Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Icefalls and Eagles: Winter Hike at Starved Rock

Icefall in French Canyon. Yes, I had to walk up the iced over stream into the canyon to take this picture.
This past Saturday I made my third hike in the past year at Starved Rock State Park near Utica, IL. Each hike has been in a different season. The first was last Spring, just as the plants were starting to come out of a long winter slumber. The second and longest hike, which took me from the Visitors Center to LaSalle Canyon and back, was in early fall. This most recent hike took place on a thawing winter day, after a long streak of cold and snowy weather.

Because of the ice cold weather, two of the big attractions at the park were present. On my hike I saw both. I also took pictures of both, but only the icefalls are visible in them. The eagles were too far away to capture on my smart phone's camera.

There's a bald eagle or two somewhere out on that island. They just blend in too well.

But this hike was more important than sight seeing and viewing the national bird from afar. First off, I hiked my first hike of any appreciable distance since the shakedown*. Also, I hiked an easy but semi-notable climb up to the top of Starved Rock itself. Most important, I hiked in wintry conditions.

In a previous blog entry I mentioned my fears of inclement weather, particularly how it tends to make me slip and fall. Several trips to the ground on ice and snow made me wary of even walking in the winter, let alone hiking. I got some Yak Trax for Christmas last year, but my bout with double pneumonia and the bitter cold of last winter put on hold any chance of really trying them out. Outside of a quick jaunt to take a picture of frozen Lake Michigan last March, they sat unused.

Fortunately, events collided to send me out on my first hike of this year. I had a three day weekend and was already heading south. The temperatures were manageable, in the mid 30s at worst. The time of day was early enough that the crowds weren't oppressive.

Therefore I got my day pack out, put a bottle of water in it, and set off, at first to hike up Starved Rock and back to the Visitors Center. The path to the highest point of the park was well groomed, having been cleared of excess snow, and the ground packed. However, there are many stairs covered in snow to the top, and the path itself was slick in spots, especially atop the rock and on the slope leading to and from the stairs. Although this wasn't the toughest terrain, I'm sure my Yak Trax helped, even if it was mainly psychological.

Ice along the south bank of the Illinois River. Plum Island, a favorite hang out of the visiting Bald Eagles, is in the middle of the picture.
Buoyed by how well the hike up and down Starved Rock had gone, I decided to extend the trek to French Canyon, the canyon that is the easiest to access from the Visitors Center. Most of the path back to the canyon is along a flat gentle path that offered no significant issue with walking. Neither did the slight hill you have to walk up and down to reach the mouth of the canyon, especially with the traction assistance wrapped around my shoes. At this point, however, things became a bit more complicated.

Here is where the path meets the channel of the canyon itself. In warmer and drier times, this isn't the toughest walk, as its solid rock with only the gentlest of slope and a couple steps up. But thanks to the ice and snow, the water in the canyon iced over, and the path up into the canyon was a narrow uphill hockey rink. Thanks to the traction devices, the uphill wasn't too bad. For a brief moment I even had the canyon view to myself.

I kind of like this effect. Not sure how it happened, but I'm glad I accidentally did this with my phone.
I turned around at this point, as I had no desire to risk slipping and hurting for very little additional gain. The ice was in places rock solid, but in other places was slushy and collapsed into a wet mess easily. Had it just been me, perhaps the walk back would have been very quick.

Unfortunately, a giant group of people were behind me, creating a bottleneck at the narrows of the canyon. This ruled out trying to slide down or quick stepping down the slope of the ice, because I didn't want to barrel into some person half my size and cause an issue. Also, I'm still not to a point where I can do the quick step necessary in slick conditions like this. Therefore I waited until an opening cleared for the easy path. This involved sitting on a snowy bank, putting my feet down, and eventually sliding on my rear past the slickest points. From there it was a matter of getting up, in this case with the assistance of a helpful fellow hiker. What this lacked in style points was made up for by not falling down and breaking my crown.

That mostly positive experience out of the way, I decided to extend my hike yet again with a brief detour out to the river's edge. Here I got another vantage point of the eagles, and tested out my Yak Trax on untrampled snow. I was happy with the result, particularly with the not slipping part. From there I headed back to my car and wrapped up a successful hike.

Even though the hike was only 1.5 miles, I was happy with the accomplishment. The only way I'll get comfortable with hiking in adverse conditions is to hike in adverse conditions. I'm hoping the microspikes I purchased for the "Big Hike" will add even more traction, as I'm not sure the Yak Trax would be sufficient for navigating ice and snow in the Smokies. The best way to find out is to just get out on that trail.

*I did walk around the trail and boardwalk at Heron Park north of Danville, IL and walked out to a fogged in overlook and passenger pigeon memorial at Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. However, neither of these could really be considered hikes.

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