Tag Archives: fall

An Accidental (Mis)adventure at Blackburn Park

Sometimes, life needs a dose of spontaneity—and that’s exactly what my friend Stephanie and I got ourselves into recently when I casually posed the question, “What if we just turned left at the next stoplight?” We had just finished eating lunch and were driving back from a nondescript diner in South County that I had wanted to try for awhile. A little disappointed from that experience, I was feeling restless.

Stephanie gamely took the bait, saying “Why not?” After all, we were driving on a thoroughfare that cut through neighborhoods teeming with unique, mid-century brick homes. We both enjoy random adventures and exploring neighborhoods, so the next left-hand turn would likely deliver on both accounts.

Oh yes, it did.

After traipsing down several side streets and gazing admiringly at row upon row of modest and beautiful houses, we took another left-hand turn. This time, instead of launching us into another neighborhood, we ended up parallel to what appeared to be, of all things, a park.

“Turn into the parking lot,” Stephanie insisted. Driving up to the sign, I saw it read—Blackburn Park. A moment later, something registered. “Blackburn Park! This is crazy! I was just looking at this on Google Maps the other day, and have really been wanting to come out here!” When I get excited, the feeling can be hard to physically contain. “I can’t believe we ended up here!”

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As we got out of the car, I realized an additional two things. One, my phone had very low battery, and my car charger was sitting on the kitchen table at home. And two… did I just hear thunder?

Undeterred, Stephanie spearheaded the exploration, starting by veering off the wide brick path that appeared to cut through the center of the park. On we went to inspect knobby old trees, stand under park shelters that more closely resembled Spanish-tiled villas, and watch two squirrels whirling around tree trunks, locked in an endless chase.

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Almost every time we hang out, something inevitably leads to a photoshoot. Since my phone has a higher quality camera, we pulled it out for several shots, warily watching the battery creep lower, but unable to resist the advantageous scenery around us. Since you’re seeing this post, you know we came away unscathed, and my phone battery eventually did recover. But in the moment, it added an extra bit of urgency and hilarity to the proceedings.

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A group of teenagers was hanging out in the center of the park, and I couldn’t help but think what an unusual sight it must have been to them when we spotted a Swallowtail butterfly and followed its erratic flight path, trying to take a picture before it disappeared in the tree canopy.

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Meanwhile, the column of clouds approaching from the west continued to climb higher. With the underbelly turning a dark shade of blue, I was getting a little nervous about being caught out in the storm. But on the playground we passed, kids continued to play and parents continued to watch. Walkers continued walking, and occasional bicyclists kept passing through.

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While taking a rest under one villa/shelter, a young mom approached and commented that she was inspecting the shelter for an upcoming birthday party for her child. “It’s a beautiful place for that,” we agreed. She lingered for a few minutes, sharing snippets of her plans for that day and details of the community pool, before resuming her afternoon errands. It was a breath of fresh air to meet a stranger in that random place, at that random moment, and share some bits of small talk. It reminded me of the good rooted deep in our neighborhoods, the togetherness and sense of community that perhaps helps form the backbone of society.

Right then, another roll of thunder jolted me to attention. “Let’s keep going,” I suggested, and Stephanie agreed.

Meandering down several paths, we got an overall good scope of the park. And it was beautiful. Everything I’d hoped to find when I examined the square of green from my laptop, just the week prior.

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The storm clouds were almost directly overhead now, threatening to release fat droplets of rain, and my phone battery couldn’t take much more excitement. So we descended a hill back into the parking lot, laughing at the adventurous misadventure that had just befallen us. I turned the engine on and directed the car back toward the street.

“Which way should we go?” Stephanie asked.

“How about that way. Past the stoplight and up over the hill. I was wondering what’s over there when we drove by earlier.”

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 394 Edgar Rd, Webster Groves, MO 63119

Hours: 6 a.m. to a half hour past sunset.

Facilities: There are two locations with restrooms in the park. Several shelters (which may need to be reserved ahead of time) and picnic tables are also available. There are tennis courts, a bird sanctuary (which we didn’t get to, but sounds neat), a playground, and other amenities tucked throughout its 38 acres.

Trails: There are paved walking paths throughout the park. See this map from the City of Webster Groves.

General Info: With walking paths, shelters, and loads of shade from mature trees, Blackburn Park is a very restful place to enjoy a birthday party or just walk and think. In 2012, the Riverfront Times highlighted Blackburn Park as the best birdwatching opportunity in the St. Louis area. Curious about its history, I found that the park was created when an inventor named Jasper Blackburn and his wife donated their land to the city of Webster Groves for the purpose of a park. There doesn’t seem to be much out there in terms of a good history of the park, so if you find more, comment and share below!

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The St. Louis Arch Is Turning Fifty

Have you been to the Arch half a dozen times? Or never been before?

Now might be a good time to plan a visit, because this iconic St. Louis monument is turning fifty next week!

The Gateway Arch’s official birthday is being recognized on Wednesday, October 28, the day the final section of steel was put in place. If you can make it out for the 11 a.m. ceremony commemorating the event, you might land yourself a free cupcake. But even if you don’t, you can take advantage of dollar rides to the top of the Arch all day.

If you’re free this Saturday (the 24th), head to Kiener Plaza downtown for the Arch 50 Fest. I read there will be lots of food, children’s activities, and a fireworks display to cap it off at the end of the night.

Either way you slice it, these are two prime opportunities to get out and connect with your inner St. Louisan.

Know Before You Go

Before embarking on adventure to visit this historic monument, why not brush up on your history of it?

The Gateway Arch website has a neat, concise timeline with several  highlights from the Arch’s storied past. For instance, did you know the idea behind having  a monument on the St. Louis riverfront dates back to 1933?

Additionally, note that entry to both Arch 50 Fest (Saturday, Oct. 24) and the Recognition and Birthday Ceremony (Wednesday, Oct. 28) is free.

The Pines Are White; The Leaves Shine Gold

White Pines State Park.

Near Dixon, Mt. Morris and Oregon. From Dixon, we take Lowell Park Road from Route 26 and hang a right at a stop sign far out in the country. This eventually leads to the distinct boundaries of the park. Field after field suddenly rams up against a dark wall of pines. It reminds me of the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings. The change is so abrupt, you rather wonder if there’s something mystical about the woods.

After three hours of wandering the paths, though, I can attest that it’s pretty safe.

White Pines is nothing new on my radar. I’ve enjoyed hikes there since I was young. The park’s fall brilliance is something I had yet to experience, however, until a few weeks ago.

White Pines Fall
At the crest of this drop off, the trees are clad in fall’s finest colors.

What a day for a hike. The sun shone brightly and a breeze complemented the brisk morning air. I dressed in layers and repeatedly removed and put on my sweatshirt. My coldness varied wildly depending on level of activity and whether we were in the sun.

White Pines Fall
The sun illuminates color in the forest’s canopy.

From the main entrance, we took a left at the fork and went to the farthest parking lot possible. From there, a neat stone bridge crosses Pine Creek and provides access to our first trail of the day: straight up the side of a timbered ridge that borders the creek for a time before drifting off to the left.

The sun, on its upward arc in the sky, threw light straight through the canopy of gold above us. What a beautiful, beautiful sight. I stopped several times at the top of the uphill climb to gaze at the fall wonder.

Resting On The Hill
My hiking companions pause to rest atop a steep incline. One of the park’s famous pines dominates the foreground.

After the initial steepness, the trail isn’t too difficult. We crossed paths with an older couple, at least in their 70s, several times. The two were very well dressed. They could’ve stepped off a subway in New York and fit right in with the cityscape, but they also looked classy traversing the paths dusted with pine needles.The sight of them was as inspiring as the dappled sunlight that sank through golden boughs and speckled the path ahead of us. Yeah, pretty inspiring. The first time they appeared on the trail and walked past us, I turned my head to watch them negotiate the cement stones spaced across the creek. They did it with ease. How cool is that?

Crossing The Creek
The creek flows over the road several places in the park, so cement barrels in place help hikers cross without getting drenched.

We ran into other small groups, but morning hikes are an almost surefire way to avoid crowds. That’s a good thing if you enjoy experiencing the nature-y side of nature like I do. Woods, as far as I know, don’t usually have indigenous species of cellphone-wielding hipster humans wandering about. If such a thing does in fact exist, then that’s my Discovery Channel moment of the day.

It was a beautiful out and we felt pretty invigorated, so it was only natural to keep walking. White Pines is crisscrossed with paths with names such as “Red Squirrel Trail,” “Sunset Trail” and “Whispering Pines Trail.” Many of them intersect and are marked with colored guide posts. We didn’t pay particular attention to where we were going. Unless you’re stressed for time, sometimes it’s fun to just go where your feet take you. However, pay attention to your energy level. When you’re starving and limbs are dragging and you find yourself in a campground on the opposite end of the park from where you parked, it won’t be quite the exhilarating experience in nature on the way back. Bring water and granola bars or pretzels. You’ll be happy to have it if you need it.

White Pines isn’t completely isolated. A roller skating rink is across the road, as well as the White Pines Inn, home to the popular Wedding Canyon. I think you know what happens there. The park is about 30 minutes north of Dixon and 20 minutes west of Oregon.

For the best experience, go wherever there’s a concentration of deciduous trees in the park, and wait until peak color is almost winding down. I would consider it the second stage of fall. Some of the trees were already bare, but then you get a round of brilliant gold contrasting against the pale sky. Maybe you’ll even see the mythical hipster human in residence under the railroad trusses from the Look Out Trail at the far edge of the park.

Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

View From Look Out Trail
Trees part just enough to reveal the railroad bridging the creek. People sometimes try jumping from the high walls into the pool below in the summer. Park rules forbid swimming.

The Place You Knew But Didn’t Know Existed

Admit it. We all have at least one of those; a park or place whose name is so synonymous with your area, you tend to forget about it.

For the Bureau County area, that award mostly goes to the Hennepin Canal.

The canal traces through the whole area on a map; it swings south of Interstate 80 and brushes Wyanet before plunging southwest of Princeton. Everyone in the area knows what it is. The canal is like an artery: We all know it’s there, and it’s important to the body’s functions, but that doesn’t mean we give it the attention or respect it deserves.

Bridge
A creek converges with the canal at the base of this bridge, located between Wyanet and Tiskilwa.

I’m no history buff. I do know that by its completion, railroads had rendered the canal obsolete. If you’re curious beyond that, a visit to the Bureau County Museum might provide a better background, or look at the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s page about the canal. It provides background, including that it’s a “104.5-mile linear park spanning five counties,” and helpful information for planning a visit.

Free Ride
Sarah embraces the exhilaration of riding along the canal during an autumn afternoon.

The canal might not be used for its intended function now, but it’s been a great resource for the area. A gravelly and sometimes paved trail is good for walkers, bikers and equestrian use. I know that because of the occasional piles of you-know-what I encountered. There’s also fishing, camping, a plethora of animal and bird species to watch for, and many points along the canal are picturesque backdrops for photography and portraits. It’s an extended park with numerous entrances and lots of variety.

For all its graces, I don’t see a lot of people out when I’m there. Oftentimes months or years pass between my own visits. For such a wondrous resource, the canal is little used. I was awakened to this fact on three recent occasions, all within the last two to three weeks: two brisk walks to enjoy the fall colors and a photography bike ride.

I’ve gone on walks there before, but believe me. If you’re a walker, the canal can seem like heaven on earth. The same goes if you’re into bike riding. The trail is fairly flat, so you can focus more on the surrounding scenery. Fall is an especially beautiful time to visit with all the changing leaves.

Colors Along The Path
Sunlight and shadow creates a striking contrast with fall colors on the Hennepin Canal.

On both walks, my cousin and I barely saw anyone other than a few fishermen near where we parked. My friend and I saw more people on our bike expedition, but we did cover more ground over a longer period of time. We saw two groups of bikers, a few people fishing and two groups of walkers. In the same setup in the suburbs, the place probably would’ve been choked with people. I think they appreciate open spaces all the more because of the crowded nature of city life. Not to say that rural folks don’t appreciate it as much, but we’re used to it.

That’s my point about the canal. I think we’ve collectively grown used to the place.

In some ways, that gives the visitors who do go more peace and quiet to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. But mostly, I think it’s a shame. We’re lucky this park was preserved and not destroyed. The locks are still there, albeit covered in spiderwebs. Trash also has a tendency to collect in places just before the water drops off.

The Hennepin Canal isn’t perfectly manicured, and I don’t think it should be that way in some respects.

Sarah and I jumped off our bikes to explore the ruins of some old building right off the path. I wondered what it was, what it was used for. The foundation was still solidly there, like the basic blueprint of a building. Vines were creeping up the walls and pillars that stood freely in the interior. The place had an aura of mystery. There it was, but there was no plaque, no clue as to what the building was in its former life. It’s cool to have places like that along the path to discover.

Me Amongst The Brambles
Sarah shot this photo of me taking in the remnants of this abandoned building.

If we started rediscovering the canal, maybe we could do a better job keeping it trash and graffiti free so we could preserve the canal’s antiquity and continue to step back generations and walk along a literal path of history.

If and when you do decide to pay your respects to this age old fixture, it doesn’t matter what lock you go to. You will find something worth experiencing. There are points when the trail tunnels under the road. There are old railroad bridges and bridges. There are old locks with massive wooden gates. At times the canal is straight and narrow, and sometimes it billows out into a refuge for shorebirds.

We saw snakes, cranes, cardinals, blue jays, fish jumping out of the water, frogs, fuzzy caterpillars and all sorts of creatures. You might even bring a guidebook to identify the various flowers and native plants adorning both sides of the trail. Maybe you want to bring a pole (and your fishing license) and settle down for the afternoon. Primitive camping your thing? It’s there too.

If you’re at a loss for where to go first, the official Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park bordering I-80 and near Sheffield makes a good starting point. Informational displays help visitors get the most out of their time at the canal. Whatever you choose to do, don’t just think about it. Thoughts are nice but don’t accomplish anything unless they are carried out through actions.

Let’s get back to knowing the treasures that are a stone’s throw away from our backyards.

Epic Jump
Sarah takes a leap on the bridge halfway between Wyanet and Tiskilwa.

Green River Walk

One recent adventure took my mother, sister and I out to Green River State Wildlife Area to explore the area’s fall colors.

About six miles north of Ohio, this gem is a mix of swamp, prairie and wooded areas. The landscape is reminiscent of what Lee County looked like hundreds of years ago before the swamps were drained for farming. It’s a perfect off-the-beaten-path destination for hikers looking for some solitude and light to moderate exertion.

Gravel Road
A gravel road slices through Green River’s vast fall acreage.

Green River can be accessed by a network of several country roads that border and cut through the 1,000 or so acres. It’s littered with parking lots for the mainly hunters and equestrian groups who use the space. When we went, we had the paths almost all to ourselves.

Pines
Sunshine peeks through a row of pines that shade one of the park’s many paths.

This year’s drought dried out even the marshiest areas of Green River but fortunately did not drain all the color from the changing foliage. The first path we walked on led around bits of prairie and woods and opened to a wide field. To get the most out of this, take a field guide with you for identifying plants. Fortunately I was with a walking field guide when it comes to that subject, so I heard the names and other facts about such plants as lamb’s ear.

The park doesn’t seem like it was designed primarily for hiking, because there are no trail maps. You don’t quite know where you’re going to end up when you embark on a path, but that’s part of the fun.

Cattail Sunset
The slough on Green River’s western edge is a great place to catch a sunset.

We sidestepped on a few offshoot trails for a quarter mile just to see where they led. One path we walked on, or rather waded through, was a mowed over cattails and reeds in a dried up slough. The sun was falling toward the horizon when we turned back and caught the most spectacular light.

Fall and spring are the best bets for experiencing either peak floral or fauna activity. Visit before most of the birds have migrated. One of the drawbacks of our trip was that there were very few birds, and we had been looking forward to seeing and identifying them. On the plus side, there were plenty of fall colors: gold in the trees, deep red in shrubbery, and everything in between.

I counted at least five species of wildflowers as well. I can only wonder what Green River looks like in the spring when a plethora of blooms are emerging.

Wildflowers
This patch of wildflowers brightened up the browning grass around it.

Old Barn Photography 101

Ribbons and Old Barn
Sarah stands next to her impressive collection of horsemanship ribbons.

Ok, perhaps this isn’t a tutorial on barn photography, but I sure felt like I experienced a crash course today. My friend Sarah asked me to help her document the plethora of ribbons she has won at horse shows over the years. The set: one of the old barns at her family farm, located near Wyanet. The weather: sunny and conveniently blustery, perfect for blowing about ribbons as we were setting up shop.

I’ve photographed friends on hiking trips and day trips, but never anything as full scale as this. Sarah had already started tacking string to the barn wall that morning, and I was the assistant for the rest of the setup. We grabbed handfuls of ribbons and arranged them by color from blue, the crème de la crème, to brown. Even Sarah didn’t have an exact count of them all until after the shoot; there’s so many it’s overwhelming. She has 78 ribbons and five neck ribbons.

The original intent was to get a few good photographs and then bike a portion of the Hennepin Canal. After a few head on shots and trying to vary the angles, however, I found myself in want of a ladder. Standing on the trunk of my car just didn’t cut it. We marched over to the house and carried the tallest of three available specimens back to the photo site.

From there, it got interesting.

Sarah, Ribbons, Barn
Sarah laughs during today’s ribbon-and-barn photo shoot.

I stepped up several rungs, took a few frames and discovered I wanted another angle. And so it went. Adjust ladder, climb rungs, examine scene, direct model, shoot. Sometimes I was on the ladder, and other times I was on my knees or laying flat on the ground in search of the perfect framing. We both experienced spurts of creativity that would then lead to more scenes, more poses, more rearranging of ribbons.

After we exhausted all our ideas for playing with ribbons against the barn wall, we dismantled that set and made a nice arc on the ground. The object was for me, while situated high on the ladder, to capture some nice images of her in the midst of her collection. We also attempted a series of jumping shots and opened a window on the side of the barn for yet more modeling and fun.

Playing photographer was fun. Even if you think you’re a deadbeat with a camera, I urge you to go out and try to make one of your dream photo shoot ideas come to fruition. Today’s setup had been brewing in Sarah’s imagination for at least two years. I was happy to even be a part of it. The fact that we got decent photos out of the deal was icing on the cake.

Me In The Barn Window
I even took my turn in the hot seat for several takes. Here we opened a window for more photography fun.
Karate Jump
It’s all sky and style as Sarah leaps off a ladder during our photo shoot.

Golden Hour Bike Ride, Golden Delicious Pizza

I bought a basic bike rack from Walmart a few years ago, and I’ve been itching to pull the contraption out of the cave of my trunk for weeks now and use it again. Fortunately, it was not corroded, stolen or bearing teeth marks from the engine monster when I hauled it out of the depths today.

I felt it. Today had to yield adventure. After all, the second day of fall was celebrated accordingly yesterday with a trip out to A Hundred Acres Orchard and Market for raspberry picking. Never mind that I have 700 gallons of berries to use up now.

Todays’ objective: bike the Lowell Park Trail with my friend Megan.

Lowell Park Bike Trail
Right around sunset is a beautiful time to experience the Lowell Park Bike Trail.

I’ve pedaled a section of it before, so it’s safe to say this paved trail is safe for all skill levels of bicyclists. It’s not a heavily traveled trail, but we saw enough bikers and walkers to feel safe throughout our ride. The trail is flat and follows the path of an old railroad bed. Be forewarned that it briefly skims the fence of the Dixon Correctional Center, but the chances of not seeing an escaped convict are highly in your favor.

The path also runs by the gate of the Hazelwood Estate, which was (and maybe still is) owned by the Walgreen family. “Walgreens” sound familiar? The founder, Charles R. Walgreen, grew up in Dixon.

Gate to the Hazelwood Estate
The entrance to the famous Walgreen family’s Hazelwood Estate.

Farther down, an offshoot from the trail leads to an overlook in Lowell Park. Ready for one last bit of trivia? Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was a lifeguard there for several summers.

We pedaled leisurely past all these landmarks and ended up at the overlook while the setting sun illuminated the river valley below in brilliant golden hues. Tree shadows were also extending, so the contrast between the two was incredible. There’s a shelter up there as well with a few picnic tables. Had we come earlier, it would’ve been perfect weather to sit awhile and write.

The park can become mosquito-ridden at the height of summer, so it’s best to visit on the fringe of spring and fall when the little buggers aren’t out yet or have disappeared . Beautiful stone shelters are scattered throughout the premises and make for popular backdrops during photo shoots. Swimming is not allowed. Come in early spring, perhaps around April, and you’ll see the woodland floor carpeted with bluebells. It really does make a good destination during a day trip.

Our bike ride lasted an hour and a half, counting stops, and covered about seven to eight miles.

Lowell Park Outlook
Megan celebrates our trip’s culmination: the magnificent lookout view. In another week the fall colors will be even more brilliant.

Pizza

We followed our stomachs  afterward to Al and Leda’s Pizzeria, a place I heard about from a friend who described it as a combination of two other restaurants I like. It’s a mom and pop type place. The decor doesn’t take itself too seriously, and tables and chairs are exact replicas of the set that sat in our kitchen in the early 90s.

Al and Leda's Pizzeria
The interior of Al and Leda’s Pizzeria is no fuss and no frills.

We ordered a small 12-inch pizza with five toppings, all meat. Pepperoni, sausage, bacon, salami and hamburger made it a meat-lover’s paradise. It might seem excessive, but we were hungry and everything sounded good.

Two other parties were there when we first walked in, and two more couples arrived after the parties left. It looked like a quiet night. The service was on the slow side, but I think the pizza was worth the wait.

It had generous amounts of toppings and wasn’t scalding hot. The roof of my mouth was very thankful for that. Between two very famished girls, only crumbs remained on the pan at the end of the meal.

If you want something fairly inexpensive and aren’t a high maintenance customer, I would recommend a stop here. The food was good and a great way to top off our energy supplies after a long bike ride.