Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bounding for Badgerland 2014

Departing far northern Mississippi, we made short work of Tennessee (including breakfast at a Perkins) and western Kentucky, arriving by mid afternoon at the Hilltop Campground outside Goreville, Illinois, 230 miles later.
We’re never entirely sure who we’ll run into as we travel but our stop at Hilltop seems to always coincide with when Jerry and Karen Smith are there. This year was no exception. The tradition remained unbroken.
Aside from catching up with the Smiths, our stops at Hilltop over the years have always involve two sure things. A visit (or visits) to Ferne Clyffe State Park where the birding during migration can be stellar, and, a pilgrimage to what has become our favorite winery in southern Illinois, Owl Creek Vineyard.

our site at Hilltop
But first up was a late afternoon happy hour with Karen and Jerry. We spent much time getting caught up on mostly birding topics. In past years we’ve all wintered together in south Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, but this year, having broken with that tradition, we had instead wintered in central Florida. Lots of good natured banter about differences in birding between Florida and Texas…and we have to say, when it comes to sheer numbers of bird species when padding one’s annual bird list, Texas wins hands down.

as the state park's name implies - ye olde Ferne Clyffe
Something else had crossed our minds as well. Our stops in southern Illinois have given us pause to rethink how we experience the cycle of winter to spring. After years of winter in Wisconsin, we now spend winter in a much milder southern climate. This has resulted in our perceptions of the coldest season of the year being more and more at odds with what are becoming distant memories of landscapes locked in white. The cycle of winter into spring still exists - we’re simply seeing it in an entirely different light.

on the Round Bluff Nature Preserve trail
We no longer witness winter in black and white. And because we no longer do, there are a few trades offs to be acknowledged. One is that we miss the anticipation and joy of hearing the first male red-winged blackbird song bursting forth signaling that a Wisconsin winter’s icy grip has been broken. As any true lover of nature understands, the red-winged blackbird (not the American robin) is the true harbinger of Spring.
On the other hand we now witness the red-winged's northward departure from their wintering grounds whereas before, we witnessed their southerly departure out of Wisconsin. The seasons are, from our perspective, upside down.
But that’s not a negative as far as we’re concerned. Instead of waiting for spring to burst forth amid melting snows and winter’s hush, we’re simply following spring as it spreads northward. And in southern Illinois in April, that’s where we found ourselves - smack in the middle of spring.

hiking wit the Smiths at Ferne Clyffe SP
Early the next morning we set out for Ferne Clyffe State Park. Recent rains had made slick some of the trails but who could complain about muddy boots when so much was, forgive the pun, springing up all around us? Hues of flowering dogwood, redbud, serviceberry, spicebush, sumac, sweetgum, maple, oak, and hickory. Woodland wildflowers of dutchman's breeches, Jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, spring beauty, and trout lily were awakening. Songs of spring from wood thrush, Louisiana waterthrush, white-throated sparrow, warbling vireo, golden-winged warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, and Acadian flycatcher.

Ferne Clyffe
And what better way to salute spring than to toast its arrival than with a raised glass of wine (or two) at Owl Creek Vineyard? We’ve become such regulars (as regular as our once annual visit allows) that the staff actually remember and recognize us. But first a wine tasting of the year’s labor, then a sit-down glass of Owl’s Leap. “Reminiscent of a spicy Shiraz, the Chambourcin grape has a black pepper aroma and flavors with anise and clove. There are also hints of plum, black cherry and in exceptional years a bright jammy fruitiness.”  Indeed, that’s exactly how it tasted. And made even more enjoyable when combined with an assortment of cheeses (super sharp cheddar, marblette, and pepper jack), along with summer sausage and sesame seed crackers. Or perhaps warm Italian bread and spiced olive oil?

Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!
 - Thomas Blackburn

Jerry and Karen Smith and Carol and Tom
Or as Robin Williams so succinctly said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, "Let’s party!"

Re-energized and refortified after our hike at Ferne Clyffe, we wasted little time heading over to Crab Orchard NWR, a 44,000 acre refuge well known as a significant resting area for migratory birds utilizing the Mississippi Flyway. It was now late afternoon and the visitor center was on the verge of closing for the day. However, the young woman on staff noticed Tom’s Lake Woodruff NWR cap and had all kinds of questions about our experiences volunteering at a NWR. She suggested we try hiking the Woodland Trail, an easy partially paved trail that includes two fishing pier overlooks of Visitor’s Pond. But being late in the afternoon, not much was going on at this location so we headed off to the 1,200 acre Little Grassy Lake section of the refuge where there was more open grassland and mixed hardwood woodlots. What might some roadside birding produce? Our answers came in the form of eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissels and singing/perched bobwhite quail.
A busy day to be sure but there was one last stop to be made before heading back to the RV. Pizza at Walt’s in Marion, a “southern Illinois favorite since 1977”. Well, the pizza was OK - nothing like what we’d find at the Stone Cellar in Appleton - but it capped off a great day of hiking and birding with good friends…plus there were no dishes to clean up afterward.

Our second day at Hilltop was far more mundane. Laundry, grocery shopping and helping Jerry wrangle with a computer problem (a perennial task). More drinks late in the afternoon with the hopes we might run into the Smiths again while we’re in Wisconsin.
Leaving southern Illinois behind we set our GPS for Utica and the Hickory Hollow Campground. Traveling in central and northern Illinois would be unbearable were it not for audible books and what has become another traditional stop along Highway 51, breakfast at Joyce’s Cafe in Vernon, IL, population 178. One day, we mused, we should really make an effort to stop in Springfield and spend a day at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Hickory Hollow Campground - a trusted easy in and easy out pull-thru site. We didn’t unhook as we would be wanting to get an early start the next morning. By this time, even most of the tree buds were noticeably absent. It seems that we had gotten ahead of spring. No snow on the ground but clearly, it hadn’t been long before reaching the Utica area that the snows had only recently departed. The absence of spring activity, however, we knew would only be temporary. Counting our lucky stars, we’d experience spring twice in the same year.
Hickory Hollow RV park has been a reliable stop in the past as it puts us within striking distance of reaching Dale, WI within an uncomplicated day’s drive. With our feet in the starting chocks and our end goal of Dale clearly in sight, we bolted for the Wisconsin border, along with our red-winged blackbird traveling companions.

No comments:

Post a Comment