July, 2018 – Houghton, Michigan

While we have not spent nearly as much time in Wisconsin as I would like, it will have to wait.  For the next month and a half we are going to explore the upper peninsula of Michigan which we did not get to last summer.  The highlight of the summer will be meeting the family at Mackinaw Island in August, but the adventure began in the extreme western end of the UP on the Keweenah Peninsula.  Years ago, I had been through Houghton and Copper Harbor on the peninsula on my way to and from an extended hiking trip on Isle Royale.  At that time we spent no time on the peninsula itself, so I was looking forward to the extended experience.  Our base of operation was going to be the City of Houghton RV Park which was the only RV park I could find on the entire peninsula that could accommodate large RVs.  A month ago I felt very lucky to get a reservation for the week of July 4 in this very small RV park of only 25 sites.  We were also looking forward to being able to view the Independence Day fireworks from our RV since the park overlooks the canal the cuts through the peninsula.  On this we were disappointed as the cities of Houghton and Hancock, which is just across the canal, had their displays the over Fathers Day weekend as part of their bridge celebrations.  It was probably a spectacular show, but we would have to find somewhere else to celebrate Independence Day.  The drive north through the Northwoods was very nice, even if the highways were all two lane as we wound between the many lakes in the region.  As we got close to Houghton we found a parking lot to pull into and called the campground for directions.   We had been warned that our GPS would not guide us the correct way and they were correct since our GPS would have tried to bring us in the back way which would have meant traveling miles to circle around.  Their directions were clear and we found the RV park with no problem.  As I said before, this is a very small park and had the initial feel of a parking lot.  However, each site came with a picnic table and wooden bench set under a wooden canopy overlooking the canal.  We both fell in love with the location especially after dark with the lights of Hancock just across the canal.  We were both very happy with the location and hated to leave.  For supper that first night in Houghton we decided to try out the local brewery in town, the Keweenah Brewing Company, that along with the next door Pizza Works, is the first stop of returning Michigan Tech graduates, at least according to the manager of the RV Park.  They had some very good beer, great atmosphere, especially since they delivered the pizza right to the bar.

Our main goal for the week, besides Independence Day, was the Keweenah National Historical Park that has a Visitor Center in the middle of Calumet, Michigan about 20 miles further north.  This is a very unusual National Park as it covers the entire Keweenah Peninsula through over 20 National Heritage Sites scattered all through the peninsula.  The NPS owns about 1500 acres around two units at Calumet and the Quincy Mines outside of Hancock.  The rest of the sites are a coordination between the NPS and private, local, and state owned properties.  Obviously, we did not have enough time to visit all of them, so we had to be selective.  A good place to start was at the Visitor Center in Calumet.  There we learned a lot about the copper mining industry on the peninsula where the first boom and bust mining bonanza in the US began in 1844.  A few years earlier the state geologist, Douglas Houghton, had published a survey of the upper peninsula noting the rich copper deposits on the Keweenah Peninsula.  Beginning along the shores of Lake Superior and eventually moving inland to the rich vein running down the center of the peninsula, the next forty years was the first mining boom financed by mostly Boston investors.  While nearly all of these mines failed to turn profits and quickly came and went there were a few highly successful mines.  The first was the Cliff Mine at Eagle Harbor on the west coast of the peninsula and later the Calumet and Hecla Mine and Quincy Mine, located at Calumet and Hancock, respectively.  While the initial shaft would continue to descend, horizontal drifts along the copper seam would eventually lead to additional vertical shafts to access them.  Thus new towns would continue to spring along with the new shafts and you get a string of small towns interspersed with wild terrain down the center of the peninsula.  With the closing of the mines following World War II, most of these small towns are just memories today, but it is still strange to travel through one small town center after another along US 41.  It was also interesting that most of the miners were new immigrants and each wave of immigrants were mostly from different European countries.  By 1900, over 40 languages were spoken in the different small ethnic communities, each with their own town center, schools, and churches.  The number of churches in this small area was staggering, but each ethnic group wanted their own place of worship.  The mining companies would provide cheap housing, free medical services, schools, and materials for churches, etc but this was often in lieu of wages since there was an endless supply of new immigrants.  We learned a lot about the history of copper mining and how it changed from 1840 to 1920 becoming more mechanized and requiring fewer miners.  The Cooper Country Strike of 1912-1913 began the decline of mining in the area as many mines were closed and workers sought better jobs in the automobile industry or western mines.  We also learned a lot about the immigrant communities and the life of a miner and his family.  We especially enjoyed talking with the Park Ranger who pulled out a community map of the Calumet area with all the small ethnic enclaves at the turn of the century.  Very fascinating.  After spending a couple of hours in the museum and eating lunch in the city park, we walked around the downtown area of Calumet which they are still trying to preserve and restore.  There are a number of very large churches in the town and even a fancy theater from the turn of the century.  It is still a very depressed area and needs a lot more tourist activity to revive the center of town.  The NPS is doing all they can to assist in this preservation of an important chapter in our history.

Once we got back to the RV Park we only had a couple of hours before meeting up with Dave Reed and his wife, Beth, who we had not seen since graduate school over 30 years ago.  They grilled some burgers and we had a great time spending the evening catching up on all the years since graduate school.  Dave is still the VP for Research at Michigan Tech in Houghton and has had a lot of experience with research projects in Scandinavia and Russia over the years.  While our college experiences have been very different we found we could still relate through our teaching, research, and administrative experiences.  Kal and Beth had a great time comparing our three kids with their three daughters.  Beth was also a graduate student in Forest Biometrics at Virginia Tech along with Dave and I.  She is still teaching Mathematics and Statistics at Michigan Tech and had a lot of interesting stories to tell.  Thankfully, the next day was Independence Day as we were there until nearly midnight and were reluctant to leave.  It was great to be able to catch up after all of the these years and wished our paths had crossed before now.

Wednesday was July the 4th, so we decided to check out some of the local celebrations instead of any of the historic sites on the peninsula.  There were a couple of Independence Day parades scheduled in small towns not so far away and instead of attending the “Gay Parade” in Gay, Michigan to the north, we headed south to the small town of South Range for their parade.  It was not only closer, but we wanted to enjoy the festivities of a small town celebration instead of the touristy experience of a well attended Gay Parade.  We certainly found what we were looking for in South Range.  At 2:00 the parade headed down Main Street, which is only a couple of blocks, with the storm warning sirens blaring out of the firehouse we were standing in front of to announce the start of the parade.  It would have been a good idea not to be so close to these sirens!!  However, the high school band also stopped at our location to play the National Anthem, so our choice of locations also had its advantages.  Next came all the young kids on bicycles which was a lot of fun to watch.  There were a number of floats from local organizations, including a float from the NPS which was a big styrofoam black rock with two miners.  Kind of strange!!  Mostly the parade was firetrucks from all the communities in the area and a lot of antique cars.  Unlike the Mardis Gras parades where they threw plastic beads and moon pies, this parade featured candy.  All the kids watching had plastic bags to collect as much candy as they could and we were glad to help those near us to get a good collection of candy.  It was certainly a lot of fun.

We returned to the RV Park for the afternoon, but came back to South Range for their fireworks display.  We got there a good hour before the show and found a good parking place right on the side of highway through town.  We were right across the street from their Veterans Park where the show was to be staged.  As it got dark we got to watch all of the individual displays going in different locations within South Range.  It turned out we had prime seats for the show as it was obvious once it began that the launch site was just across the road.  In fact, a lot of the fireworks were directly overhead!!  Except for the fact that they seemed to really like the BIG bangs that shook us and the truck, it was pretty neat.  Especially the ending display which was directly overhead and made you feel like you were inside the show!!  I am just glad all of the fireworks went off as intended and stayed far up in the air!  Except for it being another late night, it was a great show.  It should be noted that this far north means it does not get dark until nearly 10:30, especially since the Boston investors insisted the area be Eastern Time Zone dragging the boundary far to the west to include the peninsula.  Finally, I should note that on the peninsula there is only the main highway through town.  Side streets run only a couple of blocks, so the only way in and out of town is the main highway.  The traffic jam after the fireworks display was probably a once a year occurrence!

Thursday it was back to exploring the peninsula.  We knew there was no way to see all of the historical sites on the peninsula, so we decided to head north to Copper Harbor to the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.  However, on the way we would check out a couple of other sites first.  Instead of staying on US 41 to Copper Harbor, we headed west on 9 mile road which cuts over to Lake Superior to Eagle Harbor.  While most of the road stays within the woods, there are a couple of nice pull-outs where you can see the lake as you approach Eagle Harbor.  It was certainly windy and cool on Thursday which was a great break from the 80 degree weather of the previous couple of weeks.  Eagle Harbor is a natural harbor near the site of Cliff Mine, which was the first successful mine on the peninsula.  Unlike the deep mines inland, this mine was not much more than a surface mine into the hillside following a copper fissure.  The small town grew up in support of this mine and a lighthouse was built to guide ships into the harbor.  The original lighthouse was built in 1851 but was replaced with the current lighthouse in 1871.  Along with the lighthouse which was also the home of the lighthouse manager, there are exhibits about the Life-Saving Service and a couple of famous shipwrecks in the area.  The most famous of these was the wreck of the City of Bangor in 1926.  The City of Bangor was going from Detroit to Duluth with a load of brand new Chryslers.  While those on deck were lost, those in the hold were eventually salvaged.  When the water froze solid enough they built a ramp to drive the cars off the wreck.  Of course, this meant they had to snow plow the road south to Houghton for the very first time!

From Eagle Harbor we headed across the peninsula on the Brockway Mountain Road, which wound our way up to the peak of Brockway Mountain.  The “peak” is a rock outcropping that gives some GREAT views of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Of course, this assumes you can stand against the stiff wind that was trying to blow you off the peak.  On the way down we crossed a number of mountain bike trials.  It turns out this is a favorite and well known location for mountain biking with a large selection of trails to choose from.

From there we descended into the town of Copper Harbor, the natural harbor that was the beginning of the copper rush in the 1840s.  In 1844, the federal government constructed Fort Wilkins for two companies of soldiers to protect the miners and financial interests of the Boston investors from any problems from the local Ojibwa tribes.  It turned out to be unnecessary as there was never any problem with the Indians.  The fort was manned for only two years before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War when they were pulled out.  The fort remained abandoned until after the Civil War when it was used as one of the locations for Union soldiers to complete their terms of enlistment.  After three years it was again abandoned.  Surprisingly, many of the structures survived until it became a state park in 1923.  Beginning with the WPA in the 1930s they have worked to restore and rebuild most of the structures of the original fort.  Within most of the buildings there are nice exhibits about life and living conditions during both periods of use and the volunteers in period dress were a lot of fun to talk with.  While not the most interesting fort we have seen, it is still well worth the visit to learn about life on the frontier of the northwoods.

On Friday we had a day that was the highlight of the week, at least for me.  We traveled to the top of the hill above Hancock to the Shaft #2 of the Quincy Mine.  This was the main shaft of one of the most successful copper mines on the Keweenah and extended down nearly two miles in depth with side drifts extending outward about every 10 feet.  The biggest problem with these mines was water that seeped in everywhere, so much that they maintained a sump at the bottom of each shaft and used Sunday every week to haul out water from the sump.  To help with this problem a drift on level 7 was extended to an exit on the side of the hill with a slight downward slope to drain the water out.  By now every level below level 7 is filled with water.  More recently they have increased the size of this side drift to accommodate an electric tram and to serve as an outside classroom for mining classes at Michigan Tech, sort of like our Forestry Summer Camp.  Along the passage they have opened up classrooms and demonstration areas.  They also use this side shaft to provide mine tours.  The tour starts in the last of four ever larger hoist houses that use steam engines and cables to raise and lower the buckets and mancars.  Built in 1908 this hoist house is the home of the largest Nordberg Steam-powered hoist, which is a massive rotating drum turned either direction by massive steam driven pistons.  The building itself was also a show piece to impress potential investors with Italian tile on the floor and marble on the exterior.  It certainly looked out of place at a mine site.  The tour then continues into the mine which begins with a ride down the hillside on a cog-rail tramcar which was built for this purpose.  Miners would not have entered this way as they would ride mancars straight down into the shaft.  From the tramcar you get on an electric tram that they drive into the mine shaft which is a constant 45 degrees.  They do provide coats and hard hats for everyone as it is quite cold in the mine.  Although it was 45 degrees at level 7, the temperatures would rise as you descended and was likely over 100 degrees at the bottom of the shaft.  After a 15 minute ride into the mine you exit and continue on foot.  They have demonstrations set up of the one man power drill that was used to drill the holes for explosives, a mine car full of ore on a short track, and some views further into the mine.  Even though these demonstrations were interesting, they would have been used at the much deeper levels.  The upper levels are much older and the miners would not have power tools.  Two men with sledge hammers and a third holding an iron spike would have drilled the holes by candlelight.  Ore would be carted to the main shaft using wheelbarrows.  Mining technology changed a lot over the 40 years this mine was in operation.  Once you return to the surface you can take a look at a typical miners house with exhibits inside and the ground portion of Shaft House #2.  Of course the actual shaft has been sealed, but inside the shaft house you can see the buckets and mancars used to transport ore and men, respectively.  The entire tour took the better part of two hours, but it was well worth the time and expense.

After a full week of activities we took Saturday off and watched some of the World Cup.  After the soccer games on Sunday, we decided to get in the truck and drive south to Baraga to check out one of two Ojibwa Casinos.  While it is a much smaller casino then most we have visited, it had all the slot machines we needed to have a fun afternoon.  Of course, coming out with most of our stake didn’t hurt.  Anytime we spend less than $20 we figure we broke even for the day.

 

June, 2018 – Eagle River, Wisconsin

Out next trip north was one of the longest so far this year being nearly 3 hours.  The good side is that we were finally far enough north that the temperature was noticeably cooler.   Of course, part of this was due to a cold front from Canada, but we were thankful for the cooler weather.  We left the farms and ranches behind as we headed in to the northwoods with hemlock, red and white pine, maple, and spruce.  Northeast Wisconsin is a land of forests and small glacial lakes, of which there are a lot.  Our next stop was just east of Eagle River, Wisconsin in a private RV park, Chain O’ Lakes Campground.  It is only 4 miles from WI 70 outside of Eagle River, but then it is 5 miles on winding back country roads off of the highway ending with a 0.5 mile dirt road to the campground.  Just a few miles to the east from the campgrounds is the 600,000 acre Nicolet National Forest, so the campground is very secluded except for all the cabins surrounding the many small lakes.  Chain O’ Lakes Campground is an old KOA campground, although most KOA campgrounds are much better organized.  I don’t know what drunken fool laid out the campground, but it is a sprawling mess with a confusing mess of narrow winding roads.  In some places you can’t tell the road from the pull through sites.  Nearly all of the campground is filled with seasonal campers, so there are just a few campsites for transients scattered among the seasonal rigs.  The campground looks to be full, except most of the seasonal campers aren’t there during the week.  We had a pull through site and thankfully the owners had us swing around the campground since the direct route would have had trees at the corner of the site making this direction impossible to pull into the site.  The direction we came in was much better and we soon were set up for the week.  Except for all the seasonal rigs all over the place, some nicely kept up and others not so much, it was a nice campground and very conveniently located for what we wanted to do for the week.

Campsite

Our main goal for the week was to explore the northwoods so on Tuesday we headed into Eagle River to the National Forest office to find out about hiking trails.  If you are ever in the area I strongly recommend this as we got a wealth of information from trail guides, a huge road map, and brochures about each of the trails we might be interested in including a driving tour of the area.  We certainly had more than we needed for the week.  From there we went in search for the Wildwood Outdoor Adventure company to sign up for a kayak trip down the Wisconsin River.  We booked a 2.5 hour trip for Wednesday morning and went back to the campground for lunch.  After lunch we had time for a short hike so we headed over to a nature trail at Franklin Lake in the National Forest.  We had been given a brochure about the trail that gave some information at each of the numbered posts on the hike.  This was a great hike to get a good overview of the habitats you find in the northwoods.  The 1.5 mile loop trail winds through a red pine plantation from the CCC work in the 1930s, an old growth hemlock stand, the shoreline community on Franklin Lake, a peat bog full of mosquitoes, and a glacial till sandy ridge overlooking the campgrounds.  Except for the mosquitoes that followed us out of the bog, it was a great hike on a cool summer afternoon.

We got an early start on Wednesday for a float trip down the Wisconsin River.  We had our choice of going upstream and floating down to Eagle River or to start at Eagle River and float south on the river.  The upstream trip was narrow with swift water due to all the recent rains and would have challenging rocks and possible downed trees to contend with.  Therefore, we decided to float the downstream portion that should be calmer with fewer hazards.  Unfortunately, most of this trip was alongside of the highway so there was constant noise from the traffic that was a bit distracting.  Since we were traveling in the middle of the week and starting early in the morning, we had the river to ourselves and we likely the first kayaks since the weekend.  We were rewarded for our decision by seeing a couple of hawks and 7-8 bald eagles over the next 3 hours.  We even had the pleasure of watching a bald eagle dive into the water after a fish and then pinwheel back to shore with a fish in tow, I assume since he never left the water.  We suspect the fish must have gotten away as we again saw the same eagle in a tree without a fish as we drew closer.  The river current was fairly strong during the first 1.5 hours so we had to do very little paddling except around a few rocks and a couple of rocky shoals.  When we got the first takeout we decided to extend the trip another 45 minutes and after a quick phone call to check in we were back on the river.  This river over this next section was wider and slower so we had to work a little bit more, but the river got far enough away from the highway that we could no longer hear it.  The next takeout came up much faster then we anticipated, so we decided to do the final section of the river which would add another 45 minutes.  Unfortunately, the river continued to widen until it became a lake with no current.  We finally saw a couple of people out fishing in the lake, which are the only people we saw the entire trip.  The exit from the lake was not obvious, so we spent a little time paddling into a couple of small coves looking for the river.  When we finally found the river again we were thankfully close to the take out since we now had gotten our workout with the paddles getting across the lake.  Our ride showed up a half hour later and we were taken back to the outfitters where we had to pay a little extra for the two extensions to the trip.  We both agreed the money was well worth it.   The scenery was outstanding, the eagles were inspiring, and all together the trip was a great way to experience the northwoods.  I highly recommend it and we look forward to our next opportunity.

Thursday, it was back for another hike in the Nicolet National Forest. We choose another 1.5 mile loop trail that was close by, this time the trail circles a small glacial lake called Deer Lake.  The trail hugs the shoreline all the way around the lake, which means we had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the crystal clear blue lakes of the northwoods.  We even saw and heard our first loon and even got some nice pictures at one point.  I was surprised to see how low loons sit in the water, unlike a duck that floats on top of the water.  At least half of the loon’s body was underwater.  The trail was easy to follow and except for a couple of swampy areas that nearly turned us around, it was an easy hike.  Unlike many of these lakes in the area, even those within the National Forest, have cabins on them, this lake was undeveloped and wild.  It was a real treat.

Friday threatened rain and although it was late afternoon before we saw any, we decided to spend the better part of the day at the nearby casino called Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet, Michigan.  Since we are only about 20 miles south of the stateline, this was less than an hour from the campground.  Both Kal and I did fairly well, especially a $50 payout, and we even came away earning $5.  While this is unexpected when we go to a casino, it is nice to once in a while come out ahead.  Except for the construction at the main casino entrance as they upgrade the front, it was a very nice casino and well maintained.  This was kind of surprising since Watersmeet is a long way from and reasonable size town except for Eagle River which is more of a tourist town.  Maybe this is the reason as it could draw in a lot of summer tourists.

Saturday was spent doing laundry, cleaning, watching the World Cup, and just relaxing in the campgrounds.  Sunday was essentially a repeat, except for the laundry and cleaning.

June, 2018 – Waupaca, Wisconsin

To get to our next location, we traveled due north on WI 22 the entire way.  We did find a nice truck stop at the half way point for a break, but otherwise it was a 2.5 hour trip through a mix of farms and forests.  Our next stop was just outside the town of Waupaca at the Waupaca S’more Fun Campground.  It is located just off US 10 which is a four lane highway running between Stevens Point and Green Bay and just outside of town which meant we had grocery stores, etc within 5 miles.  The campground also had the best free WiFi we have ever seen and so we put away the hotspot for a rest.  TV reception was also pretty good, so we were able to watch all the World Cup soccer that Fox showed in the mornings and weekend.  The campground itself was very nice since they set aside the best sites along the lake for transient campers.  Most private RV parks rent out the best sites to permanent seasonal campers and transients get the left overs.  However, the campground was laid out strangely.  Their dump station was right in front of the bathrooms and office instead of being tucked away from everything.  In addition, it was positioned for people coming into the campground instead of exiting.  This meant that we had to travel around the campgrounds to get lined up to dump when we left and then around the entire campground again in order to exit.  Thus there was considerable traffic through the campgrounds on Sunday with everyone circling twice through the campgrounds.  In addition, our campsite was laid out strangely since it was angled in the wrong direction.  In order to back the RV into the site I had to turn the whole rig around first.  Thankfully this corner of the campground had a large turnaround area, so I was able to back the RV once and then pull forward to get in the correct position.  Once we got into the site we discovered we had a very nice site.  It had 50 amp electrical hookups and a large concrete porch and RV pad.  The back end of the RV looked over their lake and we very much enjoyed it all week.

Campsite

Tuesday was our day for laundry and cleaning the RV, so we did not do anything except watch some soccer on TV.  On Wednesday we headed southwest from Waupaca to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Necedah, Wisconsin.  This refuge is located on the bed of a large glacial lake and became essentially a large peat bog and swamp after the glaciers melted.  After the trees were in the area were logged in the late 1800s, settlers attempted to drain the swamp and plant crops.  However, peat bogs do not make good farmland being nutrient poor and very sandy.  Along with the short growing season the farms were abandoned by the 1930s.  The 14,000 acre refuge was established in 1939 for migratory birds and has become a very important refuge for the recovery of the whooping crane.  I must say that the Visitor Center on the refuge is likely the best visitor center we have ever seen on a National Wildlife Refuge.  Not only because it is new, but also the design and construction.  It is as environmentally friendly as they can make it using mostly recycled materials, solar panels, and rainwater cisterns.  It by itself is well worth seeing and learning about.  However, we were there for some hikes and a chance to view some wildlife.  The best trail they have is right behind the Visitor Center, which is a one mile loop through some signature wetlands and along the shore of one of their many lakes.  We had the privilege of spotting a pair of whooping cranes in the distance probably raising some young chicks as they stayed fairly close to one spot and did not move much.   Unfortunately we were not close enough, even with the binoculars, to be sure.  Kal also saw a furry animal disappear under the boardwalk that extended out along the shore of the lake.  She was not sure if it was a river otter or beaver and was not quick enough to get a picture.  After this short walk we drove over to another trail head to eat lunch and then hike to their 3 story observation tower.  From the top of the tower you could see a lot of the surrounding wetlands.  From their we are able to see the same whooping cranes again, but they were even further away this time.  After leaving the tower we continued on the trail which was another loop trail through the forests.  However, the wind had died down and the mosquitoes got so bad that we turned around after about a third of a mile.  While the wind was blowing in the morning we did not notice any bugs, but now they were all over us.  Still it was a very good experience and this is certainly a wildlife refuge I would recommend.

On Thursday, I thought we would drive over to Green Bay and check out some of the state parks on the peninsula on the east side of the bay in Lake Michigan.  However, once we got started the GPS said it would take nearly 2 hours to get there and we quickly decided it was not worth it.  However, we needed to get an annual sticker for the car as every state park required it and at $11 a day for non-residents, an annual sticker was much cheaper.  So we went back to the RV to figure out where we could get a sticker and the only office closer than Green Bay was not open on Thursdays.  Hartman Creek State Park was only 5 miles from Waupaca, so we decided to try there in the hope they sold the stickers.  Since there was a campground in the park, there was a good chance.  Thankfully, this paid off as we were able to buy an annual sticker which at $40 for non-residents will more than pay for itself.  We checked on some available trails and selected a one mile loop through the forests with some nice views of one of the lakes in the park.  This trail meandered through a red pine plantation that I suspect was planted by the CCC in the 1930s.  The pine trees certainly looked to be over 80 years old and we know the CCC did a lot of work to establish the park.  We were able to finish the hike before lunch, so we drove over to a picnic area to eat.

This left us the entire afternoon to do something else, however, Kal was more interested in driving to the nearby casino for the afternoon rather than taking in another hike.  So we drove north to Wittenberg to another of the Ho-Chunk Gaming establishments.  While not as nice as the Ho-Chunk casino at Wisconsin Dells, it was still quite nice except for the construction that was going on at the main entrance.  We had a very nice afternoon with both of us winning a little bit here and there, managing to lose only about $10 for the afternoon.  For us, this is doing very good.

I should mention that the weather continued to be very pleasant with temperatures only in the mid to upper 70s and no rain.  So on Friday we decided to take in another hike on the Hartman Creek State Park, since we now had a sticker that got us in for free.  We did another relatively short hike of just over a mile around Hartman Lake.  This time the trail was right along the shore so we got to see a lot of water plants, flowers, and dragonflies.  We even chased three families of Canadian Geese down the path until they decided to enter the water with their young chicks.  Since we were so close to the campgrounds we went back for lunch and spent the afternoon relaxing in the campgrounds.

Over the weekend the campground got very busy with kids and families everywhere, so we decided to just stay put and enjoy the show.  We watched the World Cup group play on Fox and I found time to work on this blog.  We have found out that we enjoy being busy during the week when most families are working and the places we go are not busy.  For instance, we only saw one family and a couple at the wildlife refuge earlier in the week.  Then during the weekend we relax in the campground avoiding the crowds.

June, 2018 – Madison, Wisconsin

Traveling north from Rockford, Illinois we had to stay off the Interstate until we reached the Wisconsin state line in order to avoid the tolls on the Interstate.  Thankfully this was only 20 miles along good roads.  Once on Interstate 39/90, it was a quick trip north to Madison, Wisconsin.  On the north side of Madison we left the Interstate to continue traveling north to our destination outside of Pardeeville, Duck Creek Campground.  Whereas the Interstate was a good road, WI-22 north to Pardeeville certainly was not!  The concrete sections that made up the road bounced around a lot even with slowing down to 40 mph.  Even then it took less than 2 hours to make the trip to Duck Creek, which turned out to be a very nice campground.  It has around 125 campsites, but less than 50 are for transient campers.  The rest were filled with permanent seasonal campers so the campground looked very full, even though there was nearly nobody there until the weekend when it filled up.  They have one section of about a dozen sites for large RVs with full hookups, one of which was ours.  Since the sites were all open with just a few trees shading the grassy sites, it looked like we would be able to back the RV into the site with no problem.  However, there was two problems.  First, the sites were not angled, which meant you had to make nearly a right angle turn to back into the site.  This along with the fact that the ground on either side of the gravel pad was soft dirt meant the RV was going to dig in until I could get it on the pad.  Second, there was trees and heavy brush just across the road which meant turning the truck to straighten it out was going to be difficult.  My first attempt failed miserably as I simply could not get the truck back in front of the RV after having to nearly jacknife the RV to get it on the pad.  I pulled the RV all the way around the campground loop to try lining it up on the extreme left side of the dirt road to give me more room for the truck.  This time I was unable to get the RV to turn quick enough to stay on the pad and had to stop just before I dropped the wheels into the fire pit on the site.  I pulled around a third time to split the difference in my starting location and tried again.  This get the RV onto the gravel pad I had to nearly jacknife the RV again and the truck could not get enough purchase on their dirt road and just spun out.  By this point I was ready to quit!!  Thankfully by this point the owners realized we were having problems and came over to help.  They offered to back the RV into the site for us and while they were sizing up the situation I mentioned it was too bad we could not pull through the site behind us which was empty and would turn this into a pull-through site.  I assumed there would be an issue with their sewer lines, but the owner said it would be fine.  So I pulled around again and headed into the site behind ours and after a couple of simple adjustments was on our pad with no further problem.  I am glad we came this week and not later since during the week they began installing a 50 amp circuit and their pedestal for the new meter blocked our access from the site behind.  In addition, the sewer hookup was at the extreme back end of the site which would have required the use of our sewer extension, which is so difficult to attach that we decided to just wait and use their dump station when we left.  Since we had been doing this regularly since leaving Alabama, it did not seem to be a big deal.  We were finally in Wisconsin and except for the weather it was nice to be here.  During the first part of the week, the temperatures were mild in the upper 70s to mid 80s during the day with high humidity leading to thunderstorms in the afternoons.  The storms were mostly the pop-up variety which led to some spectacular lightning shows after dark.  It has been a long time since I had experienced a storm of such continuous multiple lightning strikes, all of which stayed in the clouds, thankfully.  By the weekend, the temperatures climbed into the low 90s and a storm to remember on Friday.  Around 5 in the evening we were under a severe thunderstorm warning for the next 30 minutes with quarter size hail expected.  Thankfully, we did not see any hail, but after more than an hour of this storm, well past the time limit of the warning, we went back under a severe thunderstorm warning for another 30 minutes.  Without any letup the storm continued for at least another hour, again well past the warning.  When it finally ended we had received over 5 inches of rain and our county was under a flood warning until midday Saturday when it was even hotter along with another severe thunderstorm in the afternoon.

Campsite

We spent Tuesday doing the laundry and cleaning the RV which was needed since it had been two weeks due to our water limitation in the Illinois state parks.  On Wednesday we decided to head back south to Aztalan State Park which is in between Madison and Milwaukee.  This is a small state park that encompasses an ancient Indian village from the Middle Mississippian culture from around 900 to 1300 A.D.  This meant there were earthen mounds to see enclosed by a wooden palisade.  As Mississippian mound villages are concerned, this was a small village consisting of only three mounds.  It is noteworthy because it is the farthest northern mound village that has ever been found and I was surprised to see one in Wisconsin.  It was likely an outpost from the major cultural center at Cahokia on the Mississippi River in Illinois.  Unfortunately, the site was sold for farming in 1838 and the original mounds were leveled and nearly all of the pot shards and other artifacts sold for souvenirs or used to fill potholes in town.  Once the Wisconsin Historical Society began buying back the property in 1921 they began the long process of rebuilding the mounds according to records from amateur archeological work.  Due to the loss of archeological evidence they can only estimate the size of the individual mounds.  After getting some information about the site from the volunteer in their trailer Visitor Center, we walked around the mowed path along the river and within the reconstructed palisade.  It was a nice hike, but there really was not much to see.  We then had a nice picnic lunch and decided to explore a side trail that we thought would be through the woods.  After crossing a small stream where we saw either a badger or groundhog in a woodpile along the trail, the trail opened up into a prairie restoration project.  Along with a few interpretive signs, the trail would through the prairie grasses in a large loop that was very interesting and gave a nice view that compared the natural prairie with the surrounding farm land.  Overall it was a nice day even though hotter than we would have liked.

On Thursday we went to explore something different.  In Baraboo, Wisconsin, is a state historical site called Circus World.  It turns out that Baraboo is the home of the largest circus in the world, Ringling Brothers.  From 1884 until 1927 Baraboo was the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers Circus, when it moved to Sarasota, Florida.  Why Wisconsin for a winter quarters, you ask?  The obvious answer is this is where the 5 Ringling Brothers started their circus with a single ring traveling circus in 1884.  By 1888 they began using railroad cars to be able to travel further each season.  Each winter the circus would return to Baraboo to work on new acts, train the animals, make new costumes and circus wagons, and generally refurbish the circus.  The area along the river in Baraboo became known as Ringlingville and although this was the center of the operation there were shops all over town and in the surrounding area.  Once the circus headquarters moved to Florida in 1927, Ringlingville was essentially abandoned, but would eventually become Circus World Museum, a major attraction just outside of Wisconsin Dells, opening in 1959.  After paying a hefty admission fee, you enter the park through the Irvin Field Exhibit Hall with exhibits about the history and contributions of each of the 5 original Ringling Brothers, as well as, exhibits related to the general aspect of circus management and history.  Once you exit the Exhibit Hall you are in the midst of the 8 buildings that are left of Ringlingville.  These include the Ring Barn, Elephant House, Animal House, Baggage Horse Barn, Winter Quarters Office, and Wardrobe Department.  Most of the buildings are open to the public and house exhibits about the circus.  These include samples of costumes, an extensive collection of circus posters, dioramas of circus parades and the 150+ railcar train used to transport the circus, care and training of circus animals, circus clowns, and circus music.  One thing I remember was the use of the Sousa march “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  This song was used by the circus band to signal an emergency in the big top without panicking the crowd.  When the employees heard this song they knew to come running to the big top.  From Ringlingville you cross the river to their small mockup of a circus.  In addition to the many exhibits that took up the majority of our day at Circus World, they also have a few shows that are covered in the price of admission.  In addition to their one-ring circus show in the Hippodrome, they have a comedy show and tiger act.  We did make the 11:00 chowing of their circus at which was a lot of fun, but not nearly as impressive as full circuses I remember growing up.  Along with a couple of clowns, they had a trained dog act, trained elephants, a unicycle act, a lady on a trapeze, and a quick change act.  It was a lot of fun but fell far short of the “Greatest Show On Earth.”  Outside the Hippodrome they had elephant and horse rides for the kids.  After eating lunch at their outdoor grill we took in the tour of the C.P. Fox Wagon Restoration Center and W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion.  In the restoration center they are busy restoring old circus wagons to the former glory, spanning much more than wagons used by the Ringling Brothers.  They have an outstanding collection of over 50 circus wagons from all over the world, many of which are displayed in the Wagon Pavilion.  This was the highlight of the day and the true showpiece of Circus World, in my opinion.  There were circus wagons completely covered in 14k gold leaf and wagons that would expand upwards from the center to 4 and 5 times the height of a regular wagon covered with carvings and murals.  There were also a number of circus wagons with calliopes powered by steam engines.  As a part of the tour they even cranked up one of these calliopes for us to enjoy and marvel at.  It was certainly a great day and completely different then taking a hike in the woods.

When we got back to the RV, Kal caught a glimpse of a new resident.  She saw a field mouse scooting under the refrigerator.  After trying to chase it out from under the refrigerator using a broom, it was obvious that all we were accomplishing was scarring the poor thing.  Without any other options, since it was unlikely the mouse would leave on it own, Kal went to the store and bought a couple of simple mouse traps.  Even though they were supposedly pre-baited, she put some peanut butter on them and placed one inside the RV and the other in the boot under the RV.  When we got up the next morning we found both traps had been cleaned off by the mouse, but no mouse.  Obviously we did not know how to set the traps and managed only to give the mouse a good meal.  Since they were suppose to be pre-baited anyway we decided to not include peanut butter and after learning how we were suppose to set the traps from the internet, we put them out again.  It was not an hour later that we heard a snap in the boot under the RV and sure enough we had caught the mouse.  It soon died of a broken neck and we got rid of it.  Neither of us are happy with having to kill the mouse, but we certainly could not allow it free reign of our RV.  No telling what mess it would eventually leave us or damage it would cause.

As I mentioned before, Friday was forecast to have a good chance of afternoon thunderstorms, so we decided to check out the Ho Chunk Casino in Wisconsin Dells.  It is advertised to have a true Las Vegas experience and it certainly was a fancy casino with all the gaming tables and a LOT of slot machines.  We had an enjoyable morning in the casino with both of us winning just enough that we broke even for the day.  For lunch, we sought out a local brewery for lunch and found the Moosejaw Pizza and Brewery.  It is located within Wisconsin Dells, which is similar in atmosphere to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with many fancy resorts and indoor water parks.  Consequently, Moosejaw was not just a local brewery, but a very nice restaurant.  We both ordered calzones, which were EXCELLENT, and I tried out their home brewed red ale.  After lunch we decided to buy a mixed 12 pack from the Wisconsin Dells Brewery to try out in August with the family.  Another nice day, although I don’t think Wisconsin Dells is our kind of place to visit as a rule.

With the terrific thunderstorm on Friday, we decided to just stay in the campground over the weekend.  This turned out to be a good idea, as it stormed again Saturday afternoon putting an early end to the campground’s Father’s Day activities at the swimming pond.  Sunday was predicted to be a low chance of rain as we the stationary front was finally to our south.  You would have thought that being north of the front would mean cooler temperatures, and this was predicted, but Sunday once again was near 90 degrees.  I spent a good part of the afternoon doing repairs to the roof seals in the front of the RV.  I forgot to mention that when we hooked up on Monday, we had over a quart of water come pouring out the bottom of the front boot.  I have mentioned before water leaking out the front and my attempts to find the cause with no real luck.  I had not seen any water for months and was surprised to see so much come out on Monday.  I don’t know if it just been building up or what.  It has got me really concerned, so I decided to put more sealant along the front seal and spent a couple of hours in the hot sun doing it.  I will note that we had no additional water coming out when we hooked up this Monday, but since I had just put the sealant on after all the heavy rain, I don’t understand it.  I did get phone calls from my kids for Father’s Day, so it was not a complete bust.  All together it was a nice first week in Wisconsin although I hope we can see some cooler weather.

June, 2018 – Rockford, Illinois

The trip north from the Illinois River was entirely along I-39 and therefore was easy and without any issues.  Knowing we would be staying in another state park that listed only electrical hookups, we filled the fresh water tank at the dump station in Starved Rock State Park before leaving.  While I knew that our next destination, Rock Cut State Park was close to Rockford, I did not realize just how close it was or more accurately the size of Rockford metropolitan area.  I-39 joins I-90 coming out of Chicago right at Rockford and since I-90 is a toll road we had to exit a few miles before the state park onto a busy city street.  The Interstates actually cut through part of the state park, however, to avoid the tolls we had to navigate the busy and very bumpy road.  In addition to this, our GPS took us to the Park Offices instead of the campgrounds which was on the other side of the park which we then had to go around to the north entrance of the park.  This trip through a suburb of Rockford showed us we were very close to just about anything we could want including a very large and new Meijers grocery store less than 3 miles from the campground.  We were concerned that this was going to mean a very noisy campground, especially with the Interstate just a mile away, but the state park was large enough with the campground in the middle that it was very quiet.  When they checked out our reservation the volunteer running the check-in was concerned that the site I had reserved would not be big enough for our fifth-wheel.  She took the time to check for other sites that would be available over the upcoming weekend, which was the problem, and identified another site that had a concrete pad and patio.  I suspect this site had not been reserved since most of the campers in the state park are staying in tents and the concrete pad was not very level.  For us, though, it was perfect and much better than the site I had reserved.  It was true that the concrete pad was not very level and I had to lower the front of the fifth-wheel to the ground, but I did get it level.  We were soon set up for another week in a state park, although this week the park was well maintained and park like instead of a forest.

Campsite

I had chosen this location due to its proximity to a couple of National Historic Sites, so on Tuesday we headed southwest to Dixon, Illinois to check out Ronald Regan’s Boyhood Home.  The trip to Dixon was along the Rock River, which is a very picturesque drive through the Illinois rural area.  Ronald Regan grew up in Dixon and his earliest childhood memories are of the home on Hennepin Avenue.  Athough the family only lived in this house for 4 years, when Ronald “Dutch” was 9-13 years old, he had very fond memories.  The Regan’s were only renting the home and when the rent more than doubled had to move out into a series of apartments in town.  So it is not surprising that Ronald would identify with this location as his childhood home.  Since it was rented and due to a fire years later that destroyed most of the family heirlooms, the home is mostly filled with period pieces.  Since we were there during the middle of the week, we had a private tour with two delightful guides that had retired from teaching grade school in the local schools.  They were wonderful guides and we had a lot of fun trying to figure out some of the artifacts in the kitchen.  While we identified most of them, they absolutely stumped us on a long handle metal plunger.  It was an agitator for doing the laundry by hand!

It did not take us long to tour the house, mostly because it is not very big at all, so we still had most of the day to fill in.  So we headed five blocks towards the river to the Northwest Territory Historic Center that they told us about at the Regan Boyhood Home Visitor Center.  It is located in the old public school that Regan attended as a boy, which they have preserved by turning it into a museum.  Although it is a private museum, there is no admission charge due to grants and affiliations with the Smithsonian Institute.  As you walk in the front door you certainly feel like you are back in school!  They have turned most of the classrooms into exhibits room covering a wide variety of subjects.  For instance, they have a room dedicated to prairie restoration and the reintroduction of buffalo near Dixon.  There is a very good exhibit about the Black Hawk War which was the last war against the Indians in the mid-1800s.  This was Abraham Lincoln’s opportunity to gain some military experience.  Even though he was elected to be the Captain of their local militia unit, he never saw any action.  They do a very good job of giving both perspectives to the war and what set it off.  According to the 1804 Treaty of St Louis, the Indian tribes in the Illinois territory had sold their land to the US which was never recognized by the Inidian leaders.  However, the Indians did not have to move until the land was sold which took over 20 years before they were forced to move from this area.  The local Indian tribes had permanent dwellings that they would return to each fall for the winter, but spent the summers hunting in Iowa and southern Illinois.  Settlers would move in finding homes and cleared land already prepared for them and they would move in, much to the surprise and anger of the Indians.  In one last attempt to drive them out, Black Hawk led a mixed group known as the “British Band” due to promised support from the British, in April 1832.  Although they initially routed two green cavalry divisions at the Battle of Stillman’s Run, the Indians lost the only decisive Battle of Wisconsin Heights in July.  Most of the Indians were then captured or killed as they attempted to cross the Mississippi at the Battle of Bad Axe.  Other classrooms focused on the Lincoln Highway, the first coast to coast highway in the US; Reagan memorabilia, the history of Dixon, farm implements, etc.  They even had one classroom set up as a classroom from the time when Ronald Regan attended school there.  The highlight though was the restored gymnasium on the third floor of the school.  I guess it was a common design to place the gym on the top floor of a school, although this would seem to be backwards to me.  While the Ronald Regan’s Boyhood Home was worth visiting, the highlight of the day was this Northwest Territory Museum.

On Wednesday, we made the trip into Chicago to find the Chicago Portage National Historic Site.  Neither of us like big cities and we routinely avoid them as much as possible, however, I wanted to see this NPS site, so off we went.  From Rockford, there is I-90 that goes into Chicago and by using a couple of other Interstates we should be able to get within a couple of miles of the site.  However, I-90 is a toll road and we soon discovered that we did not bring enough small change with us.  We had assumed we would be paying for the tolls at manned booths where we could use bills, which was true at two booths along the Interstate.  However, to get on and then again to exit the Interstate you had to have exact change.  We did get some change at one of the toll booths so we were able to get off the toll road in the western suburbs of Chicago.   We knew that the Chicago Portage NHS was on Harlem Street in Lyons, however, our GPS took us to the offices of the Forest Preserves of Dade County, which was nearly 2 miles in the wrong direction on Harlem street.  After dealing with city traffic we found a parking space on a side street and walked over to the offices.  After standing around for about 15 minutes waiting on someone to assist us, we found the location ourselves on a map they had outside the office complex.  We then traveled back south along Harlem Street about 5 miles to the entrance to the NHS.  The site is only loosely affiliated with the NPS and administered by the Forest Preserve, so there is no Visitor Center.  In fact, the entire site consists of a nice statue, a few interpretive signs, a picnic pavilion, and hiking/biking trails.  We had a nice lunch at the picnic pavilion and then walked around the marshy area next to the present day canal and read their interpretive signs.  It turns out that when Father Marquette and Joliet explored the northern part of the Mississippi River back in the 1600s, they were led by the local Indians to a much easier portage to Lake Michigan at present day Chicago.  By traveling up the Mississippi through the Illinois and Du Chenes Rivers you can get within a few miles of Lake Michigan.  At the time the portage was through Mud Lake, which is completely gone today, that could be paddled during the wet season or portaged around when the water was too low.  This route was used by traders for decades and was the location of Fort Dearborn that was burned in the War of 1812.  The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848 that cut through this portage and for over 50 years was a major transportation hub, making Chicago what it is today.  As you can imagine it took less time to visit the site, than to drive through the city traffic, so it was marginally worthwhile.  We set the GPS to avoid toll roads on the way back, but still it managed to put us on another toll road to get out of town.  We were committed to the toll road before we realized it and this road was new enough that it did not have toll booths!!  It was all done electronically with pictures being taken of your license plate every few miles.  As it turned out, we should have done this in the first place.  You don’t need to have one of their window stickers, which would automatically charge the tolls to your credit card.  Even without a sticker you can bypass all the toll plazas and go online after the fact to pay the toll.  On their webpage you enter your license number and route from which it finds your toll and you can pay with a credit card.  They give you 7 days after the fact to pay the toll.  Not bad.

After the experience on Wednesday, we decided to just stay in the campground for the next two days and work on the blog and relax.  Besides the weather turned stormy with nightly storms and even a little hail. By Saturday, I was ready to get out again, but we had made plans to meet up with Jill Goldman whom we had met at Rainbow Plantation last winter.  Jill trains puppies for “Canine Companions for Independence”, which includes a training facility in Rockford every summer.  She dropped by around noon and we spent the afternoon visiting with her and her newest puppy.

JillAndDog

On Sunday I was really ready to get away from the RV for a while and even though the weather was drizzly all day, we decided to check out the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford that Jill recommended.  While it did not rain per se, it was wet enough that sitting and enjoying the gardens was out of the question.  However, we did fully explore the 12 acres garden with its many pools, streams, waterfalls, and secluded corners.  It was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours and we certainly took a lot of pictures.  I would certainly recommend these Gardens if you are ever in Rockford, Illinois.

May, 2018 – Utica, Illinois

The trip north to the Illinois River was along US 51, which was a good highway and merged with I-39 out of Bloomington.  Consequently, the 3 hour trip north was relatively easy and without incident.  Last week was our final COE campground for the rest of the summer and we were heading for the first of two state parks in Illinois.  We knew nothing about Starved Rock State Park, our first destination, except that it was along the Illinois River.  It turns out this is the most popular state park in Illinois with over 2 million visitors a year.  Of course, the proximity to Chicago is one reason, however, the site along the Illinois River is spectacular.  The Illinois River connects Chicago to the Mississippi and was a major reason for the growth of Chicago into the major inland port of the country it is today.  The I&M Canal bypassed this section of the river in the mid to late 19th century, but with the building of dams along the river it has once again become the main waterway out of Chicago.  Since the last Ice Age the Illinois River and its tributaries have been carving the river basin, which in this region was through some tough sandstone.  Consequently there a number of sandstone bluffs and canyons along the river.  The campground is located in between two of these canyons which means you have to access it from the flat farm land south of the river.  We did not know this and followed our GPS which took us to the Visitor Center along the river.  As you can guess this meant a winding drive down to the river and then back up under a low walking bridge that was just barely high enough to clear the RV!!  We could have turned right and missed all this if we had known better.  Once we got to the campground we found nobody at the entrance booth which had signs out that there was no vacancy.  Since this was just after noon on Memorial Day, we were concerned our site may not yet be opened and did not want to pull the RV into the campground to find out.  I therefore went looking for the campground host which turned into a half mile hike.  I finally found one of the campground host who’s only advice was to pull into the other loop where our site was and see if it was occupied since most of the people had already left.  In this she was correct, most of the Memorial Day campers had already left.  We found our site to be unoccupied, however, there were two problems.  First, there were no water hookups at any of the sites and we had not filled up our fresh water tank.  The water spigots we passed coming in did not have any way to attach a hose, so we were just going to have to use their single bathroom at the entrance to the loop for showers and haul water for dishes.  The second problem was that this is one of the most rustic sites we have stayed in.  This meant there was trees and brush right alongside the narrow paved road and both sides of the RV pad leaving very little room to maneuver.  Thankfully there was a campsite directly across the road which gave me a little room to swing the truck around and the site was angled to make it at least possible.  I was very proud of myself when I was able to angle the RV into the site on the first try and only had to pull forward a little bit to straighten it out.  I was able to back the RV into the site like a pro and we got set up with no problem.  This will be the first time we have stayed for a week without any water in the RV, it should be interesting.

Campsite

All we did on Tuesday was to take the short drive back to the Visitor Center to check it out and obtain a map of the trails in the park.  The weather was still very hot with temperatures in the low 90s and high humidity, so we decided to wait until later in the week for any hiking.  We were right in the crosshairs for the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto which would bring us rain and cooler temperatures on Wednesday.

As predicted Alberto did deliver rain on Wednesday, although the worst stayed off to the east.  However, since it was going to rain it was our day to visit a local casino.  The closest one was the Par-A-Dice Casino in Peoria, Illinois, just over an hour to the southwest.  So we headed out through the farmland of northern Illinois to try our luck.  The Par-A-Dice Casino is actually located on a ship tied up to a dock in the Illinois River.  It has four floors devoted to slot machines and gaming tables.  On-shore are the luxury hotel, shops, and restaurants.  Therefore, once you get onto the ship, there is nothing but gambling going on.  We had an enjoyable couple of hours playing the slot machines while it rained outside.  Thankfully, I hit a jackpot on the first slot machine we played and Kal won a couple of minor wins so we managed to lose only about half off our stake.

With the rain on Wednesday, the creeks should be flowing maximizing the view of the waterfalls in the park.  Therefore, we selected a couple of falls that were close together and away from the Visitor Center.  The trails were suppose to be easy and less than a mile in length from the trailhead.  We got an early start on Thursday and were the second car in the very small parking lot at the trailhead.  As advertised the trails were easy in the sense they were relatively flat.  However, the rains had turned them into muddy trails and the small creek coming out of the gorge was running full.  This trial gave access to two waterfalls up the Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons.  Before the trail split there was a neat geological feature known as the Council Overhang.  This is an impressive sandstone overhang about 30 feet high that was used by the Indians for thousands of years.  After crossing the creek without the benefit of a bridge of any kind and getting our boots covered in mud, we realized that the trail up Ottawa Canyon was completely flooded.  Since most of the water in the creek was coming own Ottawa Canyon, the trail up Kaskaskia Canyon relatively accessible.  It was still necessary to make our own trail up the side in a couple of places.  At the second location, Kal descended back down to the creek at a precarious looking slope that looked very slick, so I decided to continue on along the slope for a ways to another spot that looked safer.  However, the slope I was on proved to be a mistake as I went into a slide and tumbled the 6 feet back to the edge of the stream.  Except for mud on my arms and trousers, the only thing I injured was my pride.  We still had to cross the stream one more time across a couple of small branches that had washed down the stream and were quite slick.  I am probably making this sound a lot worse then it actually was and the waterfall at the end of the canyon was well worth the effort.  After resting a while on a log at the waterfall we headed back to the truck.  By this point it was not yet 10:00 in the morning and we had only hiked about a mile in distance.  So we decided to explore another trail to a couple of other canyons, although these were listed as overlooks which implied they were above the canyon.  These were Owl and Hidden Canyon.  The trail was more moderate with some steps and slight grades, but at least it was not walking through mud and jumping streams.  We saw some interesting canyons that we assume were Owl and Hidden Canyons, although without signs we could not be sure.  This hike added another 1.5 miles to our total for the day and we decided to call it.

We spent Friday and Saturday in the campground for the most part.  We both drove into Ottawa on Saturday to do our laundry and grocery shopping, but other than that just took it easy.

Sunday was our last day in the park and with the cold front that pushed away the tropical storm, the weather was finally more typical for this time of year and stayed in the 70s most of the day.  We decided to check out the signature trails of the park from the Visitor Center which included their namesake, Starved Rock.  In 1684, La Salle constructed the first Fort St. Louis on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River as a combination defensive fort and trading post for the growing fur trade between the French and local Indians.  It was to be the first of string of forts along the river to the Mississippi River.  Nothing of the fort remains today although archeological digs have verified its location.  Even though the wooden trail that circles the sandstone bluff does not include any old remains of the fort, you do get some great views of the Illinois River along with the dam and locks.  You can also see Plum Island, which is a bird sanctuary and is the winter home of a number of bald eagles. They have found that the turbulence of the dam keeps the river from freezing over and is a prime fishing habitat.  The trails from the Visitor Center are much better maintained, but are also much busier.  Especially since it was a beautiful Sunday day, there were hundreds of visitors out for a hike.  Since the hike up to Starved Rock is only 0.3 miles up a lot of stairs, we continued down the trail to French Canyon.  While the waterfall at the head of the canyon is not as spectacular as Kaskaskia, the sheer walls of the gorge leading up to the waterfalls is well worth the trip.  Once again, this side trip was only about another 0.25 miles, we continued on further to Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff Overlooks.  Once again this meant climbing over 200 steps to the top of the bluffs.  There are a number of nice overlooks of the river where we spent quite a bit of time attempting to get a good picture of what looked like pelicans just below the dam.  When we checked it out once we got back to the campsite, I am convinced they were White Pelicans since we are just barely within the migratory route on their way to Canada for the summer.  By this point, we had both had enough of climbing stairs and even though we had only hiked about 1.5 miles we headed back to the campsite.  Without realizing it when I made the reservations, it turned out we stayed at probably the best place to see one of the greatest natural wonders in Illinois.  The Illinois River cuts a wide swath through the flat farm fields of northern Illinois creating some spectacular sandstone gorges.  While I was not thrilled with the campgrounds, I would certainly recommend this as a place to visit.

May, 2018 – Shelbyville, Illinois

Since the trip north to central Illinois was mostly along Interstates, there is not much to report on, except it is nice to have a rest stop about half way.  Except for the fact that Interstates take us far to close to large cities, they are great for bypassing all the small towns and providing rest stops about every hour.  We were a little apprehensive about our next stop since I was not able to get reservations for the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend.  However, there are 4 COE campgrounds around the shore of Lake Shelbyville and since all of them had first-come, first-served sites we should be able to find something.  Especially since we travel on Monday we should have our choice of a number of sites.  We pulled into the closest COE campground to Shelbyville, Opossum Campground, to check it out first and as we hoped they had plenty of first-come, first-serve campsites to choose from.  We looked over the choices carefully, since my sister and two of her grandkids would be joining us for the week and we needed a place wide enough for two vehicles and a grassy spot to set up the tent.  There were two sites that would work well for our purposes and we choose the one easier to back into.  I was able to back in the RV with no problem and except for going to store to stock up on food for the week, we relaxed for the afternoon.Campsite

On Tuesday, Kal headed into Shelbyville to find a laundramat since it had been over a week since we cleaned our clothes due to the water shortage last week.  While she did this, I did a complete clean of the RV and we sat and waited for Suzy to show up.  They rolled in around 3 in the afternoon and we proceeded to set up the tent and our new dining fly.  After a nice dinner we spent an enjoyable evening with her family.

For the week, I had only one request and that was to visit the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois.  So we packed up a picnic lunch and drove over the Springfield on Wednesday to check it out.  We arrived early enough to find a parking space in their small parking lot outside of the Visitor Center in downtown Springfield.  When Abraham Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837 it was a small town that had just became the new Illinois State Capitol.  He married Mary Todd in 1842 and soon began a family and bought the only house he would own on the corner of Eighth and Jackson in 1844.  His family continued to grow and so did the house with additions to the ground floor and expansion of the second floor to a complete two story house in 1856.  When Lincoln was elected as the 16th President in 1860, they rented the house with expectations of returning after his time in D.C.   However, he was assassinated early in his second term and the family never returned to Springfield.  Unfortunately they either sold or put in storage most of the household furnishings so nearly all of the furnishings are period pieces or reproductions.  The house itself is in amazing condition as it has been preserved as a national shrine.  Even though Lincoln’s son, Robert, continued to rent the house, there were thousands of visitors every year.  Robert donated the house to the state in 1887 under the condition that they never charged for tours.  In 1971 the state gave it to the Federal Government and it became a National Historic Site under the same condition.  Therefore, the tour of the house is free, however, the NPS has found a way to charge admission.  It costs $2/hour to park in their parking lot!!  This is the first National Park we have ever had to pay for parking.  Over the years the NPS has purchased the 4.5 blocks surrounding the house totaling 12 acres and has worked to preserve and restore the homes still existing to their 1860 condition.  The tree lined streets paved with gravel and old homes can give you a sense of life in the 1860s, except for the mud and random livestock cohabiting with the citizens.  We had a great tour guide that grew up in Springfield and knew a lot about the town and Lincoln’s home.  The only surprising thing about Lincoln’s home was that he and Mary had adjoining bedrooms.  While this may seem odd, it was actually a status symbol of the times.  Since most families lived in one or two room homes, it was considered a great luxury to own enough space to have separate rooms with the privacy this provides.  In addition to Lincoln’s home there are two other homes open to the public, the other homes are still in the process of renovation and are being used for office space or storage.  In addition to the history of occupancy of each home, there are exhibits about how the building style is used to age any additions to the homes and the history of Springfield.  After spending over two hours touring the area, we had a nice picnic lunch on the tables provided for this purpose at the Visitor Center.

It was strongly recommended that we also visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  Since it was only 5 city blocks away and we had already paid for the parking, we decided to walk to it.  Unfortunately, the 90+ degree temperatures made this a questionable choice.  However, it did allow us the opportunity to walk past the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, which was closed at the time for major renovation.  We did get some pictures of the outside, however.  It turns out that the Library and Museum are separate buildings across the street from each other.  Both are open to the public, but most visitors spend their time in the museum and since we only had a few hours we elected to do the same.  The Lincoln Museum does not look all that impressive from the central rotunda you enter into, however, this was misleading.  It is broken up in five main galleries, two for their permanent exhibits, two for theaters, and a temporary exhibit.  Since our time was limited we skipped the temporary exhibit that highlighted the Illinois Presidents from Lincoln to Obama and spent our time in the permanent exhibits and theaters.  We wanted to hit the 3:00 showing of the 3-D theater, which left us just 45 minutes to explore the other exhibits.  The two permanent exhibits are divided into the time period prior to Lincoln’s Presidency and his time as President.  The exhibits do a great job of winding their way through his life with a mixture of life-sized dioramas, artifacts, and interpretive signs.  We were already familiar with Lincoln’s childhood from last spring, so we quickly moved through these areas.  However, I got stuck studying his political career leading up and through his election of President.  I was not aware that he was elected to the US House of Representative for a single term in 1847 and was so disgusted with the political system that he left the political scene and went back to his very successful law practice.  However, when Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas became the architect of the Compromise of 1850 he decided to challenge him for his Senate seat in 1856.  Among other outcomes, like the Fugitive Slave Act that made it illegal to assist escaped slaves even in the free states, the Compromise of 1850 led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This Act essentially overturned the Missouri Compromise allowing each state to decide on slavery when they became a state.  This issue was the central issue of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates held all over the state during the campaign.  Although Lincoln lost this election, he attained national recognition that was instrumental is securing the nomination of the new Republican Party in 1860.  While the second permanent exhibit about his Presidency was just as well done, I spent what time I had left studying the political cartoons that defined the many controversies he faced and the ups and downs of the Civil War.  I have to admit I could not figure out all of the cartoons, but it was fun to try.  All too soon, we had to run through the rest of the exhibit to the “Ghosts of the Library” presentation.  This is a 3-D presentation unlike anything I have ever seen.  Somehow they are able to present a 3-D show to everyone in the audience without the need for glasses.  Of course, things don’t come flying out at you, but the actor and the stage looked completely real!!  It was a presentation by a curator of the Presidential Library talking about the importance of history and what they do to preserve and study history in the library.  The best part was at the end when he puts on a Union coat and begins to talk as if he were the soldier in the battle.  The stage slowly changes into the battlefield itself and eventually he fades out and all of it looks completely real!  Amazing.  From this presentation we quickly crossed the rotunda to the other theater.  This was a more standard multi-media presentation that was also well done.  It featured an artist attempting to understand the man behind the legend through a series of images shown in various ways.  The highlight of the show was when cannons popped out of the walls along the sides of the theater and shot smoke rings over the audience while the sounds and seats rocked to the explosions.  Pretty cool.  By this point it was nearing 5 so we walked back to our cars and headed back to Shelbyville.  It was late enough that we decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant along the way.

Due to the long day on Wednesday, we did not get an early start on Thursday and it quickly became to hot to go for a hike as we intended.  Therefore, we just stayed in the campground all day.  We managed to keep the grandkids entertained with card games, video games on my Playstation, bike riding around the campground, and swimming in Lake Shelbyville.  I only had one problem with them so much time in the RV.  Twice they managed to kick the small table I use to hold my drink and both times spilled coke on our rug.  After the second time, I moved the small table into the bedroom and we had no more issues.  They did clean up the spill and were helpful all week with keeping the RV clean, doing dishes and taking the trash to the dumpster.

We got an earlier start on Friday and by 9:00 we were on our way to a hiking trail on COE land near the campground.  We choose a 1.8 mile loop trail through the Illinois mixed Oak-Hickory forests that was suppose to be easy to moderate in difficulty.  In the cool shade under the trees the hike was pleasant. Kal had the duty of trying to keep the youngest within sight especially since my sister and I had to stop multiple times to rest her feet and my hip.  The only problem with the hike is that we missed the fact that there was a 0.7 mile trip along the edge of a field to get to the loop in the first place.  While this hike in the sun was not too bad in the early morning, by the time we had to hike it again to get back to the car was brutal in the hot sun.  What was suppose to be a 2 mile hike in the woods turned out to be over 3 miles and more of a challenge then we figured on.  We were all still glad we made the hike, especially the two grandkids.

Friday was another day in the campgrounds playing games and visiting with my sister and her family.

As Saturday was the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend, I thought we would spend the day taking in some of the planned activities in the 4 COE campgrounds.  However, nearly all of the activities were for young kids and did not interest either of Suzy’s teenage grandkids.  So we spent another day relaxing in the campground until 3:00 when we decided to check out the free dam tours the Corps was offering over the weekend.  After driving over to the Shelbyville Dam we found out that there was only a single tour each day and we had missed it.  So we signed up for the tour on Sunday and spent a little time checking out the history of the lake in the Visitor Center.

Sunday was another relaxing day in the campground until 2:30 when we once again headed over to the dam tour.  After spending some time in the Visitor Center listening to a brief history of the dam and what we would be seeing on the tour, we were given the option of watching an extended Powerpoint presentation since we would likely get rained on.  Most of the people on the tour decided to brave the weather, which turned out to be the correct decision as the thunderstorm stayed off to the west.  Most of the tour was along the catwalk suspended over the upper gates under the road that goes over the dam.  We had some great views of Lake Shelbyville and the Kaskaskia River from this vantage point, as well as, looking down on the upper gates.  We also got a quick tour of the control room, which is quite small and mostly for storage of measuring equipment.  It is not surprising that it does not take very many controls to raise and lower the 3 upper and 3 lower gates.  A total of 6 controls in all!!  Each being only up or down, although the upper gates do have multiple heights to control the flow.  The lower gates are either open or closed.  The entire tour took about an hour and was pretty neat since it is the only time I have ever been able to look at a dam up close.

In total, I must admit this was a GREAT week with my sister and two of her grandkids.  We greatly enjoyed their company and they did not cause any problems at all.  The two kids got along great all week and helped out as much as they could.  If you have been following this blog, then you know that over the past 4 years we have visited them for extended periods when we passed by Maryville, Tennessee.  These visits were not only nice, but also gave us the opportunity to get the RV services at Tri-Am where we bought it in the first place.  However, not our travels are too far west to be visiting them again, at least with the RV.  So it is great that they are interested in coming to visit us.  We hope to see them again at their next opportunity when we are in the vicinity of Memphis this fall.