Thursday, July 28, 2016

Starved Rock State Park

OK, on pain of revealing myself as - well - having feelings; I wouldn't have minded hanging around the family home in Michigan just one more day, 24 more hours to slip in some additional visit time, (A prior commitment cut deeply into the time my brother had available for - well - you know - brotherly love stuff.) but if I had done that it would have put me at my next destination on a Friday afternoon and, contrary to what might be said about me in some circles, I'm not dumb enough to try that!! Especially when my next destination was the popular Starved Rock State Park barely an hour from the western edges of that churning, boiling mass of humanity called Chicago.

My ultimate destination was somewhere out there in mid Nebraska, and in my younger days I'd have left from Mom's driveway in the wee hours of the morning and by the time she got up I'd be nearly out of the state and well on my way to punching all the way through to Nebraska, but that was then, a time when my life was focused on end goals and getting there as efficiently as possible so I could start on the next end goal (Ah, the competitive life of working for a living, a life that permeates even the brief instances of 'free time'. . .) and this is now.

A now where I'm no longer working in that pressure cooker environment; a now where I have very few hard schedules to meet; a now where after 4 full years of trying, I'm just beginning to learn how to live without setting myself inflexible goals, a now where I can take my time, as long as I remember to take my time, and on this trip I was making an extra effort to remember to take my time. (Though with the 4th of July holiday was lurking there just beyond the edge of the extended weather forecast like a mischievous Puck peeking out from the moonlit woods, along with my near pathological aversion to getting mixed up in holiday free-for-alls, meant that looming July weekend needed to be carefully accounted for.)

Anyway, when looking at my map between here and there I found I had stuck a number of pins along or near my mythological route, including one, courtesy of Lynne of Winnie Views, at Starved Rock.

In fact, Lynne has written about Starved Rock more than once, so naturally it was high on my list of places to check out.

Unfortunately to get there from here I had to run the gauntlet that is the greater Chicago Metropolitan area, a gauntlet which seems to me to start somewhere around Michigan City Indiana and finally relinquish it's grip somewhere beyond the western environs of Joliet.

And can someone explain to me why, right in the middle of that mess, one short little 5 mile stretch of Interstate 80 has arbitrarily been designated as a toll road???? (Though I admit, when you're caught in the mayhem of Chicago's perpetual demolition derby it seems much longer than a mere 5 miles.)

But eventually the relentless grip of the city begins to loosen around my neck (Actually the grip is much lower than my neck but - well - you know.) and real countryside starts making an appearance again. Then, just when I'm starting to get my rural rhythm back, Just when I'm ready to stop holding my breath, to sit back a little and ease up some on my steering wheel death grip, the twin townlets of North Utica and Utica loom up and it's time to get off the road.

Oddly enough, these two towns are not split into north and - well - just town, by the nearby Illinois River but rather the bluff on the north bank of the river seems to be the dividing point. (North Uticans live 140 feet higher than Uticans but they all live on the same side of the river.)

Regardless, after negotiating the twin towns (Combined population around 3300) and popping up and over the Illinois river on the SR178 bridge, the road to the Starved Rock State Park visitor center is soon there on the left.

It was getting later in the day by then so my purpose in stopping at the Visitor center wasn't to dally; or shilly-shally if that be the case; but rather to just grab a trail map so I could do a little route planning that evening.

 My more immediate destination was the Starved Rock State Park campground and with fresh shiny trail map in hand I quickly beat a hasty retreat in that direction in an attempt to one-up that other camper wan-a-be that was also hoping to snag one of the last available sites.

The woman in the permit booth looked relieved when I told her I only needed a site for the one night.

I was relieved when she told me that in that case there were a few sites left over still. (As a backup I had already checked online for a site at a nearby commercial campground and found zero sites available, even for a Thursday night. As a plan C, there's a truck stop a few miles north of the twin Utica's but after a week of driveway surfing I felt the need, the need for campsite.- Apparently, having seen that movie only once, I'm classified as a bit of a freak, so I assume most of you get the reference.)

It may look like there's plenty of empty sites here, but a good chunk of those that you see are reserved from Thursday through Sunday. (And a number of otherwise available sites were partially flooded and a bit - OK, a lot - muddy.)

She handed me a blue card and told me to just drive around the two loops until I found a valid site I liked, leave the blue card on the post to claim the site then come back to the permit booth and finish the paperwork.

To find a valid site, you have to read the yellow card already posted on every single site. These cards represent reservations and have from and to dates written on them in marker. What you're looking for, on a Thursday, are cards with from dates that start on Friday. Only problem is, most of these cards seem to have been placed there on the posts several days ago and the marker (Cheap government crap I assume) has now faded to the point where you have to get out and walk right up to each and every post in order to check the dates. . .

 Anyway, after a little driving, stopping, climbing down, squinting at dates, climbing back up, driving - well - you get the idea - I ended up with a pretty decent site for the night. Though $25 for an electric only site (Water is available from a handful of hydrants scattered around.)  in a campground with pit toilets (Showers and flush toilets are available at a single building near the entrance to each of the two large loops.) felt slightly pricey. (later on during this trip I paid $27 for a water/electric site at a place with private shower rooms, laundry, Wi-Fi, fishing pond, fenced playground, and pool.)

This sanctioned photo of the Visitor Center must have been staged, because even when I rolled into the parking lot at 6 the next morning there were people about.

But it was a huge improvement over when I was there the afternoon before. This place has a huge, as in really really big, parking lot and when I rolled in to pick up a trail map the lot was approaching full, even though it was a Thursday. And for just that little extra zing, included in the mix was a lineup of no less than four full sized school buses. (Oh, that can't be good!!. . .)

Early Friday morning there were maybe a couple dozen cars and most the occupants seemed to be occupied with either fishing, or staking out extended picnic areas, presumably for the rest of the gang expected to show up at a more civilized hour.

And apparently even that large parking lot is not enough because there's an overflow lot, probably just as large again, up on the flats beyond the bluff with shuttles to collect the unfortunate latecomers.

As you would expect in such a popular place, the trails were wide, well marked and well used. But that's OK, it's been a while since I was able to get in even an OK hike, so off I went.

 For a while I had the trails to myself, the only wildlife that seemed to be around was either floating in the river or perched in the trees.

View up the river from Starved Rock itself

 There was kind of a watery haze hanging in the air and that, combined with many views to the east, right into the rising sun, limited the quality of photos, but hey! pretty much any hike is a good hike.

Of course I knew I wouldn't have the trails to myself for long, but I didn't expect the first interlopers to come from above!!

Apparently the Illinois Valley Regional Walter A Duncan Airfield is only a few miles away in the next town to the west. And apparently the Illinois Valley Regional Walter A Duncan Airfield is home to a crop-duster.

At least that was my first thought. But by the time that first plane was joined by a second, then a third, and a fourth, all flying up the river on slightly divergent courses, I revised that thought to the Illinois Valley Regional Walter A Duncan Airfield is home to a big crop dusting company.

But eventually I counted a total of eight of these little buzzing annoyances zipping around, never more than a couple hundred feet off the ground. And there was absolutely no crop dusting involved. Instead the planes were making incessant out and back trips along the river, spaced out just enough to avoid collisions.

By now I'd decided that the Illinois Valley Regional Walter A Duncan Airfield was actually home to some sort of crop duster pilot's school. Though today's lesson seemed a bit strange since all I ever saw them do was fly east up the river for a bit towards Ottawa, turn around, fly back down the river towards Peru, turn around and repeat, over and over and over; and over; again. Not very crop dustery.

This went on for hours but that's OK, eventually they faded from fist-shaking intrusions to a faint background noise, and the hiking, while not by any stretch of the imagination remote, was certainly pleasant.

Some of the trails are out and back spurs, reaching into the many side canyons along the river, some follow the riverside, and some are up on the bluff, and in between are steep, really steep, climbs and descents

Now these climbs posed no problem at all early on in the day, but later, when there were witnesses out there, I couldn't plod slowly up, step by step, stopping at each and every landing to rest. No-o-o-o!  Once there were witnesses, once the hordes were there ready to attack and rip at the first sign of weakness, (I know, I know, but welcome to the world inside my head!) I was forced to step lively, forgoing any wimpy rest-stops, no matter how badly they were needed, and when those rampaging hordes were close enough, I even had to pretend that I was breathing normally, just another, everyday stroll from the couch to the fridge, instead of puffing and wheezing like the leaky old steam engine with bad gaskets and loose joints that I am. . .)

The trails, and there are many of them, are well marked to the point where if you walk up on a yellow dot painted on a tree or post you know you are headed away from the Visitor Center, if the dot is white you are headed towards the Visitor Center.

Though I did think this particular marker was unnecessary. If you zoom in you'll see that the marker clearly says Not A Trail.  Well duuh!! It's laying there on a slippery, steeply tilted overhanging ledge with a life-ending drop below it. I'm pretty sure most of us can figure out that's not a trail without the sign!!!  (And for those that can't, do we really want them breeding anyway???)

The very colorful hollowed out space under that ledge made me think of being inside a snake's belly, not that I've ever actually been inside a snakes belly, but if I was I imagine this is what it would look like.

There are some significant, and rather direct, drops here among the limestone outcroppings along the river (See the red-shirted person just above the center of the photo down there in the canyon?.)

But the acrophobic can start breathing again, because the trails and overlooks are designed with barriers and railings to keep people from making any sudden trips between the high points and the low.

This is called Eagle Cliff Overlook. Downriver, just beyond view, is Plum Island, which has become a favored nesting site for Bald Eagles who like to fish in the year-round open water below the dam there at the base of the overlook.

Well, there's good barriers for the most part anyway. . .

The #6 dam and accompanying lock sits on the Illinois River adjacent to the state park and forms a section of the Illinois River Waterway, which allows commercial, and recreational if you've got the money and time, vessels to travel from the Great Lakes (And by extension, the Atlantic Ocean.) down to the Mississippi and on out to the Gulf of Mexico.

That Friday morning the lock was a really busy place.

Just beyond that little green island is a down-bound tow waiting for an up-bound tow, (Left of that distant building.) to clear out of the way. Even then, the relatively short 4-barge down-bound tow will then have to wait as the half dozen cabin cruisers and other pleasure boats that have been anchored all morning in a little pocket along the bank just beyond and behind the down-bound tow make their way past and tuck into the far end of the lock first. (You really have to blow the photo up to see all this.)

There had been two other down-bound tows go by that morning but they were both 8-barge tows which left no room in the lock for the non-commercial craft.

OK, a woodcutter in training?? That's the only explanation I can come up with for the extra steering notch in this stump.

Oh yeah, if you're not into camping, there's also a lodge here at Starved Rock State Park, a big lodge with some 90 rooms and/or cabins along with a restaurant or two.

The lodge sits up above the bluff and has it's own large parking lot, (Not the same parking lot as the Visitor Center.) a parking lot where several of park's trails seem to end up. But even that was interesting because there were several of these playfully carved totems situated around the lodge parking lot so stumbling in there, even if you're not a lodge resident, is not a wasted opportunity.

Despite the popularity, and attendant crowds, Starved Rock has some pretty spectacular scenery tucked into and below the limestone bluffs, as well as plenty of little nooks and crannies conducive to quiet contemplation. So if you time it right to minimize the scourge of popularity, which, given the circumstances, I think I did pretty well, Starved Rock State Park is certainly a place worth checking out. Just be aware that if you intend to camp your best bet is to plan ahead and make reservations.

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