A bridge to what lies ahead

Last year around this time, I signed up for a Meetup event to hike the backpacking trail at Forest Glen just south of Danville IL. I didn’t know a soul that was going, and being an introvert, that’s not easy. But the two ladies that I drove down with were great fun and friendly, and I got to know several other people on the trip who I became friends with on Facebook (including the ladies I rode down / back with). This year, many of the same people are going on the that very same trail again.

And I signed up for that too.

So it will be fun to go again, and this time feel like I’m going with friends. But given that the even was scheduled just a few days ago and I hadn’t exactly done a whole lot in the way of preparing for a backpacking trip yet, I figured I better do that today!

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Loaded up and ready to go hit the trail. Okay, HIKE the trail…

I decided Thorn Creek Forest Preserve near my house was a good spot to go. I knew it would have  a trail surface much like Forest Glen does – not to mention mud, and at least a few hills. When I arrived at the parking lot, the temperature was about 55F, and a decent breeze was blowing. It was too cool to not have a fleece jacket on to start. But less than 2 miles in? Yeah, the jacket came off.

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The jacket came off pretty quickly after I got going and generated a bit of body heat. 

I was fine with my Cuddlduds long sleeve shirt, soft shell pants and heavier Merrell boots. I also liked the new 80% merino wool socks I had on. I only packed about 16 or so pounds into my backpack (tent, sleeping bag, and usual “always bring” items), but also had my DSLR camera with 55-250 lens. I probably should use my 28-105 lens for the Forest Glen trip – the 55mm really isn’t wide enough on my APS-C (cropped) sensor for good wider field photos.

I started out on a pretty good pace, and really felt like I could keep it up for much of the hike. The weather did warm to 67F by the time I finished, so it really was an ideal day to practice hike. Normally I see a lot of deer at this preserve, but today it seemed to be all about the birds. LOTS of birds, and some I hadn’t seen there before:

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker. Not in focus, but it flew off before I could get a good shot. Was cool to see it. MUCH larger than I expected – they are about crow size.

Hermit thrush, Thorn Creek

Hermit thrush. Never even knew what that was before today.

This particular trail is supposed to be a pretty big loop, with a decent spur at the further point from the parking lot. But it crosses Thorn Creek, and the south bridge has been out for a couple of years now. I decided to walk as far as I could, so I took the north bridge trail, turned away from the spur towards the missing south bridge at the junction, and then turned back at the creek.

Thorn Creek at trail juncture

I love this location. It’s at the trail junction of the spur off the loop. Prettier when all the leaves are out, but I still like this spot. And photos don’t quite do it justice.

Interestingly, I did find a way to cross the creek not far from where the south bridge is out. And there’s a fascinating feature along the creek there.

After hiking back up the trail and up to the spur, I rounded the pond where the photo of the goose was taken (see below). A short trail off that mini-loop leads to another pond, but I didn’t spend much time there as I wanted to get in as much “fast”hiking as possible.

On the way back to the north bridge, I discovered another feature I hadn’t ever seen before – a random bench across the gully. I crossed over to it, and realized that that was where the old trail must have gone. I found wood planks that helped divert water when it still was a trail. Another place to explore again sometime.

Hairy woodpecker Thorn Creek

Hairy woodpecker, if I’m identifying this bird accurately. Better shot than the pileated woodpecker, but this one was a lot further away so it still looks slightly fuzzy.

Goose on nest in pond

A goose on… a nest, I think?

Here’s my stats for the day:

  • Distance: 5.22 miles
  • Duration: 2 hours, 18 minutes
  • Average speed: 2.26 mph
  • Max speed, 5.58 mph (!!)
  • Min altitude, 564 ft / max altitude, 692 feet (we’re flat here in IL, what can I say?)

I tried to push myself and not rest as often as I might normally. I stopped about every 2 miles, instead of every 1 mile as I often do when my wife hikes with me on day hikes. This seemed to work well – I either needed water or some food and water at those times, and my feet appreciated the rest too. I drank about a half liter of water, and had 1/2 a cup of cashews and a granola bar with me, which was more than sufficient.

Trees and trail

Not quite how I thought I had this focused, but I think it turned out well. It was nice to see some green out there today.

Although my calves were like, “Hey! Why such a workout dude?!” as I was moving pretty quickly when I was walking, I’d say the most they hurt was about a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Definitely not “OW!” just more like, “Oooh, yeah, good soreness there.”

My knee did not hurt at all, which I felt was good news given how things went last year. And that’s really good as it hurt last year after 2 or 3 miles, and I hiked 5+ miles today.

Tree with weird knots

I found the look of this tree fascinating for some reason.

I did start to get a bit tired around the 4th mile, so I definitely need to try to practice more before the end of the month. But I’m pretty confident about how strong I’ll be. My back didn’t hurt at all, my arms didn’t hurt from the trekking poles, and only my calves were really sore, and only from not seeing enough use on muddy trails / fast walking with some weight on my back, I’m thinking.

 

In all, a great day, and I feel good. I’ll probably be sore tomorrow, but it’s all muscle-rebuilding from the winter, and I should be in the shape I need to be by April 30. And all this is a bridge to what lies ahead at the end of the month, even if it will feel more like a familiar path shared with old friends this time.

Leaning bridge at Thorn Creek

A bridge to what lies ahead.

 

 

“Cold” weather camping: Testing

I’m not what most people would term a ‘hardy’ person. If it really is cold (below 0F), I’m probably miserable. But ‘cold’ is a relative term too. 40F is quite cold to someone from Arizona or Florida. Here in Illinois up by Chicago, 40F is the temperature where we say, “Hey, it’s actually kinda nice out today!”

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Passage 1 tent set up in my back yard.

So when it reached a high of 55+ degrees yesterday during the day and the low for the night was slated to hit 40F, I said to my wife that I would probably sleep outside in the tent set up in the back yard – basically to test my equipment, and see how comfortable I am with what gear.That’s one of the things I never really know when I go hiking: Which gear should I bring? Will I be warm enough? Will I be cold at all if I don’t bring XYZ piece of clothing?

Being right outside my house to test this, if I ever actually got cold, I could just walk inside.

On top of that, we had just driven 600 or so miles that day to drop off our daughter with her aunt, so we were tired, and it was dark when I got home. I put on my headlamp, brought the REI Passage 1 tent outside, and also practiced setting it up in the dark.

That part was pretty easy. I guess I’m good there. 🙂

For the sleeping itself, normally I’d probably use my Exped UL7 Downmat. But I was tired and didn’t feel like figuring out how to use the ‘schnozzle’ to blow it up. Instead I took out my blow-up Thermarest pad. It says it takes just 10-15 breaths to fill it up, but I have pretty good lung capacity, and 20-24 is more like it! (It’s probably because I own the large pad.) The NeoAir is supposed to offer an insulating value of R-3.0 due to the reflective surface on the inside. Given the conditions, I figured this was fine to test this one.

Here’s the basics of my set up for last night:

  • REI Passage 1 tent (no footprint used)
  • Kelty Cosmic Down 21 sleeping bag
  • Thermarest NeoAir Trekker, large
  • Regular pillow (yes, I cheated a bit here – I was tired)
  • Heavy wool socks
  • Heavy fleece lowers
  • Light fleece, partial zipper uppers
  • Skull cap

That was pretty much it. I decided to change from my regular ‘street’ clothes of jeans and the pullover I’d worn that day into the ‘hiking / camping’ type gear I’d be more likely to sleep in. Might as well practice how to change in the small tent, right? After swapping clothes, I settled into the sleeping bag, and felt…. warm, almost hot. It was 50F when I went to bed, and no breeze to speak of, so I left my arms outside the bag and the flap slightly undone and folded open.

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I fell asleep fairly quickly (again, tired) but do recall waking up at one point to zip the bag up, but that’s all I recall as the next thing I heard was the birds singing and it was morning. My feet were a just a slight tad chilly, but not cold. Of course my face was cool, being exposed (I always cover my eyes with my cap). But otherwise I was mostly comfortable.

Conditions in the morning were as follows:

  • Low temp: 40F
  • High wind gust: 10 mph at 6:18 am
  • Dew point: 37F
  • Humidity: 87%
  • Barometer: 29.97

Despite the high humidity and dew point, there wasn’t much dew on my tent – none inside, in fact, and very little outside. I didn’t ever feel a breeze inside the tent – with a high wind of 10 mph at 6:18 am, that means all wind was below that from at least 12:00 am forward, and I went into the tent around 11:00 pm.

One thing I DO notice when  I camp in cooler conditions like this is my feet after I get out of my warm sleeping bag. I was fine changing back into “street” clothing, oddly enough – well, putting the jeans on was eye-opening, they ‘felt’ colder than the nice fleece pullover did. But even with the heavy wool socks I had on, my boots really did feel cold. That’s the one thing I may need to bring along is hand warmers to put inside my boots right when I wake up, to warm them up on the inside. So by the time I’m ready to put them on, they are warm and my feet are warm too.

As I sit here typing this at 8:10 am, a good hour and a half after getting up, my feet still feel that coldness, despite the fact that I’ve been inside my house for well over an hour. So that is one thing I will have to work on so that I feel warm. Coffee doesn’t warm up my feet, even if it makes the rest of me feel better (the caffeine constricts blood vessels anyway). I suppose there’s the possibility of building a fire, or doing jump jacks to get my blood moving again, but a couple ounces of hand warmers for the relatively short backpacking trips I’ll be doing is probably worth it for the cooler times I’m out sleeping.

In any case, it was a good test, and this post is meant to document that for me for future reference (and for anyone else interested). As a “cold” sleeper who tends to need a lot of warmth to sleep well, I feel great about any mild-weather situation sleeping in 40F overnight temperatures having this gear with me. I might want to have slightly warmer gear if it is going to be more damp or windy, but for how things were last night, this was almost ideal.

Ever feel like you’ve hiked farther than you actually have?

The weather here in Illinois has been unseasonably warm the last two weekends, and so today I got myself outside and over to a nearby forest preserve to hike. One small problem: I forgot that the areas east of me got hit harder with snow on Tuesday than I did just 9 miles west of my hiking spot:

Deep boot in snow

I set off, full of vigor and energy. And then…. yeah, no. Though I was expending considerable energy, I wasn’t actually getting very far. It was much like walking on a sandy beach; one step took more effort than normal, and only netted half the distance it should have.

Snowy trail blue sky

After all  of about 1/2 mile of hiking in that, I decided I needed to change how I was hiking today. My calves were starting to yell at me from walking on the snow like this, and I knew they’d be screaming at me if I didn’t change what I was doing.

Footprints in snow

Given that I’d brought my DSLR and no hiking poles, I didn’t want to trip or slip and fall. That meant I needed to be somewhat careful about my steps, as there was some ice here and there underneath patches of snow. I also was trying to be careful with my knee – it was a bit cooler out today, and windier. So I figured I’d go easy. But the snow had other plans, so I made the most of it by circling back around towards the paved roads in the preserve.

I turned off the path, cut through the campground on site, and walked on the (fully plowed) road for a bit back towards my car.

Snow, trees and clouds

As I got closer, I realized that I really hadn’t walked very far yet (less than a mile) and that I could simply continue onward towards the far southern parking lot, turn around, and at least have some more walking accomplished.

When I reached that lot, my legs had largely recovered from the snow walking (stomping?) so I decided to talk a short looping trail into the woods and around the large sledding hill in the center of the preserve. This particular trail looked rather well-worn from others walking in the snow here, so I decided to give this a whirl.

Well, I was not all that far in when I realized that most people had apparently turned back before I did! But I pressed on, decided I could make it around. I got about 2/3 of the way around the loop and it dawned on me: I’m not going to make it all the way. I was starting to sweat on my upper torso, despite the odd condition of having cold ears from the light but constant breeze.

I figured I’d take another shortcut.

Hill, snow, trees, clouds

I cut through using an old trail (these are easy to see today – no tall grass, and the snow made them plainly obvious where they were) and made my way up the sledding hill, which was being used on the northeast side. I took the photo above from the top; I had come around from the path on the right side of the closer forested area (on the left of the photo). It was a nice view, and a comfortable break before I made my way down the other side towards my car.

Though I was hoping to hike 3 to 4 miles today, I wound up traveling just 1.85 miles, which was farther than I thought I might get when my calves were hurting back at 0.5 miles into my hike. But the snow definitely made me feel like I’d hiked more than that – or at least burned more calories than if I’d been hiking one less of the white stuff.

Selfie of me along Greenway Trail

Temperature today was about 45F, and the wind varied from 5 to 15 mph. For the most part, I did well with the following gear:

  • Polyester T-shirt
  • Microfleece long-sleeve top
  • Heavier fleece zip-up jacket
  • Soft shell pants
  • Merrell hiking boots
  • Heavy wool hiking socks

I did wear a hat most of the day due to the sun. Though I brought a backpack with food and water, at only 40 minutes of hiking, I didn’t need either drink or sustenance. But it was good to have the weight on my back. I’ll have to increase my hike length and weight in the weeks and months ahead.

Small stream in winter at Goodenow Grove

First hike of 2016: A good start

Well, maybe “walk” is a better term. A fast walk, I suppose.

Regardless of what it is called, it was an unusually beautiful February day. 55F, sunny, with just the occasional brisk gust in an otherwise lightly breezy day. I don’t like feeling “cooped up” inside, and the trails around me can be challenging to hike with snow on them (not that it’s stopped me before). But I have made other decisions regarding how to spend my time this year so far.

Today presented me with a lovely opportunity to change that calculus.

Monee Reservoir, sunny warm winter day

A pretty good photographic representation of the day: Sunny, warm, but definitely still winter.

I took it.

I knew I needed to take it easy, given what adverse things my knee can do when it is still cool outside and I hike for more than 2-3 miles. But the warmth was invigorating, and so I set off on  pretty good pace.

I should point out that my usual go-to hiking app – MyTracks – will be discontinued in April of this year. So I tried a new one that some other backpackers recommended to me, Endomondo. It’s okay, but I preferred MyTracks. Still, this new one gave me sufficient information to know what I was doing and had done when finished.

Me in front of tall cattails

A selfie in front of some 8-9 feet tall cattails.

My max speed was 4.16 mph, not shabby considering I wasn’t using hiking sticks today. I did have on a lightweight daypack, with only 7 pounds of food and water in it (all things I didn’t end up needing anyway). And average speed was 2.53 mph. I only hiked for a little over an hour, and total distance was not quite 3 miles. I figured it was a good chance to hike “long enough” without overdoing it, and just sort of get back into a bit of a groove.

I think I’ll have to hike a bit farther next time.

I was also able to try a new lens I got for Christmas – a Canon 55-250mm zoom. The photo below is somewhat cropped, but I’m pretty happy with how that turned out. I probably should have used the image stabilization, but even without it, I don’t think that’s too bad. The sun was bright, so the lighting was harsh. Thank goodness for Photoshop to tweak contrast and brightness somewhat.

Geese ice fishing

The geese were feeding in the open areas of the water outside of the iced-over sections.

Overall, the hike felt really good. I liked my pacing, stopping only really to take photos or re-tie my boots, and slowing down a bit towards the end because I felt my back starting to sweat from the pack. I had already unzipped my fleece jacket and inner, thin fleece top, so I pulled up the sleeves on both, and slowed slightly. Back near the trailhead, I did stop for a while to take photos of the geese there. Two were walking next to each other as I approached, and they reminded me of my wife and I as we hike.

When I showed the photo to my wife later and told her what I’d thought, she gave me that endearing “Awwww…”.

The geese version of me and Ang hiking

Awww, indeed.

I won’t let the cold stop me from now on. I have the right gear. I just need to get myself out there and hike… or walk.

 

A new cold-weather camping option

I’m not really a cold weather kind of person, mostly because I dislike feeling cold. Part of that stems from my childhood, I think, though I’m not sure why – perhaps because I’ve always been on the slender side… not exactly a lot of insulation on me. The other derives from my college days, when several pledging rituals involved ice-cold water and/or immersing oneself in water.

In February.

In central Illinois.

In 20 degree temperatures.

So why subject myself to the cold of winter outside while camping? 

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For starters, I finally have all the right clothing and gear for this. I detailed some of this in my early posts on this blog, but some of that gear is more recent “end of season” purchases that haven’t seen much if any use yet. My amateur astronomy passion along with doing more tent camping has also gotten me on the right path for more synthetic clothing, wool socks, proper boots, warm winter layers (and layers, and layers!) plus some nice snow pants I even picked up recently for only $25.

That means I actually have a LOT better idea of how to start and stay warm. Last spring I also camped – okay, “camped” in my backyard – and tested my temperature resistance while sleeping in a tent (so far, I’m good down to 28F). I then did a few nights at a local campground late last winter and early spring, where the temps got down into the 30’s. I can probably get by with colder temperatures than those, given that I have multiple sleeping bags I can layer to provide added warmth.

Another reason for going is the hiking and photography opportunities. I’m no expert photographer, but I enjoy the exercise, and I like seeing what I can capture on film… err – digital media (see photo at end of post).

But my final reasoning for going is the aforementioned astronomy. Winter stars can be seen in other seasons – but not at “normally-awake” hours in the evening. Since I’m not fond of getting up at 3 a.m. to see Orion in August or September, proper clothing has allowed me to manage those stargazing opportunities in winter. And that’s meant, sometimes, camping a bit further from city lights to see more stars.

But then there’s a new problem: Where to go?

My usual go-to camping spot in the off-season months (Nov 1 to May 1) has been the Chippewa campground at the Kankakee River State Park near Kankakee IL – about 60 miles south of Chicago. Typically open year-round and with a miniscule $8 per night fee for tent camping, it also has generally open views of the sky, and a hiking path – plus it is 30 minutes from my house. What’s not to like?

Small problem: The state government has a budget impasse, and the campground is currently closed due to a broken well and improvement projects that are stalled.

So I asked on the r/camping subreddit. A very helpful poster suggested Illini State Park. It’s still close – just over an hour away. But there are multiple campground loops – I wasn’t sure which one was best for tents. Here’s the key details that poster shared with me:

It’s not really tent only camping on Great Falls 35-62, but it would be difficult to back an RV into those locations.

FYI, Whitetail tends to be closed from Dec – April and Pine Glen is reserved for Boy Scouts (I believe), so Great Falls would be your best option.

If you go in summer months, Whitetail is a little nicer since it’s away from a majority of people. Great Falls has an ice cream shop and a park near it so more families camp there during warmer months.

So there’s a good option: Close to home, has hiking, open spaces for stargazing, and fairly RV-camper-free areas not just from the cooler weather but the site arrangement. But, it is close enough to civilization that I can warm up if need be, or even just drive home should the temperature unexpectedly drop to uncomfortable levels. And, it is a possible place to camp in the warmer months as well.

Plus, it will give me a chance to do a bit more astrophotography that I’ve been dabbling in, and try out some of my new gear that’s seen little use so far like an REI Passage 1 tent, a down jacket, those snowpants, and some other clothing items.

Besides, now that I’ll be dressed properly, I won’t even feel much of the cold anyway, right?

And that’s the way I like it.

M42

On the path to smaller, lighter, and less expensive

The camp kitchen set I’d been using for backpacking was mostly a cobbled-together mish-mash of various items I had from car camping, with the exception of the stove. I did purchase an Etekcity backpacking stove for about $10 or so. It’s nice in that it has a piezo ignition that does not require a flint, matches or lighter to get going. And that proved handy two weeks ago when I realized I had forgotten my matches / lighter, and needed to 1) boil water to cook food and 2) light kindling to make a fire.

My old backpacking kitchen set up. Large, bulky, heavy, not efficiently sized.

My old backpacking kitchen set up. Large, bulky, heavy, not efficiently sized. But it worked for a while, as it was all I had while I was focusing on gear like backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.

The other items are a fairly heavy – if somewhat small – car camping pot with lid, an enameled steel coffee cup that would not nest inside the pot, a dual fork / spoon that didn’t fit in the pot, small pack towel, and a 1.3 oz bottle of camp soap. Oh, and the stove didn’t fit in the pot with the fuel in there, so I had to carry it in the coffee cup inside it’s plastic protective case (added weight). All of this was placed inside a mesh bag, that I think came with the pot. It was large. It was noisy. It wasn’t exactly space-saving… or light.

So I’d been searching for something better. I was very interested in the GSI line of backpacking nesting pots, mugs and other accessories. Although I was envisioning something really lightweight as my ultimate goal, I was also trying to think, “What if my wife or younger daughter come with me?” I therefore had my eye on the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist Ultralight Cookset.  At $65, it’s not badly priced, but that’s still $65 for what amounts to really small pots, bowls and cups. And I wasn’t even sure I really needed all that stuff, given that I’d mostly be eating Mountain House meals, or rice / mac-n-cheese (or similar) right out of the pot. At most, I really just needed a coffee cup to complement a pot, not so much the bowls and such.

Serendipity at the store

Let me just say upfront, I’m not a fan of Wal-Mart. But my wife and I stopped in there a few days ago to get an inexpensive cat litter box, as our older daughter had just adopted a feline. I naturally headed straight to the camping section. I had picked out a number of Mountain House meals that were under $5 each, when I spotted the Stanley Steel Cooker + Nesting Cups. I realize it’s not aluminum, much less titanium. But it was also all of $14.97. For a $50 savings over the GSI – and really including most of what I needed, it was hard to pass up. Plus, there was an Ozark Trail 18 oz stainless steel cup with handles, into which the Stanley pot nested. That cup was only $4.97.  I surfed on my phone to check weights, and all of this seemed to save me overall. And price-wise? It was under $20 for pretty much all I need.

Yeah, I’ll take that deal.

My new backpacking cookset. Smaller, slightly lighter, and a LOT more compact.

My new backpacking cookset. Smaller, slightly lighter, and a LOT more compact.

After I took out the comparatively heavy plastic cups that were inside the pot, and put everything else back in, it makes my entire kitchen set go from 742 grams to 720 grams. Not a huge savings, but that’s still over 3/4 of an ounce. And if I ever upgrade to a Toaks 550ml 95mm diameter pot (sans lid)? I’ll take another 86 grams – and still have saved me money over the GSI set. I also found that a spork from Taco Bell / KFC only weighs 2 grams over my spoon/fork at 10g.

On top of all that? I can fit my stove, towel, 100g fuel canister, soap, AND spork – all inside the pot, then nest the pot in the shorter, but larger diameter steel cup. So not only does all this save weight, it saves space too. The old pot I was using was some 6″ in diameter; the Stanley pot is only 4″. Granted, the Stanley is taller, but my cup now nests with the pot, instead of having to be next to it.

All in all, a decent option, and saved me a few bucks. I may upgrade to something even lighter in the future, but this is a good start for the time being, given all the other money I’ve put into backpacking in 2015! And it can always serve as a “back up cookset” should I ever upgrade to something lighter later on. Then on the few occasions my wife & daughter may go with me, they’d have a set to bring with them at that time.

But for now, this works. And with any luck (weather!!), I’ll have an opportunity to try it out this coming weekend.

A comparison of my old cookset size (left) versus the new one that nests everything together (right), AND saves me a few grams of weight!

A comparison of my old cookset size (left) versus the new one that nests everything together (right), AND saves me a few grams of weight!

“Damn the mosquitoes, both feet ahead!”

With great apologies to Rear Admiral David Farragut for appropriating his line (which he probably never uttered anyway), I took my own advice from my last post and went camping in a secluded spot this weekend – mosquito swarms and all. And my goodness… was it full of the bloodsuckers, but worth going despite them. The park I chose was in east-central Illinois – not exactly one’s first choice for “dramatic” scenery, but I am in the early stages of checking out a number of ‘short-hike’ backpacking locations for me and my wife to use in the future. This was trip #1. And what was nice about it was the fact that the campsite was indeed away from other people, and campsites.

My campsite this weekend, immediately adjacent to the creek. Yup, I can live with that.

My campsite this weekend, immediately adjacent to the creek. Yup, I can live with that.

The backpacking trail was relatively short – just 3/4 of a mile – but within a few steps of entering the trail I was accosted by all kinds of insects. I quickly returned to the car and just about doused myself in 23% DEET, which did help. At the end of the trail there are two campsites near a creek (the first four sites are within a hundred yards or so of the parking lot). With my pack still on, I checked out both, and decided on the one that had easier access to the creek, as it was more wooded, and a lot prettier too.

Upon arriving at the site, I spotted a great blue heron along the creek. My DSLR was still in my pack, and knew the bird was too far away to capture with my cell phone camera. It flew off, and I hoped I’d see it later (more on that below). I set up camp, with my new Quarter Dome 2 tent, which went up quickly and easily. I was also glad for the extra room of a two person tent that weighs less than many one person tents!

I oriented its location so that when one of the vestibules was open, I could see the creek from inside.

View from inside my tent, overlooking the creek. Definitely my best-ever campsite location (I've almsot always done car camping in the past).

View from inside my tent, overlooking the creek. Definitely my best-ever campsite location (I’ve almsot always done car camping in the past).

I did a bit of exploring next, looking around at the other campsite, taking some photos and just getting familiar with the area. It was definitely quiet – no one else around for at least a good 1/2 mile or more. Where my campsite met the creek, there was a sandy section that had built up, allowing easy access to the creek itself, and also sitting some two feet up from the creek level too. It was a gorgeous view, and I was glad to have gotten this campsite location.

View along creek next to my campsite.

View along creek next to my campsite.

I thought about going back and buying some firewood, but the thought of carrying sufficient wood 3/4 of a mile to have a decent campfire wasn’t particularly appealing. We’ve had a LOT of rain in this part of the country earlier in summer, and this location was no exception. The silt on the leaves of the underbrush was still evident – my site had clearly been submerged under 2 to 3 feet of water not all that long ago.

The silt is visible on the leaves of this underbrush.

The silt is visible on the leaves of this underbrush.

As a result of that, there were quite a few trees that didn’t survive the onslaught of water. One section along the trail into my site is a currently dry creek bed, but one that obviously has water in it during times of precipitation. There I found several recently-downed trees, and one had been dead long enough that its branches broke off with a simple pull. I dragged a few large limbs back, enough to make a fire to last an hour or so. I had to baton a few of the larger pieces, but most of it broke either in my hands or with a quick step from my foot.

After I got the fire going, I heated some water with the stove and poured it into the Mountain House Lasagna pouch. Immediately after doing so, a rather serious thought crossed my mind:

DID I HAVE ANY UTENSILS WITH ME!?!

No, not I did not. See, I had broken my spoon-fork after my last time out, and hadn’t replaced it. And I’d neglected tot even put a simple plastic fork or spoon into my backpack. How would I eat the food?

The interesting thing about backpacking, is when you need to do something, you find a way. I realized I could pour the lasagna, in small amounts, into my coffee mug, and then carefully shake bite-size portions into my mouth! So I did that, while I tended to my still-young fire.

Lasagna in my coffee mug, and my newly-started fire that I hoped would ward off a few insects (it did not).

Lasagna in my coffee mug, and my newly-started fire that I hoped would ward off a few insects (it did not).

After finishing the meal, and working the fire up to its hottest point, I heard the unlikely sound of voices. Looking up the trail, there were four younger guys – probably mid-20’s or so – hiking their way in.

Quick aside, and I’ll be blunt here: This trip was a little scary for me (emphasis on “little” – I wasn’t petrified by any means). This was my first time going camping “away” from anyone else, all by myself. My past backpacking trips were either with a group of people, or I camped in a “real” campground, with RV’s and tents all around. This was my first, “I’m not near anyone – no one will hear me scream!” trip. That’s why it was a short walk; it’s why I only did it for one night. But overcoming fears – even if a small one (it wasn’t an overwhelming one, just a, “Wow, I really am out here by myself” type thing), is important if I am to do more like this.

Anyway, here come the guys, one with a backpack on him, and one with what looked like a 20 or 30 quart cooler… on his shoulder! I was thinking, “Oh boy, this could be fine, or it could get sketchy really quick.” I first said, “Hey guys – how’s it going?” to break the ice, and they asked if there was another site. I directed them up the trail to the other location I didn’t care for, and they sauntered away that direction. I heard them occasionally at night, but the insects, frogs and owls were all louder than they were.

My

My “sort of” PCT-style bear-bag hang. Not bad for a first try. I need to figure out what to do with all that extra cord!

I managed to hang my dry sack with my food in it using the PCT bear-hang method. It wasn’t the prettiest hang, and I know I didn’t do the clove-hitch knot properly. BUT, I did hang my food, and felt pretty accomplished for having done so successfully, even if not ideally. It was probably only about 10 feet up or so – not high enough for a true “bear” hang – but then, I wasn’t in bear country, either. The only bears I was likely to experience were the mini (raccoon) and micro (mice) kinds.

I didn’t have a lot of firewood, and so I burned up what was left, and carried some water from the creek to douse the remaining embers and one large log. It took about eight trips with a 1/2 liter water bottle. Because the mosquitoes were all over me, I decided to head to the tent for some solace from them around 9:00 or 9:15. I knew it was early, and the sky wasn’t quite dark yet, but I didn’t mind resting in a bug-free zone either!

Before getting to sleep, I heard what I believe was an owl – first quite a distance away, and then I heard it RIGHT above me. I mean, it sounded like it could have been in the tree with my bag (it was probably farther, but it sounded VERY close). So I quietly got my phone out, and turned on the video recorder. It was 10:15 or so at this point, so there was no light in my tent, but I just let the recorder capture the sound of both the insect / frog cacophany – which was LOUD, by the way – and then this bird, which I assume was an owl (UPDATE: Reddit.com/r/whatsthisbird says it was a barred owl).

Owl sounds at 0:12, 0:39, 1:01 and 1:22.

I didn’t sleep particularly well – partly the noise outside being so darned loud, and other noises. I kept hearing a cow moo in the distance, which often was then followed by the sound of firecrackers, and then a dog barking. Random, I know, but it repeated more than half a dozen times in that same sequence. I also heard the occasional jet, which was weird, as I don’t know where there’s a nearby airport to there, infrequent motorcycle revving, and sporadically the four guys a few hundred yards away at the other creek-site, though they were by far the quietest of all the sounds.

Oh! Two things. One, I bought an MSR red light flashlight. BEST. INVESTMENT. EVER. It’s pricey at REI for what it is, but it is SUPER lightweight, very easy to hang in most any tent, and provides light that won’t kill your naturally-produced melatonin. The other thing is a water-spray fan I bought at Ace Hardware on an impulse buy. I didn’t put any water in it, but the fan runs on a single AA battery. It provided just enough airflow to cool me down after I got in the tent. I turned it off before I heard the owl hooting.

I woke up around 5:00 am, but didn’t actually look to see the time until 5:30, when I really had to visit nature as nature was calling my bladder. Taking care of that, I returned to my tent for another hour or so before getting up and getting ready to eat and then tear down camp. As I’d forgotten my utensil, I ate some beef jerky with cheese and a granola bar rather than the Mountain House eggs/bacon or biscuits with gravy that I’d brought along, as I couldn’t figure out how to eat them with my cup, which was full of Starbucks Mocha Latte coffee.

Great blue heron along the creek bank, not far from my camping site.

Great blue heron along the creek bank, not far from my camping site.

While enjoying breakfast, I spotted two great blue herons again. Both flew off, but one landed in a spot I could photograph it. It isn’t the greatest photo, as I had my ‘compromise’ 28mm – 105mm zoom lens, which didn’t quite have the reach I needed to really get this well. But I got something, and the more I do this, the more I will know what lens(es) to bring with me to capture interesting things when I hike.

After I packed up and hiked out, I drove around the property to see what else was there. The lake looked nice, and it was being used by a number of people fishing. I caught a bird flying in mid-flight (not sure what it is) along with some flowers I saw along the way. I didn’t care for the main campground there, as the sites were all very close together, so the backpacking locations will indeed be best.

This was me not long after I got to my campsite on Saturday. It was quite warm still - mid 80's - and I was a tad sweaty!

This was me not long after I got to my campsite on Saturday. It was quite warm still – mid 80’s – and I was a tad sweaty!

This was a good experience. It gave me some reminders of things to do, it got my “feet wet” by doing my first solo away from other people, while being close enough to my car that I could bail on a moment’s notice if necessary, and it isn’t too far from home. I’ll probably be back here, though likely when it is cooler, and the mosquitoes aren’t so bad.

And I must remember to bring a utensil to eat with next time….

Overlooking the lake; two piers, one with people fishing. Not a bad scenic spot for central Illinois.

Overlooking the lake; two piers, one with people fishing. Not a bad scenic spot for central Illinois.

I snapped a photo of this bird swooping over the lake after I startled it. Pretty decent photo considering I just tried to follow the bird and hit the shutter as fast as I could.

I snapped a photo of this bird swooping over the lake after I startled it. Pretty decent photo considering I just tried to follow the bird and hit the shutter as fast as I could.

This is called whole leaf rosinweed - not the most glamorous-sounding name for a flower, but I like the bright yellow, so I snapped a photo so I could identify it today.

This is called whole leaf rosinweed, I think – not the most glamorous-sounding name for a flower, but I like the bright yellow, so I snapped a photo so I could identify it today.

Camp where it’s beautiful. Camp where there are no people.

Two contradictory statements, right? Not necessarily.

My wife and I started camping with our kids in 2007. Got a hitch put on her minivan, borrowed the popup trailer our neighbor’s had just bought (they did offer!), and went out twice with it before buying our own, that we had until last year. Over time with the pop up, we discovered a few things about our likes and dislikes with camping and hiking.

Yep, that's my 5' tall older daughter standing odn there in the lower left. And this isn't the only canyon in Illinois.

Yep, that’s my 5′ tall older daughter standing down there in the lower left. And this isn’t the only canyon in Illinois.

  1. We like the hiking part; more so if there is water flowing near, or even in, the trails.
  2. We like more dramatic scenery. Hard to find in the Midwest, but it IS there if you look (see photo at right).
  3. We don’t like crowded campgrounds, and few people when hiking too.
  4. Camping at lesser-used campgrounds during the week avoids some of these issues, but there’s only so much vacation time off from work in a given year too

Not a very long list, I know. But then, this post does have an eventual point. Of note to me is that once I started buying tents and less “RV” type camping equipment, our family also stopped really using the pop up trailer. So while some people might cross the threshold of middle age and go out and buy their first RV, my wife and I went the opposite way – we sold ours early into middle age. (I’m not fond of the fact that “middle age” starts at 40, but then, I didn’t come up with the definition). In any case, we’re find with the car camping “thing” and doing so with tents.

Backpacking got added this year courtesy of me, and when my younger daughter’s back heals from her third back surgery, she and I hope to take some short backpacking trips next year. My wife will likely go with us too. I’ve even found a number of state parks here in Illinois where there are “backpacking” sites – you have to hike in your gear, anywhere from 1/4 mile or more to get to the sites. No “drive up” car camping. Granted, they aren’t true “backcountry” sites like a national forest, but it’s close enough in the respect that it gets us away from other people and more into nature itself. That’s a good thing, as we see it.

Backcountry camping numbers haven’t changed much (in the Western U.S.)

What prompted all of this thought? Well, I happened across this interesting statistics graphic from High Country News that shows how visitors have increased and/or changed their behavior in western national parks/forests over time. One thing that hasn’t really changed much? Backcountry camping – that is, backpacking your stuff in, camping, and then backpacking it out. I see that as a good thing, in a way. There just aren’t that many people “out there” in the forest – not that we’re likely to get out west to backcountry camp anytime soon, but that’s not the point. And sure – people still go out that way and trash some places up, regrettably. But the fewer people who do this, the fewer who will mess it up for the rest of us too. (We can always fix some of this ourselves when we see it as well.)

My point is this: I don’t mind seeing people out in nature. I just like to see only the occasional person. So my wife and I have been planning to find places to camp (and/or backpack) where there are few – or no – people around at all, if possible. Some state parks by me are so crowded with people thanks to better-made trails at certain times of year that they attract people who don’t care for the environment they are in. That often destroys the natural beauty of what’s there. I may find places that are less dramatic scenery-wise, but I’m not looking for a party in the woods. I’m looking to be a part of the woods while I’m there – you know, Leave No Trace, take only memories/leave only footprints, that kind of thing. And someday, we do hope to get out west. Knowing that if we backcountry camp we’re likely to have few humans around? That’s a good thing.

And that is my preference of late: Less people, more nature.

Photos from Pilcher Park

Last weekend I discovered Pilcher Park in Joliet IL. I was nearly eaten alive during the experience (mosquitoes!), and therefore took a fast – and short – hike through the more rugged trails there. But on my way out, I discovered a lovely, park-like section sandwiched between the road and Hickory Creek. While slowly driving along there, I was treated to not one but two blue herons flying above the water’s surface. I stopped, took some (bad) photos with the only lens I had with me (short focal length zoom), but came back the next day.

Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL

Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL

It’s always interesting taking photos of something that intrigues your mind, but you have no earthly idea what it is. I had a vague idea of what a cormorant was – okay, not really; the extent of my knowledge was “it’s a bird.” I had a model given to me as a kid of the “North Cormorant” oil drilling platform, and that was the only reason I knew a cormorant was a bird. But I’d never seen on, never researched it farther than that.

Until this last Sunday. I had seen these black birds off in the distance while I was taking those (bad) photos of the blue herons, but I didn’t know what they were. I knew they were large – I figured they might be related to the herons somehow. When I first got to Pilcher Park on Sunday, I saw one bird I’d also seen on Saturday, which I also hadn’t identified, as it was too far off: A great egret:

Great egret at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL.

Great egret at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL.

Great egret flying just above Hickory Creek.

Great egret flying just above Hickory Creek.

A great egret looking for a meal along the banks of Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park.

A great egret looking for a meal along the banks of Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park.

And those dark birds – the cormorants, as I later discovered – they are certainly different. First, I saw them at a distance. They’d swoop down over the water, land in it, then…. disappear into the water! I was like, “Hey… where’d they go?” Turns out, they swim after fish underwater, and can stay there for 30 to 70 seconds at a time. Then they dry their wings off by outstretching their feathers to catch the Sun’s rays or some wind. And these are not small birds – they have a 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide wingspan!

The cormorants I saw are double crested cormorants - though they did not sport the typical white feathers above the eyes.

The cormorants I saw are double crested cormorants – though they did not sport the typical white feathers above the eyes.

Here's a double crested cormorant swimming, right before diving below the surface to catch a meal.

Here’s a double crested cormorant swimming, right before diving below the surface to catch a meal.

A whole group of double crested cormorants drying their wings on a branch at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL

A whole group of double crested cormorants drying their wings on a branch at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL

While walking from the east side of the park (where the great egret was) towards the west end (where the cormorants were), I frightened a green heron from where it was along the near bank. I didn’t even know green herons were an animal until I asked on the “What’s This Bird?” subreddit. After it settled down on the opposite side, I was able to capture a few shots of it – this is the best one:

A juvenile green heron prepares to land on a branch along the bank of Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL.

A juvenile green heron prepares to land on a branch along the bank of Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL.

And finally, I didn’t capture just birds on film… errr – digital media. I also saw some wonderful dragonflies, and after getting home, was able to research what they were too:

A widow skimmer dragonfly

A widow skimmer dragonfly

A common whitetail skinner dragonfly.

A common whitetail skinner dragonfly.

Overall, I spent about 2 hours or so capturing photos, trying to be patient to get the best shots when they presented themselves. It’s good practice for when I go hiking and want to take photos along the trail or at/near camp. This is part of being outdoors that I really enjoy, so I hope you like these photos. There will be more to come in the future!

Four ducks on the log (left of cormorant), a double crested cormorant drying it's wings, to the right, a great egret searching for an aquatic meal, and behind it, what I think is another duck. Not bad for one photo!

Four ducks on the log (left of cormorant), a double crested cormorant drying it’s wings, to the right, a great egret searching for an aquatic meal, and behind it, what I think is another duck. Not bad for one photo!

Being eaten alive was worth it for the drive out

I was planning on taking an overnight backpacking trip this weekend. Unfortunately, there’s a 60% chance of strong thunderstorms no matter where I had planned to go. I figure if I can avoid putting myself into that kind of situation, that’s probably the wiser choice. So I will put that off to a future weekend.

In place of that, I decided to take a hike at a park I’d not been to previously: Pilcher Park, in Joliet IL. I found it online while poking around on Google Maps, and decided to give it a try. At 640 acres (adding another 80 acres soon thanks to an Audubon Society purchase / donation), it is a pretty large area of nature right next to Joliet, and many people apparently don’t even know it is there. In any case, I set out to explore it a bit to see if it’s worth going for future hikes.

Pilcher Park Nature Center

Pilcher Park Nature Center near Joliet IL.

The Nature Center is quite nice. I barely got inside, as I’d wanted to beat the thunderstorms that were on the way, but the nature center staff person there was very helpful with information about the trails. I set out on the Green Trail, but almost immediately turned back.

MOSQUITOES!

Holy cow did I get eaten alive almost right away. I returned to my car, and fortunately had some insect repellent there. I sprayed myself thoroughly on exposed-skin areas, and as much as I could on my shirt. It helped… some. What i discovered is that as long as I kept moving, the mosquitoes didn’t really bother me. But if I stopped for longer than 2 seconds, there were a half a dozen of them all over me again. So despite ME being hungry (and having food in my pack!) I didn’t bother to stop to get any out, because I didn’t want to be lunch for the bloodsuckers! I couldn’t take the pack off and walk while fishing for food either, as I had my new DSLR camera attachment hooked over the chest strap of the backpack. I’d have to take off everything to do that, which required stopping.

The long shot of the trail I got while walking - pretty typical look, though it's a bit out of focus due to taking the shot while still walking to avoid the mosquitoes.

The lone shot of the trail I got while walking – pretty typical look, though it’s a bit out of focus due to taking the shot while still walking to avoid the mosquitoes.

So I just hiked hungry. Better to be hungry than mosquitoes feeding on me.

The helpful nature center person told me that taking the Purple “Outer Loop” trail, Green “Bluff” Trail, and Yellow “Valley Road” trail would be the more hilly and scenic ones to take. I set out on the Green Bluff Trail, and originally planned to take the Valley Trail back. Instead, because I could see down to the Yellow Trail from the Green, I head east on the Outer Loop trail instead. I’m glad I did. While it was a longer walk, I did happen across a lovely scenic spot prior to reaching the Yellow Trail junction. I didn’t stop, and have no photos of it (for mosquito-based reason), but it’s a nice location to which I’ll certainly want to return. The park overall is nice, and sans bloodsuckers, should be a good place to go – even if some trails aren’t well-marked, and trails that aren’t on the map (and are obviously well-used) make one worry about getting a bit lost.

But in the fall? It should be a gorgeous place when the leaves are changing.

Pilcher Park hike map

My hike at Pilcher Park near Joliet IL today. I kept it short, but from this topographical map, fortunately walked most of the scenic sections of the park – well, hillier/more rugged sections anyway. It was only about 2 miles to stay ahead of the thunderstorms and avoid the mosquito onslaught. Not all trails are shown on this map.

The best part about this hike though, oddly enough, was leaving. I had come in from the east side of the park, but one can arrive/leave to the west as well. Even though it was longer, I figured I’d drive that way. I’m glad I did! As I drove along Hickory Creek, suddenly there were not one but TWO blue herons flying along the creek next to me! One stopped near a young/immature blue heron, and the other continued on up to a place where I could pull over and take some photos.

A blue heron flying over Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL.

A blue heron flying over Hickory Creek at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL.

Now, stupid me, I didn’t bring my long telephoto/zoom lens, as I thought I would just be taking wide angle photos to share with my wife of the hike. Since I largely didn’t take much of ANY photos on the trail, I should have brought the lens in the car with me. These photos were taken with my very short focal length 10-18mm zoom, which is terrible for photos like this. But at least I managed a few barely-adequate photos of these huge, majestic birds.

Two blue herons at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL - one flying lower-center, and the other perched on a branch, upper-right.

Two blue herons at Pilcher Park in Joliet IL – one flying lower-center, and the other perched on a branch, upper-right.

I just may head back there tomorrow and bring my zoom lens to see what other birds I might see. I’m pretty sure there was a large white egret, and there were two other very dark/black heron-like birds (actually in the photo above, if one looks carefully at the trees to the left of the river and REALLY squints to see them). Plus, it’s a pretty nice park. Many people will tell you Joliet isn’t a great area, but I didn’t see anyone but people enjoying the park and scenery, and no one was problematic at all from what I saw.

Yup, I’ll be back – camera in hand, and probably with a lot more insect repellent too!