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.

May, 2018 – Benton, Illinois

For the first time in this year, we entered a state we had not visited before, Illinois.  Whereas we expected to see a lot of open farmland, this is not the case for southern Illinois.  We did see a few farms traveling from Kentucky, but for the most part it was still the rolling woods we saw last week.  The trip up to Rend Lake outside of Benton, Illinois was mostly up Interstate 24 and 57 which made for an easy trip with rest stops along the way.  We had a little trouble finding the campground initially, since our GPS took us to the beach area instead of the campground.  After asking some locals we found out we needed to get turned around, which was no problem in this very large and empty parking lot, and continue north on the county road another mile or so to the campground.  From there we had no problem finding South Sandusky Campground, another COE campground this time on a lake.  I had reserved one of the few pull-through sites in the campground so Kal was able to park the RV with no problem, which was a LOT better then the nightmare I had last week.  We got hooked up and settled in with no problem for our first week in Illinois.Campsite

We were interested to see some of the oak-hickory forests in southern Illinois, so on Tuesday we headed southwest to Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.  This is a large refuge of over 44,000 acres, mostly for the management of migratory waterfowl.  They also have a nice Visitor Center, which was being used that day for some kind of program for very young children.  Although the parking lot was virtually empty when we got there, it was completely filled with parents and their pre-school kids by the time we left the Center.  We had an interesting conversation with the NWR staff as we compared this refuge with others we have visited.  Crab Orchard is very unique in the NWR system as its mission includes not only the management of wildlife habitat, but also agriculture, recreation, and industry!  The refuge was established in 1947 following the Second World War, where it was the location of a major munitions factory.  Obviously the factory shut down following the war and many of the locals employed by the factory found themselves unemployed.  Therefore, the Fish and Wildlife Service was charged with allowing compatible industries to convert the munitions factory to provide local employment.  While I don’t know the entire history it was still part of their mission and General Dynamics still uses some of the WWII buildings today.  In addition, it is one of the few NWR that manages campgrounds and recreational facilities around Crab Orchard Lake, the largest body of water on the refuge.  It made for an interesting management strategy that is much more multi-use then normal.  They do have a number of interesting hiking trails open to the public, however, we decided not to try the 2.2 mile Rocky Bluff Trail, which is their more popular trail due to the steep rocky condition along the trail.  We would miss the sandstone cliffs and intermittent waterfall in favor of easier trails in the 90+ degree heat of an early summer in Illinois.  Temperatures this time of year are suppose to be in the low to mid-80s, which would have been more likely to improve our interest in more challenging hikes.  Therefore, we took an easy hike along one side of Visitor’s Lake at the Visitor Center.  After a false start along the dam of the lake that added a half mile to our hike, we enjoyed the easy 0.7 mile paved loop trail at the Visitor Center.  From there we headed to their Harmony Trail, which was close to the Visitor Center, and consisted of another easy walk through the woods to an observation blind overlooking a small marshy area.  It was suppose to be a 0.8 mile loop, but half of the loop was closed due to recent storm damage, but we enjoyed the part we could hike.  I was surprised to see that the beginning of the trail was through a mid-rotation stand of loblolly pine, which I did not realize we would see until I read in the brochure this was an old plantation.  Although the pine needles on the trail made the hike easier, I was more interested in seeing the native oak-hickory forests of the area.

After this hike, it was starting to get very hot, so we decided to check out a 2-mile loop road to the shores of Crab Orchard Lake.  Unlike other driving tours in wildlife refuges, this drive did not have places you could pull over to view the wildlife.  In fact, the road was quite busy with traffic to and from the General Dynamics buildings in the center of the loop.  The road actually circled around the old munitions factory and you can still see many of the buildings from the time period being overgrown by the vegetation.  It would have been nice if they provided some interpretive signs explaining what you could see.  We understood that there are quite a number of concrete bunkers scattered around the restricted area of the refuge.  In any case, the road did lead to a very nice picnic area on the shores of Crab Orchard Lake where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch watching the families of Canadian Geese eating grass seeds.  By the time we finished our lunch, it was too hot to seriously think of any more hikes, so we headed back early to the campgrounds.CanadianGeese

Wednesday and Thursday were again so warm that we decided to just hang out in the campgrounds where we at least had some shade.  I spent some time working on this blog for the previous week and making reservations in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for July.  Thankfully there were some late afternoon thunderstorms that helped cool it down, although we did not get much rain from them.  About mid-day Wednesday, the campground host drove by to tell us we needed to boil our water due to a problem in the campgrounds caused by installing a new water line to one of the other loops.  This was just to be safe as we should continue to have water.  However, by that evening we had no water pressure at all and we learned on the news that there had been a major break in the water supply out of Rend Lake and a four county area was without water.  Since it could be 48 hours before we would have any water at all, Kal went to the store to purchase what she could since we don’t normally fill our fresh water tank.  By the time she got to the store, they were sold out of water, so all she could get was some flavored seltzer water, which would be interesting to do anything with but drink if we had to.  Thankfully, due to local problem in the campground earlier we had already filled up all the drink containers we had and so had a little water to wash dishes with.  However, there would definitely be no showers for the foreseeable future.  Thankfully, they fixed the main water supply over night and we started to have some water pressure on Thursday.  We still had to boil our water to wash dishes with and by Sunday they said it was safe enough to shower with.  So it turned out to be little more than an inconvenience as we had to boil any water we wanted to drink and had to delay our showers.  It was good that we had sufficient clean clothes that we could wait until the next week to do the laundry and I suspect the laundramats in town were closed through the weekend.

Friday morning we did get out and explored one of the hiking trails close to the campgrounds, their Blackberry Nature Trail.  This turned out to be a nice easy trail of about a mile in length.  They had a series of number posts along the trail that I assume would have been interesting if we had a brochure for the trail.  Without that we just had a short hike through the Oak-Hickory-Maple forest.  There was more shagbark hickory along this trail then I have ever seen in one place before.  We tried to extend the hike by walking up a woods road, but when after 0.25 miles it ended at a fence surrounding a sewage treatment pond, we decided we were done with this hike.  Since we were within shouting distance of the campgrounds, it made for a very quick day.