tupelo Swamp

Totaling 14,961 acres in far southern Illinois, the Cache River State Natural Area is a floodplain carved long ago by glacial melt off. The glaciers stopped just before what is now the Shawnee National Forest, thus creating its lovely hills and rock formations, and when they melted, the Ohio River adopted its current course and the Cache River meandered across rich and vast wetlands.

 The cypress trees are one of the outstanding natural features which developed here. Their flared bases (called buttresses) can exceed 40 feet in circumference, and many are over 1000 years old!

The dense thickets of what look like bushes are thickets of buttonbush which occur in areas of shallow water as seen below.

Signage points the way to various favorite spots located along six miles of water trails meandering through rivers, ponds, and swamps within the lower portion of the Cache River known as Buttonland Swamp.

Below is Illinois' champion cypress tree...

This tree pictured below has been documented to have 205 knees, which are the protrusions near the tree and are thought to either serve as stability for the tall trees and/or perhaps serve to exchange gases (breathe) for the tree. The tree itself is over 900 years old.

This area has some of the highest quality aquatic and terrestrial communities remaining in Illinois. These wetlands are vital to migratory waterfowl and shorebirds and therefore have been designated a "Wetland of Importance," one of only 19 such areas in the country.

This beautiful scenery is home to over 100 plant and animal species listed as threatened or endangered by the state of Illinois. Birds are the signature species of animal and include bald eagles, one of which flew right to the cypress tree we were grouped under in an area called (fittingly) Eagle Pond. Other predominant birds in the swamp are red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, barred owls, great blue herons, great white egrets, little blue herons, greenhorns, east bitterns, wood ducks, mallards, snow geese, soar rails, woodcock, quail, mourning doves, several types of woodpeckers, prothonotary warblers, and black and turkey vultures.

Swimming beneath these tea-colored water are catfish, crappie, bass, bluegill, bowfin, gar, pickerel, pygmy sunfish, and cypress minnows, the last two of which are state-endangered and found only in wetlands dominated by forested swamps.

...and the swamp is infested with the invasive Asian Carp like the one that jumped into one of our canoes...

Stands of tupelo...

Information taken from "Cache River State Natural Area," a brochure published by the Illinois State Department of Natural Resources.