Thursday, May 8

Moraine Hills State Park 118 miles day trip

Only by being able to cross state lines could Sunday, May 4, 2008 have been more perfect. At this time of year, Chicago's weather is schizophrenic with daily fluctuations that can range from an eighty degrees F high to a thirty-eight degree F low. A twenty degree drop in temps can occur in a couple of hours. Regardless of the weather's showboating, however, my involuntary servitude (aka my job) restricts me to Saturday and Sunday as the only days I can enjoy long rides. Other than public transportation, the 'cycle is now my only vehicle. Although I enjoy the daily jaunts via motorcycle, such events rarely extend beyond a 25 miles radius.

Thirty-eight degrees awaited me early Sunday morn. By 10:30 it had warmed to the mid-forties. Not wanting to wait much longer, I left but not before adding the fleece lining to my Kilimanjaro jacket. The individual who gassed up before me put $75 in their tank, which made it a little easier to swallow the $11 I put in Queenie's belly. I remember when I could barely squeeze in $6.00! After gassing up, I aimed for the highway. Even with the chin curtain on my Nolan helmet in place, the cold hovering around my neck made me remember that I had a neckerchief purchased for such occasions nicely tucked inside a drawer at home.

My ride objective? Another state park. People laugh when I tell them that the Midwest is not entirely flat. Glaciers covered significant parts of this area and the ecological history of this is not difficult to find. Parks with names like Kettle Moraine, Buffalo Rock, Volo Bog result from melting glaciers. Evidence of glaciation is omnipresent. You can see it in the deep ground indentations, bluffs and cliffs, the undulating landscape and varied debris (e.g., boulders, stones,) left by glacier activity.
I experienced this glacial history firsthand along sections of the east - west Illinois Rt. 176. This route is long, winding and twisty in all the right places. Rt. 176 is a blast to ride except for a few spots where gravel edges the road and requires one to pay close attention to speed when entering corners, and where the speed limit drops to 30mph as one moves through small towns like Volo (where the Volo Auto Museum exists) and Ivanhoe, IL.

At one point, somewhere near Libertyville, I spotted many motorcyclists, which didn't surprise me given the promises for a beautiful day. After seeing the umpteenth biker, however, I became curious about what might be transpiring in the area. A little later, I passed a throng of 'cyclists milling about a huge lot. I figured a rally was nearby. Later that night, while listening to the news, I learned that the swarm was a bunch of livid 'cyclists who had learned that a planned Bike Show at the fairgrounds, that had anticipated 40,000 bikers, had been canceled, which the bikers discovered when they showed up.

The temps steadily warmed and by the time I reached my destination, Moraine Hills State Park, I was more than ready to rid my gear, don the hiking clothes and hit the trails. The ride there was only about 60 miles; still, I need to remember that if I'm going to ride and hike, I need to plan better, like packing a decent lunch. The banana and bag of gorp I grabbed on my way out, ended up being rather insufficient. I hiked approximately 7 miles along beautiful trails. By the time I finished, I could feel my quads tingling and my stomach growling.

Moraine Hills is a magnificent park. It's well marked, offering both paved and unpaved trails. The landscape is gorgeous and the viewing platforms are welcomed rest spots even if you don't always see much wildlife. These are the kind of viewing areas that if time permits, one can sit and wait in the rustic open air cabin--for the wildlife will come eventually. At one point on the trail, and less than ten feet ahead of me, a deer sprinted across my path and darted to the security of a patch of dense woods. It stood and looked back at me as if checking out the animal world's equivalent of wildlife. We both stood still for the longest. I quietly readied the camera and waited, hoping to get a great picture but never did. (See third photo from the top--look closely)

Many animals call Moraine Hills home: the red fox, turtles, birds--birds galore--more than 100 species have been identified. I observed egrets, blue and green herons, red-winged black birds. I'm a novice when it comes to capturing good, clear images of birds, particularly birds in flight. I swear, this one bird, a giant egret, showed off for me. This is a vast, popular park but one can feel alone there (in a good way). I was alone when I first spotted this bird. I saw the shadow of something fly over head, it looked like a plane with a breath-taking expanse of wings! Yet, there was silence. I looked up and saw this giant white bird that I suspected was either a pelican or egret. I watched it fly and it soon became clear to me that this bird was performing, practicing magnificent aerial tricks. I aimed my camera at the bird, it flew high and low, dipping and diving and carving huge sweeping circles. It never strayed far from me and when I wasn't stunned to stillness and just staring at it, I actually tripped the shutter a few times. I now have an embarrassing number of egret pics--I just couldn't help myself.

Those lovely little red-winged Blackbirds fascinated me. True to their classification as perching birds, they love clinging on the tall grasses and swinging in the wind. They are funny little birds that seem to entertain themselves rather easily by singing up a storm. Moraine Hills is also home to many migratory waterfowl, including mallards, wood ducks and Canada geese. One area had a ton of turtles, sunning themselves on downed tree limbs.

My 7ish miles of hiking, didn't cover the whole park so I'll surely return to the area. I missed some of the marshy areas and I totally missed Leatherleaf Bog, which is said to be extraordinary evidence of kettle-moraine topography, which is a "depression" caused by a solitary block of glacial ice melting. According to the Moraine Hills State Park pamphlet, "The bog itself consists of a floating mat of sphagnum moss and leatherleaf surrounded by a moat of water." This bog is protected by law and this nature preserve cannot be disturbed by humans.

Following the park map, I was able to navigate myself back to the Kettle Woods where I began my hike. It is just beyond Pike Marsh, another great trail that connects with other trails. After reaching the bike, slipping on my overpants, changing shoes, checking the GPS, and firing up Queenie, I realized that the screaming in my gut was hunger. About fifteen miles later I stopped at a place I detest and rarely support but my bladder was then begging for its own nature call. While at McDonald's, I had a $1.79 fruit "salad," that was the only thing I dared try. It's hard to complain about something so cheap and not half bad. It hit the spot, let's say. I remounted the bike and zipped home in no time.

Ride total: 118 miles
Trip fun scale: 1 out of 10= 8