Monday, September 5, 2011

Encounter at Thorn Creek Woods

For Labor Day, I convinced a somewhat reluctant J. to meet at the University Park Metra station for a walk in the nearby Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve.  Before setting off down the trail (a different one than before, closer to the road), we decided to go on the Owl Prowl advertised on a flyer posted along with others by the parking lot, as well as the Garlic Festival in October. (Alas, the Owl Prowl would be postponed a week due to muddy conditions.)

To  me, the autumn equinox, not Labor Day, is the harbinger of fall, but some leaves are starting the process of fading to the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. Those on the ground are undoubtedly a mix of last year’s and this. The Flamingo pool will be closed on the 12th. Summer feels over before I knew it had begun.

This was a great day for a walk, not hot, not chilly, not wet. Periodically the sun peeked out to cast a lovely play of rays and shadows among the leaves. A stiff, persistent wind had been rattling around Hyde Park, but at Thorn Creek Woods it was relatively still except for sporadic moments when it would abruptly pick up as though in the vanguard of a storm, but then it would just as abruptly die down. That on-and-off wind rustling through the drying leaves also reminds me of fall.

Aside from a few birds like robins and a chipmunk or two, the most interesting life forms we found were a variety of mushrooms growing on the trees, ranging from beige white to red orange. I missed these last; J. is the mushroom whisperer. I wish he knew how to find slime molds, too.

Perhaps because we’d started out on the further trail, it seemed to take longer to get to Owl Lake, with J.’s chats with fellow walkers and stops for photo opportunities and  my need for sit downs combined with the greater distance. Finally, my energy flagged and my lower back said, “Enough!” so we turned back short of the lake—probably just short, too. We were to be rewarded, though. This time J. spotted deer to our right. At first I saw just one, but based on the supposition that you rarely see just one of a herd animal like the white-tailed deer, I found the others that J. was already photographing. This little group, perhaps a half dozen does and juveniles, were spread out a bit.

I was sidling down the trail, thinking I’d passed the last deer, when something to my left caught my attention. It was a buck. It was a young buck. It was a young buck in velvet, bloody strips of skin hanging from his spikes down his face and nape. He was just off the trail, no more than six to eight feet from me, and he looked almost as startled as I felt. I restrained an exclamation, and he restrained an apparent urge to charge.

I broke the spell when I whispered, “Come here,” hoping J. could get a photo (he did, but not a closeup). Clearly realizing I wasn’t talking to him, the buck turned and picked his way through the undergrowth, eating some of it voraciously like the young animal he appeared to be. Growing antlers takes a lot of energy.

I’d never seen a buck in velvet, even one with starter spikes, and am sure J. never had, either. That alone made the trip and the walk worthwhile.

At the Chicago Dough Company in Richton Park, we were treated to a pleasant surprise—a buy one pizza, get another free deal. We walked out full of dough and with lots of good leftovers as well as an extra pizza.

And so ended the last holiday weekend until Thanksgiving, set in the heart of cold and darkness when the short, relentless gray days do not beckon me outdoors so temptingly but when hot chocolate and great books call me.

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