November Nature Walk


Potawatomi Forest Preserve, DeKalb County, Illinois

It seems that as Autumn progresses and a chill creeps into the air nature is even more beautiful when an unseasonably warm day returns.  That was true today as the temperature quickly climbed to 77 degrees, a record here for November 2.  It was the perfect day for an outing.  We drove 25 miles to DeKalb County where an Iowa-based grocery store carries a cooking seasoning I use that is made in Nebraska.  We stopped at a forest preserve along the Kishwaukee River.  I am drawn to any place with a body of water, large or small.  The Kishwaukee  which flows from Woodstock, IL (where Groundhog Day was filmed) to Rockford, Il is in an area primarily formed by glaciers.  Croplands and wetlands fill the area.  The Potawatomi lived here and would carve out the large sycamore trees for canoes to navigate the river, although there was much more vegetation then.  This is also as far north as sycamores grow and thrive.  The wetlands are home to a variety of birds, including eagles, and I was disappointed that I did not see any except for a flock of migrating geese outside of the park.  The forest area across the bridge is used for hunting from October through January, however, so perhaps the birds have marked their calendars.  We lingered along the river taking in the beauty of the trees and the warmth of the sunshine before returning to the country roads that took us home.


Lazy Afternoon

Devil’s Lake State Park (Wisconsin)

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Our Illinois home is less than 150 miles from Devil’s Lake State Park, and since we had never been there, this week was as good a time as any.  The Fall foliage had not yet peaked and we had the park pretty much to ourselves. Peace and quiet.  It’s what Grumpy loves. Devil’s Lake is the largest state park in Wisconsin and I believe it must be the most beautiful.

Wisconsin, like Illinois, is diverse.  Devil’s Lake is located in the Baraboo Range, a buried mountain range exposed through erosion.  The rocks are as much as 1.5 Billion years old and composed mainly of gray to pink quartzite.  The park namesake, Devil’s Lake is an endorheic lake, which means it does not flow to the sea.  The lake is much younger than the terrain.  This location marks the point of the furthest advance of a glacier, and it is beautiful.

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Parfrey’s Glen

Our first day we hiked in Parfrey’s Glen, the most visited natural area outside of the park.  Again we had the area to ourselves as another couple had turned around not wanting to navigate the rocks.  We hiked at the bottom of a gorge, or glen, whose floor is formed by a rocky, mountain-type stream.  I learned that what had been a path along the stream was destroyed in a past flood.  In the past 20 years Parfrey’s Glen has been changed drastically by flooding.  Visitors are left to step from rock to rock or just give up and get wet, which is what Grumpy and I did.  The walls of the glen are formed by layers of sandstone which at one time were a sandy beach, and the path to the glen is covered with rare and beautiful fauna.  It was a good hike and a beautiful morning.

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Up the Potholes Trail to the top of the east bluff and down the Balanced Rock Trail

It was early afternoon before we started the trek to the top of the east bluff.  We took the the Grotto Trail along the foot of the rocky bluffs, and chose to climb to the top on the Pothole Trail which I later learned is a little longer than the Balanced Rock Trail we chose for our return.  The highest point of the east bluff is about 1450 ft., but it seemed much higher as I made my way up the steep, rocky trail one calculated step at a time.  Some of the rocks are slippery due to their sandy nature so caution is advised.  The younger climbers had an easier time of it, but I was getting tired by the time I reached the top of the bluff.  The views of the formations are outstanding –balanced rock and devil’s doorway to name two.  You might feel for a moment that you are in Utah rather than the dairyland of Wisconsin.  The climb back down was strenuous and shadows were growing long.  Grumpy, who is a much better climber than I, was always a few feet ahead advising and admonishing me to be more careful and to hurry at the same time.  We were told that the CCC Trail is the most strenuous climb.  I can only imagine how difficult it must be.   It was close to sunset when we made our way to our motel in Baraboo.  That night we slept the sleep of the just and the exhausted.

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International Crane Foundation

When we arose early the next morning we felt the toll the previous day’s climbing had taken and were happy to have an easy day planned.  We left the park and drove in the rain to the headquarters of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo.  The IFC works to conserve cranes and the ecosystems on which they depend.  The snowy white whooping cranes are beautiful but the sandhill cranes are my favorite.  We watched  them in Nebraska and were fortunate to see them on the Platte River where more than 80% of the world sandhill population converges each March.  The foundation maintained a nature trail of trees and native grasses that made me feel I had stepped back in time.

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Baraboo Riverwalk

The day was still young and the rain still falling when we arrived at Ochsner Park in Baraboo to visit the small city zoo and stroll along the Riverwalk.  The Baraboo River is a tributary of the Wisconsin River and part of the Mississippi watershed.  At one time the Baraboo was blocked by four dams, but they have been removed making it one of the longest stretches of open river in the country.  It is perfect for paddling a canoe or kayak when the water is high.

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Circus World Museum

Our last stop of the day was the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. The museum features circus artifacts and history year round and a live circus performance during the summer months.  The museum is located in Baraboo because Baraboo was home to the Ringling Brothers and the Ringling Brothers Circus.  Six buildings, which now house exhibits, remain of the original winter quarters. The wagon pavilion houses 50 restored circus wagons. The museum is rich in circus history presented in the exhibits, vintage posters, photographs, and circus documentary films.

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Pewit’s Nest

On the third day of our trip we packed up our car for the drive home.  We had one more stop planned in Devils Lake State Park, Pewit’s Nest.  Pewit’s Nest is another natural gorge formed by the retreat of the last glacier.  The gorge is home to a waterfall and deep pool.   If swimming under a waterfall is on your bucket list, this is the place.  The falls, the pool, and the cliffs above are beautiful but they can be dangerous.  Locals have been jumping from the cliffs into the water for years, despite warnings.  The trees in the area include red cedar, white pine, hemlock, and yellow birch trees and stretch like a canvas backlighted by the morning sun.

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Rotary Botanical Gardens and Rock County Historical Museum in Janesville, Wisconsin

Our last stop in Wisconsin was the Rotary Botanical Gardens and the Rock County Historical Museum in Janesville.   We were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the gardens so late in the year.  It is hard to visualize that the garden was created in an abandoned sand pit.   The museum contained information about the Janesville area and it’s history.

And then we were home.  It was a memorable trip.   The Midwest is a place like no other.

There was nothing but land


“There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”    ― Willa Cather, My Ántonia

In 1975 Grumpy and I moved to Omaha, Nebraska, with our two children ages three and five.   I imagined our Nebraska home would be on a prairie and far from other houses, but it turns out we moved into a suburb much like the suburbs of every other city.   The prairie wind was always with us, however, and in those Nebraska years I never really felt part of anything else.  I was like Willa Cather in My Ántonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more.  I was entirely happy”.  Grumpy loved Nebraska too and found little about Nebraska to displease him other than, as I did, some of the politics.

We returned to Omaha for a visit last week and found it at once changed and the same.  Our first stop was the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.  You may be surprised to learn that the Omaha zoo was rated the number one zoo in the world in 2014.  Since then it has grown even more.  The zoo is still notable but as conditions for the animals have improved actually seeing them is sometimes more difficult.  We saw leopards at a distance lying together in the grass, an improvement over viewing them behind bars on a dirty concrete floor.  The penguins are still my favorite and Grumpy spent most of his time studying the snakes.


I had looked forward to crossing the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge, a 3,000-foot cable style footbridge across the Missouri River, and I wasn’t disappointed.  We arrived early in the morning in the rain.  The rangers at the National Park Service Visitors Center kindly provided us with large umbrellas to keep us dry.  At the visitors center we viewed a better-than-average Lewis and Clark film  and chatted with the other lone visitor.  In Nebraska the bridge begins in Omaha Plaza, a park containing a play area, water spray fountain and the National Park Visitors Center.  South of the plaza is Lewis and Clark Landing which includes monuments and a spectacular view of the Missouri River.  Both sides of the bridge connect to the Omaha Riverfront Trail, which continues to be lengthened and improved.


Our next stop was the Durham Museum (formerly the Durham Western Heritage Museum) housed in downtown Omaha’s former Union Station and dedicated to preserving the history of the region.  The Durham is the heartland’s first museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress and National Archives. This affiliation can bring wonderful traveling exhibits to Omaha.  After stepping back in time with the lifelike talking sculptures in the station’s main lobby and waiting room we visited the permanent exhibits.  My favorite is the gallery of transportation with an exhibit featuring antiques from the original Buffet Grocery Store opened in 1915.  We strolled through several connected train cars including a locomotive from 1890; a Pullman Cornhusker Car from 1924; a Lounge Car from 1949; a Sleeper from 1956; and a Caboose from 1962.  Another favorite of mine is the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition exhibit of 1898.  The Omaha exposition was held just five years after the start of the  famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The exhibit has souvenirs, photographs, and other artifacts of the event.  We were a few days too early to see a new traveling exhibit,  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, but that happens.

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We didn’t want to leave Nebraska without visiting a long-time Omaha friend and neighbor who is about to mark his 80th year and now lives in Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska and Nebraska’s second largest city.  Lincoln is home to the University of Nebraska as well as a growing tech industry, while Omaha is widely regarded as the telecommunications capital of the United States.   Rural Nebraska’s agricultural sector continues to be an important contributor to the state’s economy.

After a good night’s sleep we awoke fresh and ready to embark on our trip through Iowa that would take us back to Illinois.  Grumpy and I are almost as familiar with Iowa as we are with Nebraska.  Our son spent his first two years of college at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and we passed through the state many times in our trips east from Nebraska.  On our way to Nebraska we had visited the underrated Des Moines Art Center as we had many times before.   We had not, however,  visited Iowa’s oldest park, Backbone State Park.  We stayed in Independence, Iowa and drove to the park the next day.  In Independence, by the way, we had dinner at a wonderful new restaurant, Wacha’s Family Dining which is adjacent to a well-appointed Best Western Inn.  Their delightful wine comes exclusively from a Forest City, Iowa, winery. Iowa is truly a setting for surprises.    But I digress, Backbone is named for the steep and narrow ridge of bedrock cut by a loop of the Maquoketa River and forming the highest point in northeast Iowa–the Devil’s Backbone. The bedrock exposed at Backbone is composed primarily of a mineral called dolomite that is often incorrectly referred to as limestone.  The rocks we walked on in Backbone lay buried by newer rocks and sediment for millions of years until they were exposed again by long-term changes and erosion of the earth’s crust.  The park has numerous trails, but we chose the signature Backbone Trail which is a 1.1 mile loop that follows a rocky terrain forming the devil’s backbone.  The trail was plenty challenging for these two septuagenarians, especially when we traversed the side trails down to the river and up to various rock formations.  We drove through the park stopping to climb up to The Cave, view Balanced Rock, and rest at Richmond Springs, a trout-fishing spot.   We visited the site of the Trout Hatchery, which  was a CCC project that closed in 1987.  We could still see the 16 circular pools that were built for the site by the CCC.  The main building of the hatchery had been demolished but the pools, a beautiful stone wall, and a small garage remained.  We left the park exhausted and exhilarated, all the while talking about the rock climbing we would have done had we been there in our younger years.



Too soon we bid farewell to Backbone State Park and were driving across the Iowa landscape  with barns, corn, soybean fields, cattle, and wind turbines zooming by.  The sun was shining and I was smiling, knowing that Grumpy and I would always have Iowa and Nebraska and their quiet peace and beauty.



Killing our Planet


Marengo Ridge Conservation Area, Marengo, Illinois

The Clean Air Act of 1970 passed the Senate unanimously and with only one nay in the House.  Today environmental policies are mostly partisan and our planet is dying around us on a scale not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  My own state, Illinois, has been named 17th most toxic in the nation by the U.S. National Resources Defense Council for toxic air released from electricity-generating power plants.   If not for a few conservation efforts,  it would be worse.   Illinois has a number of state protected areas.  Nevertheless, less than 0.1% of the landscape remains as it did when first seen by Illinois’ early settlers.  Grumpy and I recently visited Marengo Ridge, pictured above, with our daughter and grandchildren.  They value nature as well, I am happy to say.

The environment is important to me.  I don’t plan to make a habit of reviewing books or reposting others’ articles here, but today is an exception.  Below is an excerpt from Derrick Jensen’s book, The Myth of Human Supremacy.  Read on.

The Wonderful World of Ohio

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I grew up in Ohio but didn’t realize how beautiful it is until after I left.  I go back occasionally for a high school reunion or to visit the fragment of Grumpy’s family that is still there.  Recently we joined our daughter, her spouse, our grandchildren, and other family members for a get-together in a large, comfortable cabin in Hocking Hills State Park, which is less than 60 miles from Columbus.   This may be Ohio’s most popular state park, and no wonder.   It has waterfalls, rock formations, caverns, and incredible trails to explore.  Hocking Hills State Park is nature at its best. Upper right is a photo from inside the Rock House, one of my new favorites.  Grumpy and I went to Old Man’s Cave, the most popular spot in the park, on our second date in 1966.  What a beautiful place to connect with family or to fall in love.

Before going to the park we stayed at Shaw’s Inn (established in 1947) in historic Lancaster, Ohio. The upper left photo shows the view from atop Mt. Pleasant in Lancaster, a bluff which rises 250 ft. above the surrounding plain.  The bluff is made of highly erosion-resistant Blackhand sandstone, which is the same stone that forms the cliffs in the Hocking Hills.  We visited Grumpy’s hometown of Carroll, and enjoyed the quiet beauty of Fairfield County with its locks that still stand in a dried-up canal.  We stopped at a pretty old mill that is being restored, a covered bridge, and his childhood haunts which included the barn where his brother fell from a loft and broke his leg.  Twice during our stay in Central Ohio we shared Grumpy’s favorite pizza in the world,  Massey’s Pizza.  Try not to miss it if you are in Columbus. Grumpy prefers the pepperoni.

Still in a cliff-walking and waterfall-viewing state of mind, we headed to Nelson Ledges State Park, a place I had never been before.  A sign warned of dangerous cliffs so Grumpy and I took the easy and moderate trails and left the close-to-the-cliffs trails to the young people we saw along the way.  We chatted with several, sometimes taking their advice on ways to navigate the unmarked trails and sometimes giving it.

Our next stop was Headlands Beach State Park on Lake Erie near Mentor and not far from Cleveland.  Lower left is a photo of the natural sand beach, which is a mile long and the largest in the state.  The area is home to many plant species typically found only along the Atlantic Coast.  We walked to the lighthouse and back and collected rocks and a bit of sea glass from the shore.  Although the beach is natural sand, the waterline has small stones that hurt my tender feet after I had walked awhile.  A rocky breakwater extends north of Headlands Dunes Preserve to Fairport Harbor West Lighthouse.  Grumpy and I stopped at the breakwater, deciding not to climb or trek along it to the lighthouse, an adventure we would have undertaken enthusiastically a few years ago.  The lighthouse, which houses a maritime museum, was closed that day.   I hadn’t been to Headlands State Park since the summer of 1966.  On that day, I almost drowned in Lake Erie before Grumpy realized that I really was in trouble and came to my rescue.  It was the first time he saved my life.  We will be visiting the place where he saved my life the second time next month.

We had planned to see Holden Arboretum in nearby Kirtland, where there is a canopy walk in the treetops as well as a tall tower to take in the view.  As luck would have it, the canopy walk was closed for maintenance and we decided to go instead to nearby Cuyahoga National Park.  Ohio, as small as it is, only 45,000 square miles, features a variety of different landforms.  Some areas were formed by glaciers and others were untouched accounting for the contrasts.  There is much to see in Ohio.  When Grumpy and I were young and living near Columbus we got our hands on a book “Wonderful World of Ohio”.  We would drive one hundred miles just to see a plaque affixed to a rock.  I don’t think we missed a thing in the book.  We have always enjoyed road trips, hiking, and exploring.

Cuyahoga National Park is another beautiful place with waterfalls and trails. We didn’t plan to stay long so we mapped our strategy to see two key waterfalls.  Along the way we saw more beautiful forest, trails, and rock formations.  This location was a favorite destination when I was a child in Cleveland in the ’50s.  My mother would pile half the neighborhood into our car and we would picnic, play softball, wade in the creek, and climb the cliffs for a fun-packed day.  It was still a metropolitan park then and was not designated a national park until 2000.  The park was our best-kept secret when I was a child, as much of Ohio still is.

I met up with a high school classmate in Medina.   We went with her, her daughter, and her granddaughter to the Medina County Fair.  It was everything a county fair should be–fried food, animals, rides, politicians, and lots of dust.    The next day Grumpy and I went to the farmers’ market where I bought delicious goat milk fudge and European nut roll (which didn’t last long).  Afterward we had lunch with my friend outside on the deck of P.J. Marley’s pub on the town square.  The day was sunny, breezy, and just the way I remember Ohio.  We walked, and talked, around the town square (lower-right photo).   I remember going to Medina when I was a child with my parents and my grandfather, who was a beekeeper.  The A.I. Root Company was founded in Medina in 1869, and Medina became a center for beehive manufacturing. We would stop at Medina’s well-stocked nurseries for plantings for his beautifully landscaped yard.  Too soon  I bid goodbye to my friend and we set off for our next stop.

On to Cleveland.   Cleveland downtown, lakefront, the Rock & Roll Museum, and the many neighborhoods of old Cleveland are very good to see, but since we had been there five years ago we opted for the Cleveland Art Museum.  Again, planning to spend just a short time there, we viewed the current special exhibits.  The Cleveland Art Museum still offers free admission and is well worth the trip although it pales in comparison to the Art Institute of Chicago.  A new atrium and new glass entrances as well as building additions have been built since I was there last.  I made a point to return to the old 1916 entrance.  The Thinker still sits in front of the entrance.  The original architecture is Beaux-Arts, which translates to Fine Arts and is the style popularized in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The fountain and the area around the museum is a spectacle in itself.

And then, as suddenly as it began, our Ohio trip was over.  We had missed as many landmarks as we had seen.  The western portion of Lake Erie is a good destination with its beaches, lighthouse, and ferries to islands.  And there is an amusement park, Cedar Point, which interested me in my youth.  Not many rivers are more majestic than the Ohio River in southern Ohio.  But for now goodbye Ohio, land of my youth, I hope we meet again.




Matthiessen State Park — Starved Rock’s Pretty Sister


If you live in Illinois you’ve heard of Starved Rock State Park.  It’s the most visited in Illinois.  But if you’ve lived in Illinois only 6 1/2 years as Grumpy and I have you may not have heard of Matthiessen State Park which is a few miles south of Starved Rock. The main entrances to both parks are on Illinois State Route 178.  Matthiessen is a large forest park and canyon with prairie, springs, a beautiful waterfall, camping, hiking, and horse trails.  We went the first week of September and could not have predicted that temperatures would be in the 90’s and the days would be as humid as a steam room in Louisiana, but that is life in the Midwest. Although the park has 5 miles of hiking trails, the bottom of the canyon had the best scenery.  The canyon was formed by water erosion, is a mile long, and the length of the canyon is accessible for hiking if you don’t mind getting your feet wet. Plan to soak up some serious beauty.   Exposed sandstone is everywhere as is lush greenery and trickling streams.  As I mentioned, the waterfall in Matthiessen was beautiful whereas the waterfall in Starved Rock is dried up this time of year.  We aren’t campers, so we stayed in a nearby motel.  Cabins and resorts are also nearby.

Being in a canyon state of mind, we drove on to Apple River Canyon State Park, but didn’t stay long. We cut the hiking short because of the heat.  I enjoyed walking along the Apple River most of of all, and I learned that there had been a logging town on the site that was washed away by the flooding river in the 19th century.  I programmed my GPS wrong, and on the way to the park we ended up on a very rough gravel road with tall weeds on either side and tall grass growing between the tire ruts.  We had to back out, seemingly forever, to return to the road.  Poor Grumpy.

Our next stop was Krape Park in Freeport Illinois, which is a must if you have children, or even if you don’t.   The park is a wonder and has a carousel, canoe, and duck and swan paddle-boat rides.  We were surprised to find a beautiful waterfall there, as well as shady hiking trails.

Illinois state parks have free admission, altho some of the park employees were concerned about the lack of state funds for upkeep of the park.  So visit Matthiessen and Starved Rock before the frackers and miners move in.  They tell me Illinois has a reprieve because of the drop in oil prices.  I hope so.

Up in Michigan

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We are in the early stages of planning our next trip and it should be easy because we’ve been there before, more than once.  The first time I went to the Upper Peninsula was in the summer of 1969.  We combined business travel with pleasure, and it was to be our last trip before we became parents and official grownups.  Upper Michigan is beautiful and there is much to see.  I have forgotten many details of the trip (and need to return) but I haven’t forgotten the wildflowers that blanketed every hillside.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most memorable.  We returned home on Sunday, July 20, and I was bracing to return to work the next day.  The phone rang late that evening and I learned that the university was canceling operations for a day because of the moon landing.  The country, and I, celebrated.  Grumpy and I returned to the U.P. in June of 2003 after we had been retired for several years.  We included a stop in Canada and a ride on the Agawa Canyon tour train.  The Agawa Canyon is most beautiful and I recommend the train excursion.  I also recommend a little mom and pop motel near the train station, Catalina Motel.  They don’t make them like that anymore.  The train tour takes all day so it is not for those with a short attention span.  Grumpy managed, however, so I’m sure anyone can.

Ernest Hemingway traveled with his family to northern Michigan every summer from their home in Illinois when he was young.     He wrote about it, and Walloon Lake and Hortons Bay.  He later said, ”Talk about the beauty of the Bay of Naples! I’ve seen them both, and no place is more beautiful than Little Traverse in its autumn colors.”

Summertime up in Michigan is beautiful too.  It was beautiful in 1969 and it still beckons today.

Getting there is half the fun


I’ve never been happy just taking that free trip around the sun every year.  I want to be on the open road, anywhere but home.  It started when I was a little kid in Cleveland and would travel south to see relatives every summer.  Usually it was just my mom, my brother, and me.  My brother was the one who first told me that getting there is half the fun.  He taught me a lot of things and I miss him.  This photo is my mom and me on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee in the summer of ’58.  I miss her too.  Now it’s Grumpy and me doing the traveling.  Grumpy has a love-hate relationship with trips.  He complains much of the time but I just don’t hear it anymore, or I laugh and then he laughs too.  We’re between trips right now, but I’ll keep you posted.