Saturday J. and I headed to the Sand Ridge Nature Center, another part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. This one is close to the train station in Homewood, which is why I suggested it. Of course, we took several detours and didn't go there directly, making the convenience moot. My mood improved when I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot that still makes me giggle: A cartoon pig says indignantly, "No, I don't have any spare ribs."
First, we walked through the building, which has a number of educational exhibits and herpetologic and fish inhabitants. The educational information was punctuated by "Fun Facts," for example, the saying, "There's more than one way to skin a cat" refers to catfish. I had never heard of one of the species on display, a musk turtle or "stinkpot." Nearby in the same aquarium, a painted turtle sprawled catlike on partially submerged rocks. It had extended its front legs straight out, as relaxed cats do, and pulled its head into its shell so that it looked like a comfortable headless turtle.
A woman who had been cleaning offered to help us. She gave us a map of the trails and samples of insect repellent to get us through our walk.
Cook County government has a poor reputation, and I developed a poor opinion of government employees based on an experience years ago at the State of Illinois Secretary of State's Office downtown. I went with a friend who needed something and who was the only person there on business. A woman came to the window and told us to form a single-file line. I said, "Oh, I’m not in line; I'm with her," to which the woman replied, more firmly, "Form a single-file line." It soon became apparent that she would not assist my friend until I was standing precisely behind her in line. Her behavior and attitude clearly didn't make her happy. I could picture her at home, telling her family about the difficult person who made her day hellish by not cooperating instantly and forming a single-file line of two, and her family commiserating with her about the horrors of coping with John and Jane Public every day. Today, she would be a natural for the TSA.
All of this is to highlight that the Cook County Forest Preserve District employees we've met have been eager to provide a good visitor experience. They have seemed to like, even to love, their jobs, with no inclination toward mindless bureaucracy. I noticed, too, that the District promotes a new Chicago Wilderness program of which I heartily approve: "Leave No Child Inside," which tries to get children away from their electronics into the great outdoors. (My proposal: A similar program for adults.)
The sky was overcast, so the butterfly garden wasn't buzzing with activity. J. did try to get photos or video of a red damselfly that posed for him for several minutes.
We didn't have much time and my natural bent is toward water, so we took the Redwing Trail that skirts a man-made pond. Around this pond were large, showy orange and pink flowers of a variety we had never seen before. We also spotted tiny powder blue flowers whose little protruding centers fascinated me.
From the direction of the pond I heard a bird calling and saw a flash of gray and white. Although I couldn't recall the sound, I remembered that belted kingfishers call in flight and was pretty sure that that is what I'd seen. J. also got a quick look at it on the return trip. As always, I wished I had brought binoculars.
As it was a cloudy, humid, relatively still day, the mosquitoes were out in force in the woods. J. offered me insect repellent, which would have helped with my arms and legs, but a large proportion of the bloodsuckers chose to bite my posterior. Next time I'll know to spray my pants ahead of time.
Apparently, the forest proper, or portions of it, is fenced, so when we went through the gate beyond the pond, I had to pay attention to the amount of time it would take to return before it would be locked at 4:30 p.m. The fence may be intended to keep humans out when the preserve is closed, but it serves another purpose—a sign asks you to close the gate behind you to prevent white-tailed deer from destroying the gardens.
The forest preserves may be overrun by deer, but the only wildlife we saw was a rabbit sitting in the middle of the trail. More skittish than its Flamingo relatives, it dove into the cover when it realized we'd spied it. I saw a few birds, but not many—generally, most birds prefer areas that are more open.
The sun made an appearance just as we came to an open space next to the trail, and J. took a photo at my request. On the return trip, I explained that one fantasy of mine is to live in a clearing in the deep woods, not unlike Hansel and Gretel's witch. Slapping himself, J. commented, "If you could keep the mosquitoes under control . . ."
Despite his discomfort, when we came to the Lost Beach Trail J. wanted to continue. I demurred because it was close to the time I'd decided we needed to turn around and backtrack to avoid being locked in with the unseen and unheard but voracious deer. This proved to be a good call, because when we were about halfway past the pond it began to drizzle. Shortly after we returned to the building, the skies poured in earnest. I wondered if the cheerful woman we had met as she headed out had been caught in it and if she were still happy.
We looked at the animal posters on the wall by the offices. In one, a green heron was doing what green herons do so well—taking a frog for dinner. "Poor frog!" J. exclaimed. Indeed. In this particular photo, the frog, its midsection trapped between the heron's upper and lower mandibles, faces the camera and sports a facial expression eerily like that of Kermit the Frog.
Outside again we watched a couple of male goldfinches in the prairie garden area. One alighted on a tall plant that slowly dipped under its weight while J. again tried to capture the Kodak (Nikon) moment.
In the parking lot, impressive amounts of steam wafted up from the pavement, drawn toward the sun that had reappeared after the hard rain. After a brief detour to Hammond, Indiana, as far in ambiance from Sand Ridge as it is possible to conceive, we ended up at a Fuddruckers for a meal that probably negated any good we had done ourselves by walking. J., along with some seven-year-old boys, had his fill (or at least of taste) of video games, then we returned to The Flamingo. I admit I teased Hodge with the salmon that J. had picked up on the way at Treasure Island.
The poor, tortured cat.