I rolled out of bed the morning of my 52nd birthday feeling the usual familiar pains in my left foot and lower backside. But I truly felt no older than I had felt the year before, and actually felt quite younger than those first shocking moments of turning 50 – which really was not so bad after all. Folks decades older, I am sure, would think of such thoughts as ridiculous folly. For my birthday gift, I chose a hike with my wife Julie on the Illinois River bluffs at Forest Park South Nature Preserve.
As I dressed, in my mind’s eye I contrasted the view from the back door of our Mason County home, a rather flat to gently rolling countryside, with the rugged bluffs at Peoria that abruptly rise some 200 feet above the river; the bluffs more resemble foothills of the Missouri Ozarks than central Illinois’ agricultural landscape. From Havana, we followed the river bluffs in a northeasterly direction just beyond Peoria to the Forest Park Nature Center. Then without delay, we began our hike to the bluff tops; it was a steep hike at times, and I had to favor my right knee, for a moment feeling older than my years, lest I cause aggravation of an old injury. Just as we entered the woods, I heard a white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, and black-capped chick-a-dee, and I knew that we were in the midst of a mixed-species flock of birds foraging their way through the forest, looking for insects in crevices of tree bark or snapping up an occasional seed or berry. In a moment, there was a brown creeper and downy woodpecker, all part of the diffuse flock.
Part way to the top of the bluff we sat and rested upon a large boulder, listening and watching the birds moving onward. The boulder was certainly a hard seat, but it reminded me that the river bluffs were actually formed thousands of years ago at the edge of a great glacier that grinded across the land from the top of the world, that reached all the way around the earth’s northern hemisphere to Siberia. The glacier ended at Peoria where it melted at the same rate as it moved forward for thousands of years, dropping rocks, boulders, gravel, and sand onto a terminal moraine like a giant conveyor belt. The boulder we rested on, in fact, was once probably in Canada.
After a few minutes, we continued our hike to the bluff top. Once reaching the ridge, the trail was more level and the hike was easier. I recalled from a previous hike on this trail encountering an elderly gentleman walking with a cane, and I thought that if I could do the same in a few decades, I would feel satisfied, to say nothing of feeling extremely fortunate.
We enjoyed walking through the mature oak-hickory forest, noticing signs of its struggle against being overtaken by sugar maple and ironwood trees. Some of the oldest oak trees have experienced heart rot, a typical condition for old trees, and have fallen or lost large branches in recent wind and ice storms. The fallen trees were old before I was born, but as long as their seedlings survive to reach the canopy, future forests will be maintained with the same species assemblage and resemble today’s forest, though the actual canopy trees will likely be different individuals.
Eventually the trail entered an open area, part woodland and part prairie, that may be termed a savanna or barrens. The prairie opening follows the ridge line, especially on the south- and southwestern-facing slopes. Here I expected to see red-headed woodpeckers, who thrive in such habitats, but the woodpeckers were elusive or absent. From out vantage point at the prairie, we had an unobstructed view of a portion of upper Peoria Lake, which fills the river valley. Even with the beautiful view, I found it impossible to look upon the lake and not recall its many intractable environmental problems, not the least of which is the lake’s loss of depth due to siltation from watershed erosion. With recent heavy and frequent rains, the tributaries were all running high and muddy, and Peoria Lake has less volume with every passing day. How long this may continue, I do not know, but I hope that the day may not come within my lifetime for the lake to be shallow enough for black willow trees to survive, vanguards of a floodplain forest, where now there is only open water.
At the edge of the prairie opening, Julie and I sat on our favorite bench for a few minutes and watched a soaring red-tailed hawk. Several homes along Grandview Drive were visible from the bench, and I thought that any of those houses may not be a bad place to live; I wondered if we were being watched.
Before too long, we took the distant approach of two hikers as a signal to leave, and began our return hike. At our last view of the barrens opening, I stopped to look backward, to fix the view upon my mind, thinking about when I might return – hopefully many times over many healthful years. And I turned to Julie who said, "The hike felt good." Indeed, it did.