A few Saturday mornings ago I decided the cabin fever had reached an intolerable level so I put the dog (Wrigley) in the truck and we headed to Starved Rock State Park for a hike to the St. Louis Canyon Icefall. It was about 15° but Wrigley seems unfazed by weather above 0°F and I had layered well, so it wasn't a deterrent. Additionally, there was no wind at all, and it even was lightly snowing. It was actually quite a nice day!
My original plans were to park at the canyon parking lot, a 10-minute hike from the canyons. I was hoping to get there before anyone else so I could get some pictures without worrying about people being in them. As I pulled up to the road to the parking lot, I noticed the gates were still locked. I waited a few minutes, since it was almost 9:00 and I didn't know the winter ours. At 9:00 there was still no sign of anyone, so I set off for the Visitor Center. The park ranger there notified me that due to budget cuts he was the only ranger on duty and he only had one other employee to plow everything. He couldn't tell me when the road would be accesible so I decised to park by the Lodge and hike to the canyon from there, a trip of about 35 minutes. We set off with me hoping I'd get there before the guy opened the lot.
The trip is about 35 minutes, If the trail isn't completely covered in ice with a nice fluffy inch or two of fresh snow on top of it. This was going to be a bit tougher than I thought! After about 5 minutes it became obvious that I needed to stop and attach my YakTrax to my boots. I couldn't get any traction at all without them, and there are some pretty steep areas, inviting several opportunities to end up on my ass.
We continued on, no tracks in front of us except for the occasinal rabbit or deer. We finally reached the canyon entrance. I had forgotten that as you enter you have to take a bit of a right turn. For a quick minute I thought there wouldn't be any falls. A few more feet I turned the corner and there it was...
It had snowed last night/this morning, and I was the first one here! It far exceeded my expectations. I had been here before in winter but the falls were never this well formed.
We spent a good 15-20 minutes there and started heading back. A few minutes later, YakTrax attached, I went down. Wrigley turned around, looked at me as if to say "WHAT is your problem today?", and licked my face. I got up, nothing hurt, and we went on. About half way back we finally encountered the only two people we would see on the trail the whole day. We chatted a few minutes and let Wrigley get the "OMG OMG PEOPLE!!!!" out of her system. I warned them of the extremely slippery conditions that await them and we parted ways.
Once back by the lodge it became apparent what everyone was there for that morning, and it wasn't hiking. The overlooks of the Illinois River were PACKED. People were looking for Bald Eagles. I had always heard that this area was a good place to see them during the winter, but expected it to be a "maybe you will see one if you're lucky" type of deal. A woman pointed out to her child where to look through the binoculars because there was 3 in a tree, and I could see them with the naked eye, but barely. Still, it was very cool and something I had not expected.
We made it back to the truck and headed to the state road which leads back to the interstate. As I crossed the bridge over the Illinois River I noticed a sign saying to turn at the next right for a "Wildlife Viewing Area". I decided to check it out. A few miles later I came up to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, located right by a dam. It turns out that the area right by the dam does not freeze and fish like to hang out there. Bald Eagles eat fish. As soon as I parked, it was apparent that my "maybe you'll see one if you're lucky" theory was very very wrong...
Yes, that is probably 20 Bald Eagles. In one tree. The difficult part was because it's so close to the dam, there is a 8 foot high chain-link fence, which makes photographing them a bit of a challenge.
I set my camera to a burst mode and took about 200 blind shots, hoping to get one or two good ones. After 20 minutes or so I decided it was time to head home. As I was leaving the parking lot I looked across the road and spotted a loner:
I wasn't getting better any than that today!
Here's the whole set. As always, clicking one will launch a viewer.