Friday, September 28, 2012

Prairie Escapes

Autumn morning on the Crooked Slough
“In wilderness is the preservation of the world” – Henri David Thoreau

Nature seems very far away in the middle of the Chicago suburbs. When we moved here 20 years ago our subdivision was surrounded by dairy farms and corn or soy fields with occasional patches of wooded lots. The urban sprawl has reconfigured all this landscape with strip malls and hundreds of houses. Fortunately, the DuPage County Forest Preserve managed to spare about 1900 acres.

The land that would become Springbrook Praire was acquired by the forest preserve in the 1970s. The property was originally slated to become a site of a 200-acre dragon-shaped lake with a swim beach and campgrounds. These plans were abandoned in the 1990s and instead of a lake the land once used for farming is being restored as a prairie. The efforts have resulted in the return of many grassland birds, some of which are threatened species.

Fog on the prairie

Springbrook Prairie is a work in progress with restoration and management still ongoing. Over the years I have participated in nature projects planting seeds that I like to think have become some of the wildflowers and grasses that now flourish in some of the areas. I have also seen how the deep straight channel on which the waters of Springbrook Creek flowed was transformed into a shallow meandering creek that looks like it was part of the original landscape.

I enjoy exploring this forest preserve. I have walked or biked the main trail many times but the times I enjoy the most are those on which I’ve gone off the beaten path. Some areas are very quiet and feel very isolated. So much so that you don’t see any electric, water or cell towers or hear any cars going by.

Springbrook is a sight to see anytime of the year. The color canvas is constantly changing. The warm brown winter tones give way to the bright spring greens. The summer palette is comprised of subdued greens dotted with white, yellow and purple speckles. By the time autumn arrives, the dominant color is gold which eventually fades back to the warm light browns.

Those that are patient can be rewarded with wildlife encounters. Over the years I’ve seen deer, muskrats, beavers, pheasants, sandhill cranes and numerous other birds. And although I haven't seen a coyote or an owl, I’ve heard them many times after sunset singing to the rising moon.

This small “natural” island in the sea of suburbia is as close to wilderness as we will get in my neck of the woods. I’ve stand in awe many times admiring a sunset or sunrise by the slough and felt as if I’m in paradise. I’m grateful for those that had the vision and perseverance to revert this land back to its prairie state.

Stormfront moving over Springbrook Prairie

Friday, September 14, 2012

Silent Saturday: Covered Bridges

Red Covered Bridge, Princeton, IL

Sachs Coverd Bridge, Gettysburg, PA

Kurtz Mill Bridge, Lacaster, PA

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Road Less Traveled

Crisp Point Beach

When my wife and I visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the summer of 2011, we had planned a stop at the Crisp Point Lighthouse.  We intended to leave early in the morning from Marquette, check in at Whitefish Point by mid afternoon and then drive to the lighthouse for sunset. As with many times when one is on vacation, plans go astray. We did not get up early, had a late morning breakfast in a bakery in downtown Marquette and then explored the Marquette Maritime Museum. Once we got on the car, there was traffic and the usual stops when something interesting was seen along the road. By the time we got to the Whitefish Point Lighthouse it was too late to drive out to an unknown location.

According to the folks at Whitefish Point Lighthouse, Crisp Point is only 15 miles west of their location. Although this is a short distance, there is no straight way to get out there (unless you walk the shoreline). Actual driving distance is about 40 miles with about half on unpaved road. I’m certain my wife was relieved that we didn’t make the trip that day.

On early fall I had a planned trip to Harbor Springs for a tour. I still was itching to visit Crisp Point so I extended my schedule from two to four days. To make sure I had plenty of time to drive to Crisp Point, I planned on checking in at Whitefish Point at 2:00 PM.

I left from home in early morning of September 29 and drove all the way to Manistique, MI. The forecast called for rain and unfortunately it was accurate. The rain was coming down in buckets, the sky was very dark and Lake Michigan was agitated. I started getting concerned for the rest of the trip. The clouds broke the next day around mid-morning. When I arrived at Whitefish Point, the wind was strong and white-capped waves were pounding the shore of Lake Superior.

Crisp Point light tower
During checking at Whitefish Point I mentioned that I was driving to Crisp Point. The attendants at the store recommended against it. With the storm that had hit the area the day before, they were concerned about the conditions of the road. I had driven all this way to visit Crisp Point so I  decided to go forth with the trip but before I left I told them that if the bed in my room was still made in the morning, they should send someone to rescue me.

The Crisp Point website indicates that visiting the drive to the lighthouse “is not really a trip, it is more like an adventure…At the lighthouse you are about 18 miles from a paved road, 23 miles from the nearest electricity, and 27 miles from the nearest gas station, restaurant, and grocery store.”

Needless to say it was an interesting drive. Many portions of the 18 miles of unpaved road had huge puddles of water and there really wasn't any way around them. Others parts were narrow, sandy or curvy, sometimes all of the above. Of the whole trip, those 18 miles took the longest time to drive and I’m glad I was driving an all-wheel drive SUV.

Most of the trip is through forest with an occasional view of Lake Superior. I did no see a soul or any type of vehicles on the way in which sometime made me wonder if I was going in the right direction. GPS lost satellite connections several times so it was encouraging to see once in a while the small hand painted signs indicating distance to the lighthouse.

Once you arrive, you are in a very secluded and undeveloped area. There are only two buildings in the vicinity: a visitor center and the original light tower. The beach was pristine. Not a single footprint could be seen on the shore. A couple of old wooden groins broke the incoming white-capped waves while the sky was dotted with large white puffy clouds. This was a great afternoon to visit this old sentinel.

I only wished I had more time to spend exploring the surrounding area. Given the conditions of the road, I left the lighthouse about an hour before sunset. This was a fantastic location to visit, well worth the drive and I can’t wait to get back to it in the near future.

old wooden groin

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Searching for the Light

In 2009 both my son and daughter went on a mission trip for a week. This was the first time since the children were born that my wife and I had an extended period of time without them. We took the opportunity and planned a trip around Lake Michigan with a stop in Munising and Mackinac Island. As part of the trip, we started visiting and photographing the lighthouses along the way. By the time we got home we had seen over a dozen and enjoyed every single one of them.

The kids have been doing a mission trip every year since and we have followed suit on our travels. Every spring we start looking forward to the summer trip and the stays in the small out of the way towns and the beacons of light that are close by. But this year it was not meant to be. Multiple scheduling conflicts kept interfering with the plans. So this year the trip is down memory lane looking back at the almost 50 lighthouses from Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron we have visited. Enjoy!

Touch the Sky song (©2012 Walt Disney Records) is from the Disney-Pixar movie Brave.

(Video may take some time to load. It can be accessed directly from here)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

I&M Canal

Lock 8 bypass channel and locktenden house at dusk
A couple of years ago I was looking for newer places to explore and photograph. Searching through one of the Illinois groups in flickr, I stumble on an image of a house by a canal. I was intrigued and started searching for the location. The house, a locktender house, sat by lock 8 of the I&M Canal. I have lived in Illinois for over 20 years and although I drove frequenly to Starved Rock, Kankakee River State Park, Messenger Woods and some other places that are relative close to the canal, I had never heard of it.

The I&M Canal construction began in 1836 and was completed in 1848. It ran for 96 miles from Brigeport to Lasalle-Peru and was the final link in a waterway connecting the east coast of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. The opening of the canal established Chicago as a major transportation hub. Chicago population grew from twelve hundred when construction started to seventy four thousand after six years of operation.

View of the I&M Canal east of Tabler Rd.
As boats traveled the sixty feet wide six feet deep canal, they would cross four aqueducts and be lowered one hundred fifty feet through a series of sixteen locks. With the increase in trade the capacity of the canal became inadequate. Eventually the railroad and the Sanitary and Ship Canal replaced it and in 1933, the canal was closed to navigation.

Today, about 80 miles of the canal can be hiked or biked along the towpath trail. I’ve been slowly making my way along it photographing nature, the locks and some of the remaining historical buildings and ruins from the time. In many of my hikes I’ve been all alone with my camera with no one to be seen until I get back to the parking lot. Considering how together and connected we live, this is refreshing. My daughter, who sometimes accompanies me, also finds peace along the canal. She usually sits by the locks, listening to the water flowing through, while she reads a book. For both of us, the canal is a great place to escape from our daily routine.

Autumn at lock 6 of the I&M Canal.
As the years go by, nature keeps trying to retake over the canal. In some areas, vegeation has encrouch the canal obscuring the view. In others, rain, snow and flooding from the canal have eroded the trail. These same forces have also taken their toll on some of the locks to the point that parts of the walls have started collapsing (lock 2 and 4 comes to mind). It is clear that some maintenance, stabilization and restoration is needed. But imagine if we could take this effort to the next level by:
  • Flooding the dry portions of the canal
  • Reconstructing all the locks to operational state
  • Rebuilding all the missing locktender houses and using them as museums, places to rent bikes and kayaks or simply to get information for a day hike.
Perhaps these ideas are too extreme. The important thing is to do the best we can to maintain and preserve this National Heritage Corridor so that future generations have more than just photographs to experience it.

Upstream view of the I&M Canal from Lock 3

Additional information and pictures can be found on the following sites