Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spring at Starved Rock State Park

The canyons and waterfalls of Starved Rock have been calling to J., while coincidentally an opportunity for a one-night stay at Starved Rock Lodge presented itself. So off we went after meeting in Homewood and spending most of the day running errands and shopping. The economy must be picking up because traffic was backed up through a half dozen lights, and the malls and stores were packed. Dick’s Sporting Goods, where I wanted to pick up trekking poles, was a little quieter—perhaps it’s not a hot spot for Mother’s Day gifts.

At last we left the southwest suburbs behind in the late afternoon. On the way to the Lodge, J had a hankering to stop at Mix’s Trading Post, a weathered wooden building with a false front situated between Utica’s downtown and the bridge over the Illinois River. From outside, it doesn’t look like more than a small shop, but, like the Tardis, inside it’s enormous. Overstuffed, but big. One room is full of a brand of moccasins and other footwear; Mix’s carries another brand of boots and shoes as well. I was sorely tempted. Biker gear and clothes filled a back room, and in between was a room with a display of carved marble creatures. Here, a ray called to me, but I ignored it. J. bought gifts and a some tinted vintage postcards of Starved Rock and a couple of churches in Ottawa and Streator. I suspect we’ll find our way to Mix’s again.

We arrived at the Lodge in time to go out for a little exploring before dinner. After checking in, we set off to see what we could see. In a field close to the road, we encountered a flock of four turkeys. J. parked in a convenient driveway across the way and got out to dig around in his camera bag in the trunk. Like their predecessors a few months ago, the turkeys weren’t have any of it. Slowly, discreetly, they began to make their way back to the tree line. Just as he was ready to snap a shot, the last one took cover. Later, we found he’d managed to get one shot with his digital camera. At least now he can say he’s seen wild turkeys.

In a quest to find Council Overhang, we parked and walked down a waterlogged trail, at the end of which we found . . . a parking lot. It turns out that the trail head for Council Overhang is at the other end of the first parking lot. We’d gone the wrong way. Taking a trail into the woods toward Illinois Canyon, we found a sign warning us that many deaths had occurred in this area and listed forbidden activities, such as rappelling. Here at the trail head the terrain seemed safe enough. . . .

Not far into the trees we came upon a sheer bluff that must attract climbers. Like the rest of Starved Rock’s features, it’s not high compared to something you’d find out west. But it’s close and enough of a challenge to draw local climbers—and steep and high enough to be dangerous. In the dim, strange light of a cold, gray late afternoon in the thick of the woods, it loomed over us, remind me of how these cliffs and canyons, relatively shallow though they be, seem to contain their own weird, magical little worlds that seem slightly out of time and sync with the world up there or beyond the woods.

Reluctantly, we left to dress for dinner, this time walking along the road to the first parking lot, with J waving to any drivers who passed to thank them for not hitting and killing us on the narrow shoulder. The world outside the cliffs and canyons has its dangers, too.

After dinner at a table by the fire, we found out the pool is open until 11:00 p.m. on Saturdays. I didn’t have a bathing suit, plus I did have an unexpected, unwelcome visitor, so he swam laps and then soaked in the whirlpool while I observed an obese middle-aged man with his chubby pre-teen son following him, looking just like a shorter, younger version of his dad. I could picture the boy in 35 or 40 years, and the picture wasn’t attractive.

Following the grim, chill Saturday, Sunday dawned sunny and crisp. After breakfast at the same table—no fire because the staff was setting up the Mother’s Day buffet—we walked around the bar’s deck and found a long staircase into the ravine. We went perhaps halfway down and returned; there is no shortage of steps in Starved Rock. As I took them down slowly and cautiously, two young girls with a family behind us bounded past us effortlessly. Count that among the things that make me feel my age and more.

It was time to head out. This time we drove toward Owl Canyon, which was an easy walk from the parking lot, and, ironically, perhaps missed Hidden Canyon in the same area—I didn’t see its sign. We went down a series of steps, at one point drawn by glimpses of water through the trees. At the bottom of this trail, an old bench with a narrow seat overlooks the Illinois River and a rust bucket of an overturned boat. Swallows flitted over the water, then took their ease for few moments at a time in some overhanging snags.

By now it was clear that this was going to be the perfect day to spend in Starved Rock. Spring sunshine, clear skies, comfortable temperature in the low to mid 60s—it couldn’t be any finer for hiking.

We continued along the river, eventually running into a family peering down at something they found fascinating, so we looked, too—and witnessed a pair of snakes in the act of mating. As more people came along, and naturally as J fiddled with his camera to capture them, the pair retreated a little further into the wood, weeds, and rocks by the water until they had mostly disappeared. We left them for good—we thought.

This trail proved to be long and, although not especially difficult, more of a challenge than my mind was prepared for. In a couple of places, narrow bridges without handrails crossed chasms, which disturbed me only after I was over them. They disturbed J not at all, as he set his trekking pole and tripod down and stepped back and forth to take photos. I pictured him taking one step too many and tumbling into the depths, which aren’t that deep but are deep enough. Further along, bridges over shallower areas come equipped with handrails. Someone had a sense of humor.

The trail began to run along a cliff, which bothered me only in the spots where I had to get around rocks or roots, or where it tilted down toward the canyon. If I can work my way around quickly, I’m all right, but if I have even a moment to think, I doubt and panic. Strangely, I went past one area easily enough getting into the canyon, but on the way out had to scoot over it with my butt out of fear, even as I told those behind me to go around if they could.

Once down in the canyon, I stopped short of going into the waterfall’s basin because the downward slant of the rocks perturbed the unthinking part of my brain—or perhaps the part that remembers a fall on a slope or some misstep? Everyone else clambered easily down, and J tried to cajole me, which only upset me, enough to make me cry. If once I’ve hesitated, then I need to talk myself into making the next move in my own time. I was also starting to worry about whether I could make it back, and if I could manage my biological urges ‘til then. I never felt so restrained and anxious when I was young—or did I?

The canyon is gorgeous, worth the sweat, anxiety, and tears. I’ve always wanted to stand behind a waterfall. While this was hardly the torrent of Last of the Mohicans (the waterfall was the only part of the movie I liked), it felt like magic to stand under the overhang and the drips that seep through and to see the water from that unusual, sheltered perspective. Judging from the traffic in the basin, I’m not the only one with that particular fantasy. Meanwhile, kids from 7 to 17 were climbing fearlessly on the narrow tilted ledges in a way I envied. But I was never like that, even as a kid.

Before we’d left for the lodge, J’s digital camera had started to give him a “lens error”—possibly he’d bumped it on the zebra finch cage in the lobby. Now when I tried to take a photo of him at the waterfall, his film camera died abruptly, mid-snap. He’d been remarking about the play of light along the top edge of the water as it fell, and now we wondered if that roll of film were going to be salvageable. After all that walking and putting up with my angst, the photography hobbyist was down to a partly functional digital camera and my iPhone camera.

Unduly worried about the trek back (which included going up all those steps at the end), I nagged him to leave. Partway down the trail, and after my panic, to his horror he noticed that he’d left his camera backpack behind. Yikes. I found a spot to sit and wait while he retrieved it—I hoped.

While I waited, people came and went. After a few minutes, a large dog that didn’t seem to have sensed me came around a bend and spotted me. Startled, he lunged at me and almost pulled the young woman at the other end of the leash over. Even as they passed, he kept leaping toward me. Methinks that puppy could use a lesson in trail manners and safety.

After about 15 or so minutes J returned with his backpack. Back at the river’s edge, we encountered another family fixated the/a pair of mating snakes; I couldn’t remember if they were in the same spot as before, but they were now on top of a wood pile rather than under it. An older boy with the family said that he was going to “get them” when they were done, so I stayed until they left, which gave J the opportunity to take photos with his disabled digital. After we reached the woods, we ran into him again, this time alone, and I mentioned my concerns to J. He thought it was just a pose, something an older teenager says to appear important or tough. Because some boys act on their posturing, I was still afraid for the snakes. I can only hope that if he did try to “get them,” they managed to slither off into the pile or the water. J also pointed out that they were in a place that would be difficult for anyone to reach. I hope he’s right.

That’s me—maternal and protective toward fornicating reptiles.

Our next objective was to try to find a battery for J’s film camera in the hope that that would revive it. First, we tried the Starved Rock Visitor Center. No batteries, but he did buy a book on 60 places to hike within 60 miles of Chicago. That should give us ideas for a while. On the way back to the car, a man told us that we’d just missed a boat ride but could catch the next. “Free today for mothers,” he said helpfully to me. “Well,” I said doubtfully, “I have a cat.” “Ah.” Even if we had had time, I’m guessing I didn’t qualify for the free ride. As for batteries, we had no better luck in Utica, where the grocery store was closed—possibly earlier than usual because of Mother’s Day.

It was about the time I’d wanted to leave for home, but we headed toward Ottawa and Kaskaskia Canyons in the hope we could see something interesting, like more waterfalls. A man returning up the trail told us that the canyons were probably a quarter of a mile or so away and were “well worth the walk.” This sounded promising, as did his reassurance that it was a relatively easy walk. “At Kaskaskia Canyon, if you take the lower trail your feet will get a little wet.” This sounded endurable.

For the most part, he was right. The trail to Ottawa Canyon is uphill, but neither steep nor precarious, and it seemed like a pretty easy walk compared to our previous endeavor.

Unfortunately, getting to Kaskaskia Canyon required a little more effort at the same time I was growing increasingly tired and cranky. I don’t think we found the upper trail the man had mentioned, and we did get our feet wet crossing the stream several times as solid ground ran out or barriers arose. As we scouted for the narrowest or most shallow places to cross, I was ready to give up. Where went my spirit of fun and adventure?

As the man said, Kaskaskia Canyon is worth the wet feet. In the late afternoon light, with fallen trees leaning against the waterfall, it looked especially remote and wild. A few people lingered, including a no-nonsense photographer with a tripod for whom descents, rocks, roots, water, and other obstacles presented no barriers. Something else for me to envy—that confidence and ease with one’s own body and its abilities.

At last we really had to leave. On the shoulder of the road I spotted large birds that, when we stopped, awkwardly took off and flew to the lowest branches of the nearest tree. I had thought “turkeys”—I must have had turkey on the brain—but then we noticed a carcass on the shoulder. We’d interrupted turkey vultures at table. By the time J had dug out his partially disabled digital camera, they had evaporated into the dimness of the tree’s shadows. Of course.

The Nodding Onion was closed, so off we went to Chicago and dinner at Bar Louie—from rural pine lodge to urban chain sports bar in only a couple of hours.

It’s not New York, but I could get used to Illinois.

8 and 9 May 2010

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