Are you a gadget-head? Are you excited about the next awesome piece of gear or are you the first to know about new upgrades for the latest products for your adventures?
For the last eight months of blogging about the outdoors, I’ve steered clear of gear reviews. However, I’ve dropped a few bucks here and there on some outdoor products that have been worth the money and others where I feel like I really could use a refund, so I thought I’d share them with you today. And since buying gear is all about the Benjamins, I included some wit and wisdom from Ben Franklin himself along with my thoughts.
“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
I hear a lot of excuses for reasons people aren’t wearing bike helmets, but they’re all pretty stupid. It doesn’t matter how short the trip is, how safe you think the roads are, or how nice and sunny the day is, wear a helmet! It’s my #1 best purchase of the year. I think I paid $25 for my Bell-brand-dome-saver, and as you can see, my head is still a gray-matter-friendly shape.
“Old boys have their playthings as well as young ones; the difference is only in the price.”
I wrote a long blog about my search for a new bike that you can read here. All I have to say about that is getting a bike that fits is 100% worth the money! If you’re in the market for a new ride, go to a bike shop and skip the ‘Mart. You won’t regret it.
“A place for everything, everything in its place.”
Ah, it’s the oft-quoted backpacker’s mantra. Hiking supplies are one of the places that I’ve spent some money I’d like back. First rule: anything made by that ubiquitous company with the green packaging that you find in the sporting goods section of every mega-mart is much cheaper than the name brand. There’s good reason for that. It’s junk. It’s too big, it’s too heavy, and it’s too prone to failure. Less is more when it comes to camping and hiking supplies and buying quality items is paramount. My advice is to think long and hard about what you’re buying and what purpose it serves for your hike. Every ounce you add to your pack is an ounce you’ve got to tote around the woods. Buy items that are great multi-taskers. Buy items that are more durable than you think you’ll need. And plan your pack with the quote above this paragraph in the front of your mind.
“All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”
For those that move, let me recommend a great gift: Socks! Nothing will ruin an adventure faster than the wrong footwear. I now have special socks for hiking, biking, and running and I am a firm believer in the magic of sock technology. I just bought some poly-blend running socks made by Mizuno, and they’ve completely stopped the blisters I was getting, they keep my feet warm and dry, and they even have built-in arch support. The socks I have for hiking are tall, warm and use moisture-wicking technology. That amazing advance keeps my tootsies nice and comfy even on winter hikes. Forget stuffing my stocking this year- the stocking is what I really want!
“Diligence is the mother of good luck. By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.”
When we were out biking on the Katy Trail this summer, we came across some people pushing a bike with a flat tire along a stretch of trail that was at least 10 miles from anything. It was also over 100 degrees outside at the time and they only had half of a small water bottle between them. Laura to the rescue! When I cycle, I bring a patch kit, a hand-pump, a tire tube and tire changing tools. I also always have flashlights and at least a minimal first aid kit. When it’s hot (and usually even when it’s not) I bring more water than I think I’ll need. You won’t regret the money you spend on preparedness, because in my experience, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ you need it, it’s a matter of when.
“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”
If you’ve a mind to catch happiness, I suggest you start with a good pair of running shoes. I’m sure you’re sensing a theme here, but don’t go to super-mega-shoe- store! More often than not, small specialty stores have well-trained staff who will be happy to share their expertise and don’t mind spending extra time with each customer. I went to a running store in Bloomington, IL recently. There, I tried on a half-dozen pairs of running shoes and ran around the block in each before I decided which shoes to buy. Try running out of a department store to test shoes and see what happens! Wait… no, don’t try that. The point is, no matter what kind of gear you’re shopping for, you’re about to drop your hard-earned money, so don’t settle for sub-par service. Most specialty stores employ people who share the same interest as you do, and they can teach you a lot about how to select the right gear for your activity. (For those curious, I ended up buying Mizuno Wave 7s at Often Running in Bloomington, IL)
There are lots more great pieces of gear out there, but those are just a few of my thoughts from this year. What’s your favorite piece of gear? What gear do you wish you could return? Leave comments below!
If you read my blog last Friday, I bet you’re anxious to know which Memorial Day Weekend destination my husband and I chose. After careful consideration, we headed north and visited Sand Ridge State Park, in Forest City, Ill.
Sand Ridge is the largest state park in Illinois at 7,500 acres, so we only got the chance to scratch the surface of what it has to offer on this short visit. One thing I can tell you is that this is the most unique environment I’ve ever seen in our area.
The park gets its name because it is, in fact, very sandy. The receding glaciers dumped most of the sand there about 15,000 years ago, and a subsequent dry period turned the area into a desert. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and the deciduous forests of Illinois have grown onto the great sand dunes and merged with this formerly arid area to form what’s known as a Sand Prairie.
The area itself is so unique that it’s difficult to describe. There are the usual suspects from an Illinois forest: similar trees, deer in the distance, cardinals and robins raising a ruckus in the early morning hours, but there are also some strange features. For example, I trod over Prickly Pear Cactus in the first ten yards of the unceremoniously named “Orange Trail.” The trail was completely made out of deep sand and supported a variety of wildflowers that I’d never seen before. The plants seemed sturdy and worn and reminded me more of the southwestern U.S. than northern Illinois.
The sand also supports a wide variety of bugs. Besides some really pesky gnats and an unfortunate number of seed ticks, we saw some unique beetles, huge centipedes and several lovely types of butterflies. My favorite butterflies of the forest were the bright yellow Tiger Swallowtails and blue and orange Woodland Swallowtails.
The abundance of bugs supports a variety of animals that eat bugs — particularly birds and bats. As I was walking away from our campsite early Sunday morning, an electric buzzing sound caught my attention. I thought to myself how strange it was that they’d run electricity clear out in the woods, when I noticed that the sound was coming not from a light pole, but from a dead tree. The dead tree was evidently the home of a whole colony of Myotis lucifugus, or Little Brown Bats. I guess the noise was just the bats getting settled from a night on the wing at the best bug buffet in Illinois.
Hiking and camping at the park is very rustic. The trails are fairly well-marked, but there are not many of the amenities you might expect. The bathrooms are all latrine style and unplumbed, and there are no playgrounds, rental areas or shelter houses. The sand was wet due to storms this weekend, and the temperatures were in the 90s, so the hiking was pretty exhausting. The back country campsites are stationed every few miles on the trails and do include nice fire pits. If you’re planning a trip to Sand Ridge State Park, you can reserve campground sites (with or without electricity) or backcountry sites at http://www.reserveamerica.com. The park does have very nice equestrian trails and a hand-trap range that look like fun. Seasonally, hunters find this park to be one of the best destinations in Illinois for deer, pheasant, quail, doves, turkey, and red and gray fox.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rustic outdoors experience at a very utilitarian park, or if you are interested in seeing a unique ecosystem in our own backyard, Sand Ridge is for you. I’m looking forward to visiting again in the winter and learning what a Sand Prairie looks like in colder months. But for now — does anyone know how I’m going to get all of this sand out of my sleeping bag?
It’s Memorial Day Weekend and I don’t yet have a plan. I know, I’m getting to it a little late, but here’s the thing: there are so many great options. The weather is finally going to cooperate and give us some sunshine, and I’m ready to hit the trail for some hiking, but where to go? Here are the four ideas I’m tossing around — Maybe you can help pick:
Siloam Springs State Park
It’s the closest park to Quincy and has hiking trails that are just lovely (I blogged about them this winter!). The boat house opens this weekend, so we could rent canoes or a john boat and enjoy Crabapple Lake. I know there are lots of nesting birds around the edges of the lake too, so maybe I’d get a chance to see some fuzzy baby geese or something! Siloam is always a good choice for a near by adventure.
Argyle Lake State Park
This state park is also quite close to Quincy. It’s just outside of Colchester, IL, and is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. The park features nice amenities including nice spots to camp and the hiking trails make different loops around and near the lake. There have been several improvements to the park lately, including the addition of stairs on parts of the trail that were in areas that are steep and can wash out in the rain. There is also a self-guided interpretative trail near the lake with info-graphics that describe the lake ecosystem. I love a good info-graphic! This park is also one of the few in the area with designated mountain biking trails for the intrepid weekend warrior!
Sand Ridge State Forest
At 7,200 acres Sand Ridge is the largest state park in Illinois. It’s in Forrest City, Illinois, which is in the general vicinity of Peoria. This park is wholly unique to Illinois. It is a backpacker’s dream with over 26 miles of trails and 120 miles of fire lanes that can all be explored. There are registered campgrounds as well as rustic backcountry sites that can make this park a real outdoors experience. The ecosystem of the park is unlike the rest of the state. Thanks to the receding glaciers of the last ice age dumping millions of tons of sand on the area, as well as a prehistoric dry period in the state’s history, the forest is actually considered temperate desert or “Sand Prairie.” The unusual make-up of the soil supports plants and animals unseen anywhere else in the state. There are badgers, pocket gophers, fence lizards, prickly pear cactus, bur oak, and many more unusual species. The area is also known for its bird life and includes semi-tropical migratory birds like indigo buntings, verry, ovenbirds, and scarlet tanager, along with Illinois game birds like quail, dove and pheasant.
Cuivre River State Park
I blogged about this Troy, Missouri park just a few weeks ago, but I just can’t say enough about it. The trails are great, and the wildlife is even better. The campsites are nice and flat and all have fire pits and grill covers, and maybe best of all, there are shower facilities that are included when you pay the $12 fee to camp. Now that it’s warm, the lake and beach will be open. That means swimming and lounging around to soak up some rays! The park rents paddleboats and canoes, so there are plenty of ways to beat the heat. As if all of those things weren’t enough, Ranger Talks start this weekend, and you can listen to the experts tell you more about the wildlife of the park. Who knows, I may even bring my bike if we go to this park, because the roads through the park also make a lovely ride.
So there you have it. It’s a good list of options, and now all I need to do is make a choice. I said this on my first blog, but it’s worth saying again: we live in amazing part of the country. All that’s asked of us is to “Get Out” and explore it. Have a great weekend everyone!
Links and directions:
Siloam Springs State Park http://tinyurl.com/siloamsprings
Argyle Lake State Park http://tinyurl.com/argylelake
Sand Ridge State Forest: http://tinyurl.com/sandridgeil
Cuivre River State Park http://mostateparks.com/park/cuivre-river-state-park
Let’s talk bats.
These much maligned winged mammals have long been typecast in horror flicks and nighttime terrors, but the truth is, bats are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem, and indeed, are important in our own backyards. According to the Department of Natural Resources websites, there are around 12 species of bat in Illinois and Missouri; including three species on the endangered species list.
Each individual bat in the state can eat up to 3,000 bugs in a single night. Thanks to just the gray bats in Missouri and Illinois, there are 1,080 TONS of flying insects that are not bugging you all summer long. All of the bats in the area are insectivorous, and this massive bug buffet is our best defense against dangerous mosquito populations and diseases they carry, like West Nile Virus. Bats are also important pollinators, and with decline in honeybee populations, they become more important in that respect each year.
But something is killing our bats. White Nosed Bat Syndrome was first documented in 2006 in Albany, New York. There, cavers began to notice bats acting strangely, some dead or dying, and many with a strange white fungus around their muzzles. Since the fungus has been discovered, there has been an unprecedented spread of the disease. The cold-loving fungus appears to grow on the bats in the winter and disrupts normal hibernation. The bats awaken too early or too often and exhaust their fat stores and essentially starve to death. In some hibernating populations, the mortality rate is more than 90 percent. The bulk of the cases of WNBS have been in New York and Tennessee, however, the epidemic appears to be spreading and has been seen in nearly all of the Eastern Seaboard and into the Midwest, including Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio.
It is believed that the primary spread of the disease is among the bats themselves, however, people who go caving (also called spelunking) may unknowingly spread the fungus between populations on their boots or equipment. Though the fungus itself does not pose a threat to humans, bats are so crucial to our ecosystem that the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state authorities closed most caves on public land in all of the affected states in 2009, and the closures are still in effect this year. The closures do not affect privately owned caves, however, the DNR urges landowners to be aware of the problem and report any dead bats found on their properties.
So, as outdoor enthusiasts, what can we do to help? Besides abiding by the closures recommended by the DNR, outdoorsmen (and women) should always be aware of the possible contaminates found on their clothes, equipment and boots. The White Nosed Bat Syndrome, along with fish and game related diseases and invasive and the spread of non-native plant and insect species can largely be avoided if we take some basic precautions. These include: Wash all boots and equipment when traveling between different ecosystems, states, bodies of water, etc. This can be as simple as wiping the bottom of your boots with a bleach and water solution. A bleach solution also works well to clean waders and fishing equipment. Also, don’t move wood or plant products. Bugs and disease can easily hitch a ride on firewood or plants and a new ecosystem may not have the ability to fight off a foreign invader. And never, never, never move plants or animals from one place to another. Ever. The best advice is to use common sense. The cleaner you are when you’re in the great outdoors, the better. As the saying goes, “Take only memories (or photographs), leave only footprints.”
For more: www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome
Everything about Cuivre (pronounced “quiver”) River State Park in Troy, Mo., is wild. There are wild flowers, wild animals and wildly-fun trails, lakes and campgrounds. All in all, the park makes for a great adventure.
Cuivre River is only an hour and a half from Quincy, and is one of the loveliest state parks in Missouri. I suggest starting your visit with a stop in the park’s Visitor’s Center. The park staff is very friendly and will give you great tips on finding just the right activities for your group. They know the local wildlife and trails inside and out, so ask them how to get the most out of your visit.
Even though the park is close to home, the variety of trails, habitats, and terrains make the park seem like a real vacation. The 11 trails at the park are well-marked and easy to follow, and they vary in length and difficulty. Some trail highlights include: Lakeside Trail (3.5 miles) This trail leads right along the perimeter of Lincoln Lake. My husband and I hiked this trail just last weekend, and saw frogs, snakes, butterflies, beavers, lizards and more. Big Sugar Creek Trail (3.75 miles) I hiked this trail with friends in January, and it was simply breathtaking. The creek and bluffs were heavy with icicles in the winter, and in the warmer months, the bubbling stream and chirping birds are a symphony. Lone Spring Trail (4.75 miles) The Lone Spring Trail has both a north and a south loop, which gives you the option of only doing 2.3 miles if you prefer a shorter walk. In addition to its namesake natural spring, this trail traverses an open woodland area. This area is currently being restored via controlled burns, and it’s amazing to watch the processes of the forest right before your eyes. Prairie Trail (.3 mile) and Turkey Hollow Trail (.8 mile) are great short options if you’ve got kids along. They each are short, well-marked trails that give you views of prairies and woodlands, respectively.
There are far too many activities at this park to list, but I’d suggest checking out the Ranger Talks on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Topics are seasonal and have featured subjects like owls, bats, wildflowers, birds-of-prey, prairies, conservation, wetlands and much more. Call the park office at 800-334-6946 or visit their website http://mostateparks.com/park/cuivre-river-state-park
Also, don’t miss the lake, the beach, the campgrounds, the fishing, the swimming, just don’t miss this park.
*Note: There is also a cave at Cuivre River State Park. It is closed at this time, as are most Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa caves, to control the spread of White Nosed Bat Disease. I will be talking about the cave closures in an upcoming blog, however, the closures may be lifted later this summer. Check the Department of Natural Resources for the most up-to-date information.
It’s ostensibly quite easy to mushroom hunt. You grab a sack, go for a walk in the woods, find mushrooms and pick them. Really though, there is so much more to consider. If you remember my blog from last month about Siloam Springs State Park you might recall I promised to tell you about Morel Mushroom hunting.
So here goes: 90% of what I know. 10% I’m not telling.
The first thing you need to know is when to start looking. People have been finding noshable vegetation in the forest forever, and everyone has a different “sign” to let them know that it’s time for Morels. I have an uncle who used to call mushrooms his “other tax day refund,” therefore he believed April 15 was the day to go. My grandpa’s formula was two weeks after the dogwoods start to bloomm, but it has to rain and be at least 50 degrees at night. Me? My sign is a plant called a May Apple. This little umbrella shaped plant is ubiquitous in the forest, and when its little white blossoms appear, I say it’s go-time for mushroom hunting.
What to bring?
Being prepared to go mushroom hunting is very important. You are out in a bunch of trees that have just awakened from winter, and if you ask me, they seem a little cranky about it. Wear long pants (for thorns), good shoes (for walking), a hat (to keep ticks out of your hair) and a jacket (because it’s colder under the trees). Also, bring a few bags to put your prizes in. Make sure they’re not easy to rip, lest a thorn bush snag your bag and redistribute your findings into the forest. Also, bring something to drink, because you’ll be hiking all day. It’s usually just wishful thinking, but I also like to bring along a big garbage bag, just in case I hit the mother-lode.
Where are they?
Mushrooms don’t grow in all of the woods around here. I can’t explain to you why. For instance, I’ve always had good luck at Siloam Springs, but have never found a mushroom in the woods near my grandma’s house. Before you go, find out if mushrooms have ever been found in the area, and always get permission before going on private land.
No, seriously, WHERE are they?
My dad always says that mushrooms are wherever you least want to be. It seems to be true. See that stand of thorn bushes at the bottom of that drainage gully? They’re probably under there. Other people will tell you to look for fallen maple trees or in creek beds. Some say they have to be where some sunlight filters to the ground, but not in direct sun. Some say they’re by the base of oak trees but only on the west side. I have no idea what to tell you here. I’ve seen them everywhere. As a matter of fact, two years ago, my husband found four growing in our backyard on 14th street in Quincy. I like to imagine that the mushrooms have little feet like in Mario Brothers games, and at night they run around the forest and hide.
I Found Mushrooms! Now What?
Good for you. When you get home, take your bags straight to the kitchen sink. Cut each mushroom in half length-wise and put them all in a sink full of cold water. Let them soak for at least an hour. This step gets all of the dirt and little ants out of the mushrooms. Then lay them out on a paper towel to dry. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a few days. My family generally cooks a mess of mushrooms by dipping them in one beaten egg, giving a light coat of seasoned flour and pan-frying them in batches. I’ve been more adventurous in the last few years, and some of my favorite applications are making Wild Mushroom Risotto (add black truffle oil on the top and this is just heaven), Homemade Pizza with Wild Mushrooms (make this Italian Style, using garlic olive oil instead of tomato sauce and goat cheese instead of Mozzarella), or Wild Mushroom Soup (I like to make mine with lots of fresh thyme and plenty of roasted garlic).
Happy hunting and good luck. I’ll be looking in my top-secret-never-fail-mushroom-location. I’ll give you a clue to find it: it’s near some trees by some grass in the neighborhood of a creek somewhere in the county.
Mwaa ha ha ha!
*A special thanks to Clinton Begley for the Morel photographs.
If you’re like me, you took advantage of the beautiful Spring weather we had this weekend and spent some time outdoors. It seems harder to fit that kind of fun into a weekday when you’re not home until 5, but here are 2 quick and easy ideas to get the whole family out of the house on a weeknight!
Bob Mays Park & The Cedar Creek Trail
Pack a picnic dinner (or grab some Subway) and head to Bob Mays Park! Bob Mays is located on North 18th near Quintron Way and features 50 acres of grassy area, brand new playground equipment and the Cedar Creek Trail. The paved 1.5 mile trail is especially versatile, and its many uses were evident this weekend. Kids were riding big-wheels or bikes, people were walking dogs, one man was running laps as part of his training for a marathon, and whole families were skipping rocks by the side of the creek. The grassy area is great for tossing around a football or a Frisbee, and the trees are far enough apart that the area would be perfect for kite flying. Park amenities are lovely and clean. I especially appreciated the well-maintained bathrooms, informative Park District kiosks, solid benches, and readily available doggie waste disposal bags.
Illinois Veteran’s Home & Deer Park
The Deer Park at the Veteran’s home, located on North 12th street just past Locust, has been a favorite destination for my family since we were kids. In addition to deer, there are geese, llama, ducks, swan, peafowl, and bison at the park. The best way to experience the park is to grab a loaf of stale bread and maybe a bag of carrots and toss bites to the animals as you walk around the outside of the enclosure. Facilities include covered picnic tables, restrooms, water fountains and a playground. There are also numerous things to see walking around the Veteran’s Home campus, such as beautiful fountains, the Eternal Flame monument, Tanks and Helicopters and statues. Be sure to visit the All Wars Museum, and don’t miss the opportunity to talk to your kids about the heroes of past and present wars who fought for our country. The museum hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 9am to 12pm, and from 1 pm to 4pm. Sundays from 1pm-4pm. Guided tours are available for individuals, classes or groups and can be arranged by calling 222-8641, ext 338.
Siloam Springs State Park used to be like the jean jacket in the back of my closet. I always knew it was there, I just didn’t think I had much use for it. But in the last year, I’ve dusted off the jean jacket and headed out to Quincy’s closest state park for some of the most accessible, most affordable fun a person can have in the Quincy area.
The beautiful 3,323-acre park is an ideal spot for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. The park is perfectly suited to hunting, fishing, camping, boating, picnicking, bird watching, playing on the playground with the kids, or for a great hike. There are no fees, save for hunters or boat rental.
Hiking is my preferred activity at state parks, and Siloam Springs has got everything I need. The trails are all easy to moderate for most hikers, with only a few that present noticeable inclines, and none that risk much in the way of hazards. There is a wide variety of trails, that range from the just under a mile long Old Village Trail to the 4 mile long Red Oak Backpack trail. My most traveled route is a combination of the Deer Run trail (which starts right at the parking lot of the ranger station), to the Hoot Owl Trail (which features the park’s steepest incline, but rewards you with beautiful views over the ridges), and then back up the Old Village trail. This 4 mile loop offers a variety of views, different trees and habitat, a nice spot along the creek to eat a lunch or fossil hunt in the creek bed, and it crosses one of the main park and shelter house areas if you feel like playing on the swing set for a few minutes.
You might think that trail hiking is an activity best saved for warm summer months, but let me give you a few good reasons to get out to
the park sooner than later! First: No bugs yet. No bug spray, no mandatory tick check when you get home, no flies or mosquitoes, and fewer spider webs to stick on your hat. Second: Quiet. You’re not going to run into a bunch of other hikers. Third: Wildlife! Jays, cardinals, deer, hawks and the occasional owl are the winter inhabitants of the park, and the lack of foliage make the viewing that much easier. The red tail hawk calls in the area rang out like bells, and deer moving through the trees are easy to hear and easy to spot.
My day-pack for hiking at Siloam includes a couple bottles of water, a camera, gloves and maybe a sack lunch. In the winter and spring, waterproof shoes are pretty critical, as portions of the trail will be soggy, particularly after snow melt. I also recommend bringing an extra layer of clothes even if the day is nice. Weather can change fast this time of year, and once the sun starts to go down, so will the temperature.
Check the Department of Natural Resource’s website for more information and for directions to the park. http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r4/siloamsp.htm
Stay tuned for my follow up article on why morel mushroom hunting at Siloam Springs is the best part of Spring, but don’t expect to find out where my top-secret-awesome mushroom spot is at the park, because I’m not telling!