Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hikes around St. Louis - Rockwoods Reservation and Lone Elk State Park

Once in a great while, the stars align and I have a day off and the gas money to afford a trip out of the city, past suburbia, and into the wilderness. Or at least, as wild as I can get in one afternoon's drive. Since it also turned out to be a warm, sunny day I decided to set my sights on Rockwoods Reservation out by Wildwood, Missouri. Although fairly small, the reservation (ran by the Missouri Department of Conservation) offered a few trails and neat features such as a bird blind by the visitor's center; in the coming months, when plants start to bloom and the weather evens out, I imagine the reservation is a great place to see wildlife.

I settled on hiking a 3.25 mile loop, starting at the ruins of an old lime mill, and took my new camera with me to practice true wildlife photography. Oh, just some wisdom coming at you, it turns out you're much more likely to watch your step when you're carrying a very delicate $600 around your neck. Investing in a camera friendly day-pack may not be such a bad idea. Likewise, I found the task of stopping my hike to pull out my wide lens and switch it with the telephoto lens to be a tedious process, especially if I spotted an animal I wanted a picture of and had to switch back to the telephoto lens in a hurry. If I am going to learn anything from photography, it will probably be patience.

Make no mistake; although the weather is warming up after an especially long winter, nature doesn't seem to be as eager to wake up as I would like it to be. Hiking through trees with no leaves in relatively warm weather is an almost surreal experience, but I knew that soon the woods would be teeming with life. Already, I could hear the calls of various birds; although few could be seen, I did manage to snap a few photos of a Tufted Titmouse. Titmice (yes, that is the plural) are common birds, found over much of the Continental United States. They're easily spotted by their gray crests and rusty sides and white bellies. Although the crest isn't visible on this little guy, making me wonder how good my birding skills really are (spoiler alert: they're not great). Even though they are "common" birds, there's just something about them that makes me stop and look. Many of my favorite birds - woodpeckers, ducks, cardinals, mockingbirds, etc - may not be rare, but they sure do make for pretty pictures. The titmice in the forest today were calling to one another and at times were the only sounds to be heard on the trail.

Winded by my workout session the day before (my legs still haven't stopped screaming), the elevation changes weren't easy. The steep hills combined with the bits of limestone sticking out of the ground made for a couple situations were it almost felt like a rock scramble upwards, but that may also be perhaps because I was hunched over, having not worn a weighted down backpack in several months. The hike featured hills and plenty of rocks, but also wetlands. I passed over a dry creekbed, and later an inundated one that already had a healthy colony of duckweed on the surface. The green was so striking against the browns on the ground, and on the tree trunks and the gray of the rocks. This second creek seemed to be fed by a spring coming out of a cavern barely above the water, and the end of the creek flowed back underground, a small hint and testimony to the massive cave systems that lie unseen all over Missouri.

Although a bit of a drive for me, I can't wait to head back out to hike the other trails in this little park. Nearby are a few other State Parks - plenty of hiking opportunities await me this spring and summer (and remember, if you like my pictures and love living vicariously through Andrew and I's posts, feel free to leave a little trail magic!)

On my way back to the City, down I-44, is Lone Elk State Park. I've visited there before with Andrew a month or so back, but now was a prime opportunity to get pictures of the famous residents. Across the street from Lone Elk is the World Bird Sanctuary, a landmark that I have yet to visit, but fully intend to. Lone Elk is home to a herd of, what else, Elk! These animals aren't normally associated with the Midwest due to the fact that they were effectively eradicated by the 1900s. Although I'm not quite sure what the reintroduction of the species to Missouri hopes to accomplish ecologically (though with a bit more digging I'm sure I can easily find the answer, thanks to the Missouri Department of Conservation) I do know that propagating the species in it's historic range may mean eco-tourism and perhaps even hunting (which in turn promotes conservation - maybe a good post for later on!) down the line. I know I mostly associate successful reintroductions with ecological impacts that show tangible benefits to human progress, so I'll be interested to see what happens with these herds in the future.

White Tailed Deer were also out in abundance, and half the park is dedicated to a Bison herd. I was honestly surprised the first time I visited the park, but Andrew reminded me that historically American buffalo ranged all across the United States to Appalachia. It's honestly a unique experience to see bison this close - yeah, the park is small and you're acutely aware of the fence keeping the animals in, and maybe it's no Yellowstone or Badlands experience, but just the reminder that these animals once called the vastness of Missouri and the Midwest home is just awe-inspiring. To think I had been so close to some of my favorite animals this entire time. Although considered ecologically extinct (that is, the populations are so small or broken-up that they no longer have a viable impact on the ecosystem), just knowing these beautiful animals are nearby, in a habitat that isn't some roadside attraction or farm, somehow make me feel better.

St. Louis is situated in a very interesting landscape, topographically and ecologically. There are plenty of wonders around the city, and sometimes it's nice to escape the city itself to really immerse back into nature. Even if it takes miles of stop and go traffic through depressing suburban sprawl, sometimes the slog is worth it just to feel a little bit more free.

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