Friday, July 12, 2019

Bridging the trail gap across northwest Illinois


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.



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Farewell to Wisconsin, Hello Illinois


Colorado or Bust, Days 22 through 25

My hike North to South across Wisconsin has been a trip.  It started in the fall of 2017 at the western terminus of Michigan's state-wide Iron Belle Trail in the twin border towns of Ironwood/Hurley.  I was chased off the trail that fall by snow and cold late in October somewhere near Wausau.  After a seventeen month hiatus, I came back and picked up where I left off and have now ended the Wisconsin 'traverse' at the northern terminus of Illinois' Jane Addams Trail in the midst of the worst of midsummer heat and humidity.

My Wisconsin sojourn largely followed the Ice Age National Scenic Trail through the heart of the State, but it made use of many lesser known Trails to connect.  Here in southern Wisconsin, that connecting trail is the Badger State Trail.  It's a rail trail, so open to bicycles, as is its extension into Illinois.  Even the Ice Age Trail makes use of it in several significant segments, including the walk through the quarter-mile Stewart Tunnel, hands-down the highlight of the trail.


The day I walked through was hot and humid, and inside the tunnel it was wonderfully cool, but foggy.  The fog is visible here spilling out into the sunshine.


The Badger State trail has mostly a crushed limestone surface, but the northern several miles of it are paved, from its terminus at the 'Velo Roundabout' where it connects to several other trails including the one to my birthplace in Madison, covered in the last report.

There are spots where the trail is out in the open with expansive views, high and low, of valley and stream,


and of the ubiquitous farmland.  Here a specimen oak stands vigil over a soybean field


Then there are serene shady spots where the trail cuts through forested hills.


Finally the moment had to come when I said Farewell to the Ice Age Trail.


It goes left, following the Sugar River State Trail, and I took the right fork, staying on the Badger Trail.

Twice in the days covered in this report, I was being chased by nasty thunderstorms and barely finished my day's  hike before being hit by storm-force winds and blinding downpours.


The small things along the way break up the long straight stretches that are inevitable on rail trails.  On these days they included Flowers, Fungus, and Foliage, namely some 'Fairy Triangles' spotted in trailside clover (to complement the fairy circles shown in an earlier report).


Here are the four GPS track maps for these four days, which took me from the suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin, to the little town of Orangeville.


From Orangeville I continue south to Freeport where the Jane Addams Trail ends.  There actually is an abandoned rail bed that stretches south out of Freeport to the Rock River at Dixon, but most of it has been taken over by private owners, it appears, and probably won't ever be made into the needed connecting trail.  So instead I'll be walking roads and a mile of pretty foot trail in a Nature Preserve to bridge the thirty mile trail gap between the Jane Addams Trail and the Rock River where I'll pick up the Hennepin Canal Feeder Trail.

Once I'm on the Hennepin trail, I'll turn west to join the route of the cross-country Great American Rail Trail and the older coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail (which coincide here) west into and across Iowa and into Nebraska.  These are the only trails that connect the multitude of hiking opportunities in the Rockies with those in the eastern US.  So I'm taking a deep breath and launching out into the vast flat expanse of the Great Plains.  One step in front of the other.

Thursday, July 4, 2019


In my last report I revisited the home where I took my very first steps.  In this report I return to the spot where I took my very first breath.  It was at Madison General Hospital, now called Meriter, owned by Unity Point Health, on Park Street in Madison, Wisconsin.  I know I was born there not just because Mom and Dad said so, but because I have in my possession the original hospital bill covering my delivery and my Mom's hospital stay, and it has the address on it.  The entire bill, five days in the hospital, totaled a whopping $54.

The hospital has undergone several major expansions since I was born, so it was a challenge to try to roll back time and determine what parts were existing when I was born.  Staff there suggested that the 'old East Wing', now just housing offices, was probably the place, but after digging through information available online, I discovered the architect's rendering shown above, dated April 1949, which conclusively proves that what is now the 'east wing' was an 'addition' not yet built at the time I was born, so one of the older structures in the background of the drawing (red arrow) has to contain the actual room where I came into this world.  Most of those structures are still there, though I can't be certain that the room I was born in still exists.  I had to satisfy myself with circling the entire block, creating a perimeter through which I, as an infant leaving the hospital, would have had to cross.

My walk to Meriter culminated four days of hiking various short segments of the Ice Age Trail, and then some bike paths that come to within a couple blocks of the hospital.   Here are some of the highlights, day-by-day:

Colorado or Bust, Day 18:

After leaving my Sauk City childhood home, where I was also probably conceived, I walked busy US 12 for a half dozen miles until I returned to the Ice Age Trail at the Springfield Hill trailhead.  There I resumed the Ice Age trail route via road walk to the Indian Lake Segment.


That meandering segment features a nice walk beside the south shore of the lake and a route among cross country ski trails through the dense mature woods southeast of the lake.

More road walking took me to the new Liebetrau Segment, which is a pretty useless bit of Ice Age Trail, because it is not a through trail but an out-and-back stroll with a loop at the far end that dips into a woods.  But most of this segment is open grassy meadow.


Another short road walk took me to the Table Bluff segment, a pretty walk through open areas and oak savanna, ending in a descent off the bluff into the town of Cross Plains.

Cross Plains is the location of the Ice Age Trail Alliance headquarters building.


At the end of the day I dropped in for a nice visit, asked a few questions, and learned about a newly opened section of trail south of town - So I added that to the following day's agenda.  Here's the GPS Track for Day 18:


Colorado or Bust, Day 19 took me through the Cross Plains segment, now consisting of two parts separated by a walk past the HQ office.  The northern Hickory Hill part was very pretty, traversing some nice hilltop prairie and a woods along a steep slope.

South of town the new trail ascends to a ridge and courses through mixed pine plantation and hardwood forest and some open meadows.  Here's the prettiest spot, by my estimation:


From there, it's more road walk down to the site of an important future segment, not yet built, through a complex of lands owned by the State, the National Park Service, and Dane County.  The Cross Plains Interpretive Site has loop trails that are planned to become part of the Ice Age trail, and across the street the undeveloped Cross Plains State Park has some really pretty trails that meander between two access points.  Because there is an 'in' and a different 'out', this is a 'through trail' and so I walked it and was super glad I did.  It offers some pretty mature white oak savanna and a view of the quarry pit called Lake Katherine, that I passed on the road walk:


Here's a look at the GPS Track for this day.


Colorado or Bust, Day 20 took me to the west suburbs of Madison.  I first hiked the cute little Valley View segment, wedged among upscale suburban homes.  Here is its signature feature - a view from a high meadow out over the valley of the Sugar River.


Nice wildflowers along this little segment too:


A short road walk took me to the Madison Segment, which is entirely within a University of Wisconsin public golf course.  Then came the Verona Segment.  It is a mix of meadow walking, a bit of woods walking, and a stroll alongside a soccer complex.  A new footbridge crosses busy McKee Road.


I only walked half of this, north of where it briefly shares a course with the Military Ridge State Trail, a paved rail trail used more by bicycles than hikers.  Here I turned east where the Ice Age Trail goes west.  East lies Madison, and my walk to the hospital.  This trail features a scaled-down version of a walk through our solar system.  In this version, the hiker is traveling at roughly the speed of light, and I was whizzing past Uranus, and later Saturn and Jupiter, on Day 21.


The 'sun' is supposed to be an orb about 24 feet in diameter at this scale, and is located at the end of the Southwest Commuter Path in downtown Madison.  I didn't get that far, because the hospital is somewhere between Jupiter and the Asteroid belt.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Here's the GPS Track for Day 20, which brought me to the Quarry Ridge mountain biking park:


Colorado or Bust, Day 21:

Short day, walk along very pretty and very popular bike paths into downtown Madison.  There was even a glimpse of the state capitol dome as I got close to the hospital.


And, of course, I passed Saturn:


The route took me to the east end of the Military Ridge Trail, which the Fifty Trail uses in its entirety to take the hiker toward Iowa, and the north end of the Badger State Trail, which I will be using to head south into Illinois where I'll link up with the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Trail, which coincides with the American Discovery Trail and the newly established Great American Rail Trail.  I'll be picking up the Fifty Trail route in the opposite direction there to head into Iowa.  But I'm way ahead of myself again.  The point here is that six different paved bike trails, including the Military Ridge, Badger, and the Southwest Commuter Path that I took into Madison, converge at a unique 'Velo-Roundabout' in the suburb of Fitchburg.


Madison's population is probably the most bike crazy in the country.  As I walked toward the hospital, which is near the university, virtually every house had four or more bicycles chained to porch railings or private bike racks in the yard.  Seems nobody drives here.  Well, at least not in summer.

Here's the GPS Track for Day 21:


So now I've completed my mission in Wisconsin.  Now its all hands to the pump, all eyes on the final prize--the four places I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado between 1970 and 1980.

I've connected every place else that I have called home, cradle to grave.  Yes, that includes my final resting place, this cemetery plot in New London, PA,


I'll be right next to Mom, Dad, brother Jim, and my Grandma Ivis, God rest all their souls. That's grandma's gravestone in upper left and the mat set down at Mom's grave site.  Photo taken the day of her funeral.

The thought can make me a bit misty-eyed.  I'm the only one left to soldier on.  A lonely trekker, with no-one left to ask about my deep past, no-one who could answer the many questions I have about the house in Sauk City, no one with whom to share fond memories of times in the woods, like the 1963 father-son Canoe Trip to Canada's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or the 1965 family hikes through Yosemite Park, or lazy summers meandering the woods and fields surrounding my 1958-66 home on White Clay Creek National Wild and Scenic River.  Sheez - I could go on and on ...

… And so I do.  Onward to Colorado.