Monday, May 31, 2010

Voyage to Volo Bog

Perhaps appropriately on a day set aside to see the only quaking bog in Illinois with an open center, the day dawned gloomy. It wasn’t wet or especially chilly, just overcast and gray.

After a late breakfast at Bonjour and some plant and compost shopping at the neighborhood’s annual garden fair, we set out. I didn’t have much hope that we’d arrive before the visitor center, housed in an old barn, closed at 3:00 p.m., and any hope I may have had faded quickly as we came up on the congealed traffic on the Kennedy Expressway (an oxymoron). There’s a traffic sprite that senses when you especially need traffic to flow smoothly and consequently snarls traffic and your plans. After more than an hour of crawling, traffic eased, yet at no point could I see any reason for the holdup other than the usual construction signs, barriers, and equipment. No workers present, at least that I could see. The point at which traffic speeded up appeared to be no different than any of the billions of other points along the way. That accursed sprite.

Finally, but too late, we were north of Lake-Cook Road in less crowded country. Further north, we came upon four enormous greenhouses, fronted by sculptured shrubs, a place called Atrium Garden Center. As we continued, we saw numerous garden centers, nurseries, and landscapers, including one “wholesale to the public.” People in McHenry and environs must take gardening very seriously.

The country closer to Volo Bog retains some of its rural charm, and not far away a sign at the end of a driveway leading to an older farmhouse advertises “farm fresh eggs.” A temptation if I had had room in my refrigerator. Sigh.

At last we arrived, nearly two hours after setting out. The visitor center was closed, but I picked up information outside the entrance, and so we set off on the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail.

This trail, which I had covered in the mid-90s with a group of volunteers from Lincoln Park Zoo, begins on a boardwalk over the surface of the bog. I remembered what to expect, but behind me I heard J say, “Whoa!” as the walk listed a bit to one side. Ahead of us a couple in late middle age were taking it very slowly. J and I discussed how deep the water might be. We suspect that you’d just get wet if you fell in, although it would be hard to haul yourself out if the bottom sucks as hard as saturated forest mud can (I’ve had athletic shoes sucked off). J marveled at the hinged construction, while I thought the boardwalk is looking worse for wear than I remembered. At one point further into the vegetation I think it morphed into recycled plastic. Across the open water we spotted large white wading birds, and along the walk we found curly-leafed plants, some mushrooms, and a type of flower with one white petal shading prominent sex organs. These aren’t the kind of plants you’re going to find in any garden center.

At the end, a yellow warbler called, his red-streaked breast visible through binoculars. ON the ground below, a Canada goose family blocked the path, while a second family obstructed the way to a viewing platform. We didn’t go to the platform, but as we drew closer one parent, then each of six goslings, then the other parent methodically and unhurriedly dropped into the water as though their movements had nothing to do with our approach; they had been planning a swim anyway, their attitude conveyed. It was a brief foray; they circled the little pond and came back out on the other side of the deck. See how casual that was?

We crossed over to the longer Tamarack Trail, which is supposed to be a 2.75-mile loop. The entire area is hopping with bird life; I spotted a flicker a few minutes into the trail, and then a bird I still haven’t been able to identify (I’m not a good birder). We spent a lot of time listening to and photographing it. In this area and a little further down, we got a good look at the white wading birds, one or two of which obliged us by flying. Black legs, yellow bills—I’d guess snowy egrets.

Past here, the trail veered a little away from the water, and we started to feel like we’d walked a fair distance. It was about then that we came upon a half-mile marker. .5 mile; that’s all we had walked. So far, this had been an easy walk, but I’d felt every inch of it.

In these tamarack woods bursting with birds and other life, we heard a lot of odd sounds, clicking, whirring, chirping, creaking, and the like. I thought I heard an odd sound now. Then, to the right, we saw a pair of sandhill cranes slowly and gracefully fade from view into the vegetation before J could dig out his camera. Here, birds don’t seem to flee in a panic—they just move slowly away, not wasting energy.

The trail continued through open and wooded areas, usually somewhat close to the water. By the time we came to a plastic boardwalk across the bog, which I thought must signal the beginning of the end (but didn’t), I was dragging.

This boardwalk was a bit of a challenge. For one thing, as the signs warned and as I immediately experienced, it’s slippery. I cut back on my speed, not wanting to do a split across it. This walk is also warped, whether from heat or other causes, so it twists a little like something in an Escher painting, with one side higher than the other in several places. It wasn’t a long walk across, but a tiring one between the small steps and the constant adjustments in balance (whether truly needed or not).

At some point we saw a 1.0 mi. marker. Unreal! At Starved Rock, we would have earned a view of the river or a canyon by now.

So far we’d met only one group, an extended family that had backtracked and ran into us not far from the trail head. Now we heard a huffing and puffing behind us, and a middle-aged endomorphic jogger passed us. He wasn’t in either bad or great shape, but we were surprised when he passed us again what seemed to be a short time later. We speculated about where he must have parked his motorcycle.

I wasn’t feeling any perkier, and we weren’t even at the 2.0 mi. mark.

A sign by a side trail promised a viewing platform, I couldn’t see it from partway along, and J, who went further but not far enough, didn’t find it, either. At one or two vantage points, a crude bench offered a good place to rest and take in the scenery. Ahhh.

Close to the en, perhaps even past the 2.5 mi. mark, a series of benches in a V shape seemed to form a mysterious theater under the dense canopy of the trees. I’d like to find out if they’re used for presentations or the like. Perhaps they’re part of a forgotten druid ritual. We sat briefly in the dappled shade looking out at the trees and grasses glowing in the low rays of the western sun.

Regretfully passing the farm-fresh eggs, we sought out Wauconda and Lakeside Inn. Downtown Wauconda is centered on Bangs Lake, which looked lovely against the setting sun, even captured by my iPhone camera. Small towns everywhere might benefit from having a similar feature that draws people and encourages a sense of community and well being.

Dinner consisted of fattening comfort food and fascinating conversation at the next table. Three women and two men carried on a lengthy discussion about the weather, the rain, and the horrors of flooding. From the little I know of this area, this didn’t surprise me.

Meanwhile, the live entertainment had arrived, two musicians, one of them blind. The servers and his performing partner steered him through several doorways as they brought in their gear. They started to sing shortly before we finished our meal.

By now, the people at the next table had exhausted the weather as a topic. Someone said, “Is that the black guy?”

“No, he’s a blind guy.”

“I thought the black guy was playing tonight.”

“No, this guy’s a blind guy.”

“He’s not the black guy?”

“He’s a blind guy.”

(Doubtfully): “He’s not a black guy who’s blind?”

And so on, like a Danny Kaye routine minus the snap and humor. I wondered if black musicians are so rare in these parts that “the black guy” is enough to identify a specific individual.

Toto, we’re not in Chicago anymore.

15 May 2010

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