Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Hiking Hennepin Canal State Parkway across Western Illinois

Tropical Illinois?  The American Lotus, Nelumbo Lutea, was brought this far north in prehistoric times to serve as a food source. Global warming seems to have recently brought the diminutive little green tree frog here.  Online resources say that it can't be found this far north, only in the southern-most three counties of Illinois.

Colorado or Bust, Days 33-35:

The Hennepin Canal was a late comer, and never a commercial success.  It was completed in 1907, long after trains had taken over most of the work of heavy materials transport, and at a time when the automobile and truck were beginning to replace the train.  The canal was closed to commercial traffic in 1951.  All maintenance stopped.  But almost immediately a grass-roots 'Save the Canal' campaign began.  The state of Illinois took full possession of it all in 1970; and as a result the canal remains well preserved.  Unlike other famous canals I've hiked, such as the Miami and Erie Canal in Ohio and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Maryland, this canal remains a functioning waterway along its whole length, and can be paddled and enjoyed as a continuous waterside hike.

Some of the interesting preserved features are two 'lift bridges' located at locks, where the road bed was 'cranked up' to lift it out of the way while barges passed,

Most of the locks exist, including the original wooden gates and some of the original lock opening hardware is preserved.

One early 20th century truss bridge remains in place.  Looks like a flimsy structure, certainly not for trucks of heavy farm equipment.  This particular bridge now goes nowhere.  The construction of Interstate 80 nearby means that it is now a bridge to nothing but a field next to the interstate.

Six of the original nine concrete aqueducts survive--places where the canal crosses a major stream via a 'bridge'.

One of the aqueducts that has not survived crosses the lower Green River not far from the Mississippi.  The Green River is a serious river there, and floods over the years have plagued the canal.  Currently the Trail is 'officially' closed, near that former aqueduct because of a major washout during the big Spring 2019 floods.  As I hiked through, a section of the canal levee was gone, washed away, but the route through the breach was dry.  Every time it rains, however, the ranger at the visitor center warned me, this spot washes over and floods and may be impassable due to swift current.

Hiker take warning.  At the visitor center they suggested that it may be a long time before they have enough money to make the repair.

Elsewhere, the trail remains in great shape, and is reasonably well maintained by mowers.

85% of the trail I hiked is paved, but there were a few grassy sections of overgrown crushed gravel.

Hiking waterfront all day, day after day, is a treat.  My encounter with the patch of American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) in full bloom, with its giant 'lilypads' was an unexpected surprise.

Other summer flowers provided canal-side 'splashes' of color too.

But who would have expected a genuine 'sock puppet flower'???

Rare sighting indeed.  Here are the GPS Tracks for these three days of hiking the canal.

On Day 35 I reached the place in the town of Colona where the trail leaves the Hennepin Canal and heads into the Quad Cities, first to the Rock River and then to the Mississippi.  Flooding there has also been a problem this spring.  The result:  I got a chance to hike *in* the Mississippi.  Stay tuned for that report, coming soon.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hiking Hennepin Canal, linking up with the cross-country trail to Colorado

Colorado or bust, days 30 to 32:

The road walk is done (at least for a while).  Now it's all waterfront hiking practically all the time for a week and a half.

It starts beside the Rock River at Sinnissippi Park in Sterling, Illinois

There's a continuous pedestrian/bike trail from there across the Rock River at Martin's landing

to the lock that brought boats off the river and onto the Hennepin Feeder Canal

Canal views are almost continuous from early morning among the cottonwoods to the heat of midsummer noon in the open prairie.

The Feeder Canal crosses the Green River via a concrete 'bridge' called an Aquaduct.

One of the few places, other than your infinity pool, where water overlooks water.  Here's what the Canal was bridging--the Green River

Freshwater mussels live in the canal, and something likes them for dinner

My dinner consisted of the trailside Black Raspberries, coming to the peak of ripeness

This mostly pictorial report ends at the 'Feeder basin' where the  North-South Feeder canal joins the east-west main canal.

Here I rejoined the route of the meandering Fifty Trail and the only two 'official' trails that span the American Great Plains--the Great American Rail Trail and the American Discovery Trail.  Here both use the Hennepin Canal Parkway's east-west trail to traverse the western half of Illinois.

I ended the third day at a well-preserved lock just west of the Feeder Basin.

Hiking was hot.  Summer is in full swing now, and having passed the age of 70, I find that I have to be a bit more careful about keeping cool and hydrated.  My body doesn't handle the heat as efficiently as it once did.  During the hottest days I try to get out early and quit early, shortening the hiking day.  Here are the GPS Tracks for the first three waterfront days back on real trail.

So now I've finished heading south, and begin the westward trek to Colorado in earnest.  Looking forward to it.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Bridging the trail gap across northwest Illinois

Colorado or Bust, Days 26 through 29:

My hiking mission is about connections.  My wandering and meandering is underpinned by purpose--to get from A to B in the most hiker-friendly possible way.  I do not mind taking great detours, consider how I got here to Illinois from Pennsylvania--via the Upper Peninsula of Michigan!  Yes, I love and embrace the feeling that the wandering mentality provides.  But to get from A to B, in this case from Madison, Wisconsin to Fort Collins, Colorado, I'm keen on finding the best dedicated foot trail, or at least non-motorized trail, to get me there.

In terrain where natural beauty attracts the leisure-time walker, there are trails to be found.  But in country like this

trails are harder to find.  Nearly every inch of the land has been put to practical use, and only the oddball walker like me takes the time to notice the beauty or to wonder what this vast landscape must have been like when it was still natural.

My current hiking problem:  Find a way across the cornfields of NW Illinois.

Those who have come before me have pioneered some routes across the Great Plains.  The American Hiking Society identified a route called the American Discovery Trail and publishes walking directions, though they offer no maps and this 'trail' is still mostly road walk in big sections.  In May (2019) the Rails to Trails Conservancy introduced a route called the Great American Rail Trail (GART) and published an interactive map.  It uses part of the same route as the ADT and I'm going to hook up with that route as it crosses north central Illinois heading into Iowa.  To get to it I considered picking up the route of the Grand Illinois Trail, which makes a 535-mile circuit around the northern third of Illinois and uses the above named trails for the southern section of its loop, but the part I would hike, around NW Illinois is nothing but a 'route' and is almost all on roads.

Another option I might have taken was the Fifty Trail route entering Iowa by heading west from Madison, Wisconsin to Dubuque, Iowa.  That's a worthy route, which has several major finished off-road trail segments, notably the Military Ridge State Trail in Wisconsin and the Heritage Trail west out of Dubuque.  That would take me to a 'Jumping off point' on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail where I'd have to say good-bye to the Fifty Trail route, pick the GART route, and head west.  But instead, I've opted to come up to that 'jumping off point' by the GART from north central Illinois, which is also the Fifty Trail route.  This option uses more 'famous trail' and more of the Fifty Trail route.

So that was my chosen solution.  It does 'meander', taking me south when my goal is to the west (Colorado), but it minimizes the amount of road walking.  It uses the Jane Addams rail trail across northern Illinois to Freeport, site of this little urban park where the second of the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates took place.

The Jane Addams Trail is well-loved by a dedicated local 'friends' organization who live near this seventeen mile gem,

My route then makes use of the scenic Hennepin Feeder Canal trail, a part of the Hennepin Canal Parkway system that is left out of the GART because it runs North-South.  I pick it up in Sterling, Illinois.  There is 'only' a thirty mile road walk to bridge the gap between Jane Addams and Hennepin.

But here's where the photo up top comes in.  Along that thirty mile road walk is a network of well-maintained trails in the woods in the Oakdale Nature Preserve.

This report covers four days of hiking, including Oakdale, the part of Jane Addams south of Orangeville, and that road walk, done in three sweltering hot summer days, and passing through the southern part of Freeport then the towns of Forreston and Polo, where I touched base with Westside Park, and their immaculate baseball field with this enigmatic sign.

On the road coming out of Freeport, I couldn't pass up this 'infinity' view of a different sort.

Near Forreston, there is another little patch of hiking trail in the Elkhorn Creek Biodiversity Preserve

that I didn't use because to make it a through-hike from the NE to SW corners of that property, I'd have to do a bushwhack through some pretty thick brush and grass.  But its there, as is more potential trail through a pretty section of publicly owned Oak Savanna called Crane's Grove Nature Preserve, here viewed from the road walk along adjacent Cranes Grove Road.

Cranes Grove Road itself is little more than a lane - pretty in its own Illinois-prairie sort of way

Road walking the open plains with the heat index in the mid 90's.  I do not recommend it.  But even here, in the unlikeliest of hiking venues, there is 'Trail Magic'.  As I came to one stop sign along the highway, the driver of an ice cream truck pulled over.  I pictured him breaking into his precious stock to offer me an ice cold creamsicle.  But his ice cream was probably all boxed in big cases and spoken for.  Instead he offered me a bottle of water from his personal supply.  Much appreciated, and I said so over and over before moving on.  'Trail magic' first class.

Here are the GPS tracks of these four days.

I know more of the 'infinite emptiness to the horizon' shots will be coming.  When nothing is interesting, you get interested in it.