Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hiking the Polar Vortex

The story of "Starved Rock" has its genesis in the late 18th century skirmish between the Ottawa and Illiniwek Indians. Following the murder of Ottawa Chief Pontiac by an Illiniwek, the story goes, the Ottawa pursued, encircling the fleeing Illiniwek who attempted to find sanctuary on the flat top of a large sandstone rock formation on the south side of the Illinois River. The Ottawa simply waited below the rock until the stranded Illiniwek died of hunger, thus exacting revenge without shedding a drop of blood. The story is apocryphal, but the name, however it came to be, lives on. That's the eponymous rock (really an eroded bluff) rising 200 feet above the trees there in Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Illinois.
The geologic history is better documented; the St. Peter sandstone formations that by happy cataclysmic accident survived the flattening glaciers that steam-rolled the rest of northern Illinois are what make for the park's interesting scenery and our sweet little winter hike to the origin of Ottawa "Canyon" one sunny, frigid January day.
The trail starts across the road from the river. It doesn't look too fun or safe...
Oddly, the otherwise nearly comprehensive the sign doesn't warn about dressing properly for conditions. 
But in fact, properly attired, it's a (mostly*) easy, lovely walk even in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, the naked trees admitting the slanting winter light. Must be equally beautiful in every season, each in its own way.
Before long we came to the first landmark, Council Overhang, described as a natural amphitheater. It's quite spectacular, decorated as it is with veins of dark yellow rock. I'm guessing the ceiling may have been blackened by fires -- man-made --- under its sheltering roof.
The cliffs of the canyon -- the very soft yellow-banded St. Peter limestone -- arise steeply only to the west.
To the east, that it is a canyon is only suggested by gentle tree-covered rises.
There were others hiking that day as well.
We never saw the red foxes that left their footprints to tantalize us.
An eighth of a mile beyond the Overhang we reached the end of the little trail marked by a most dramatic frozen waterfall.
I don't know how high it is, but given that KLK (to the left, on the bank of the creek) is 6 feet tall, it looks to be about 40 or 45 feet top to bottom. The shallow creek fed by the falls was frozen so we could easily walk under it.
Looking out from the canyon, with the falls at our back, was beautiful in the winter light, too.
*While this little walk on the snowy trail and frozen creek was quite safe overall, on the way back from the falls, on a short, steep rise leading back to Council Overhang, we found our boots absolutely could not gain purchase on the frozen trail. Nor were there bushes or trees, nothing but the sheer limestone wall on one side, to grab to pull ourselves up. It was really quite ridiculous (and probably hilarious to anyone watching our little drama) but there was no way to ascend. Happily an outdoorsman came along the trail above us and when he saw our predicament, smartly got down on all fours and extended an arm for each of us in turn to grab onto. All's well that ends well, we made it back to blog about!

1 comment:

  1. What a spectacularly wonderful winter hike with history, geology and daring do to go along. It makes me feel somewhat amiss that this winters health issues and cold and very deep snow prevented me from similar outings here in equally unglaciated "Bluff Country i.e. southeast Minnesota...: