By Don Miller
I was a trombone player from fourth grade all the way through high school. This meant I sat to the conductor’s right in the last row of the concert band for all those years. Trombone players seem to have a stereotype as being the goofballs in most bands. I and my fellow tromboners fit that stereotype.
I tell you this because our beloved band leader on any given day that we were not paying attention (which was any given day) would pop his cork. One specific day, he singled out our little group of players as not listening to his words of advice. His attention to us coincided with the one of the trombone player’s realizing that the rest of the section had drained their spit valves on his chair before band class. This caused him to stand and squeal which drew attention our way.
We got “the stare” but the quote from Mr. Oberst on that day was notable: “If you guys grow up ignorant, it is not because I didn’t try to tell you something.” We replied with a “huh?” Here it is forty years later and I am going to turn that quote around on you, that if you go the rest of your life being ignorant it isn’t because I didn’t try to tell you something. Did I hear a “huh?”
That something I want you to hear is that this region is full of great wild places to walk, canoe, and visit. Listed below are some of my favorite places that I think you should put on your to do this spring.
Sugar River Forest Preserve (Ridge Trail)
SRFP is located in the northwest part of Winnebago County, in sand country. Enter the Preserve to the left of the main entrance and travel to the first right and take that to the old stone shelter house called “Riverview.” Walk around the shelter house and take a good look at it, because “they are not building them like this anymore.” There are some nice oaks there as well as a rare plant called “kittentails.” The trail takes you along the river ridge through the forest. The forest is made up of some beautiful oak trees and the woodland floor is covered with Dutchman’s Breeched when they are in season. (April) Along the trail you can look down to the river and see the bucolic Sugar flowing endlessly by. You don’t walk far and you come to a very nice sand prairie remnant. It is a great visit any time, but I like it best when the bird foot’s violets are blooming (April) or a little later when the goat’s rue is at its peak. (June) Right across from the prairie is one of the finest views in the County. A gnarly old oak with a cavity in it, takes your eye away from the flowers and draws your attention to it and the river bend below. The trail continues through some wonderful oaks and some more prairie. You eventually come out at the walk-in camping area; you can travel through and out the north side, then through a floodplain forest all the way to Yale Bride Road or turn around a walk back noticing things you had not seen on your first pass through.
Pecatonica River Forest Preserve (Ox Bow Lake Trail)
Begin at the shelter house and go south through the restored prairie and follow the trail around the road. You soon run across some stairs and after you have descended them go to your left. You are now in the nature preserve section of the PRFP. Mid April to mid May this place is gorgeous in spring ephemerals. Bluebells, anemones, trillium, mayapples, blue-eyed Mary’s, they are all there waiting for you to catch a glimpse. There is nice overlook of the ox bow lake where one can hear multitudes of frogs and waterfowl. The ox bow is the old river path, now more of a marsh/wetland ecosystem now. It is a great place for turtles and a few muskrats can be seen as well. It is a quick walk around the oxbow through some wonderful stands of maples and some big hackberry trees. The other side of the loop you’ll find yourself walking along side of the Pecatonica River and listening to the sandhill cranes.
Canoe the South Branch Oak Ridge Forest Preserve to Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve
Here is a water trail for you and a short but GREAT canoe trip. It is the float that you can do after work to forget about everything else and just have river time and still be home for supper. Put in at Oak Ridge Forest Preserve on Blomberg Road and take out about an hour and fifteen minutes later at Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve by Perryville Road. This meandering stream is a nice as we get in northern Illinois once you are past the cement dumping that is going on along River Road. You’ll pass by centennial sycamore trees, with their white naked bark piercing the deep blue skies of the spring. If your timing is good, bluebells will grace the shoreline in many spots. Freshwater mussels will be seen partially buried in the rocky bottom of the South Branch. Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Belted Kingfishers, and other colorful birds will dot the river’s edge of forest and fields.
Canoe Nelson Bridge to Yale Bridge (Colored Sands Forest Preserve)
Without a doubt this stretch is the best (in my humble opinion) canoeing in the area. You must creep up into Wisconsin through the cheddar curtain a little to put in at little county park located right before the bridge on Nelson Road. The float down to Yale Bridge Road is sheer delight. It is truly as wild as northern Illinois gets. You must have some paddling skills to get around some down trees and you want to be able to read a river some, but that is part of the fun. The fishing and birding are super, but it is the quiet tranquility of the paddle that is the best. Add a cheese and cracker with some sardines on the side for a break on a sandbar and I’m telling you, that it is a day well spent and long remembered.
Deer Run Forest Preserve Trail
This is one awesome spring walk. Taking the trail from the south facing parking lot heading west you soon find the South Branch of the Kishwaukee River. The trail meanders with the river through a very rich floodplain forest. The best time to hike is at the end of April (but is nice anytime) when the bluebells are in full bloom and the rue anemone fill in-between. There are numerous spots where you can walk down to the river’s edge and explore the tracks in the dirt and sand. Great bird life can be seen from eagles, ospreys, great blue and green heron to numerous warblers and other songbirds in the spring. Take your time on this one, don’t hurry and take it all in.
Let me hear what you think or let me know of some of your favorite places. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and see you on the trail or river.