Weekend Roving: Gander Mountain (late spring)

IMG_0649James and I celebrated a very special occasion, recently: our first wedding anniversary. Oddly, we never really discussed any plans for celebrating our day and — as the big day grew closer and closer — I think we mutually decided to let the celebration develop on its own. We’re not really into overzealous gift-giving, and the idea of picking one day on the calendar to celebrate the entirety of our relationship seemed a bit trite, honestly.

We made a nice, cheery breakfast for ourselves (recipe forthcoming) and enjoyed it while sitting out on the balcony, listening to the rare quiet of a Sunday morning. After breakfast was cleared away, the dishes were taken care of, and the balcony garden was thoroughly watered, we started to toss around ideas for ways to celebrate.

I suggested we get out into the sunshine and maybe go for a bike ride or a hike. But where? We took out our Lake and Cook County Forest Preserve map and started researching where we might go. Here I have to confess that IMG_4906we loathe loading our bikes onto the car and driving somewhere in order to have a nice long bike ride. I’m not sure if it’s the physical exertion of retrieving the bikes from the basement and then heaving them onto the loathsome bike rack that’s the issue or if it’s really just the seeming ridiculousness of the act — not unlike driving across town to go to a gym where you’ll merely watch TV while jogging. In so many ways, it just doesn’t seem worth it if we can’t walk out the door and start the bike ride.

So, since we weren’t in the mood for the local biking trail options and we’ve thoroughly explored a 10-mile radius or more of our apartment on foot, we decided to look into interesting hiking options that didn’t involve a long commute.

That’s when we found Gander Mountain Forest Preserve. There wasn’t a lot of information to be found about the preserve from the official website, but we did come across a very enthusiastic and detailed report from a fellow hiker. After reading his description of the hiking trails and the views from the peak, we decided to give it a shot.

The drive through northern suburbia is always a mixed bag of entertainment. To keep it interesting, James allowed me to select a “road-less-traveled” route to get to Gander Mountain. I deliberately selected highways that traveled through areas we’ve seldom or have never seen. After all, Target, Wal-Mart, and Home Depot get pretty monotonous on freeway travel, these days — you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Highways are some of my favorite things — even though they sometimes involve annoying intersections or big box stores. I made sure to steer us near one of Illinois’ more famous state parks (Chain O’ Lakes) so that we had a good back-up plan if Gander Mountain was a bust.

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Upon arriving at Gander Mountain, we could tell it was a very modest place. There was virtually nowhere to park (not that we hadn’t been warned of that) and the trails were more or less mowed or merely worn into the IMG_3711ground rather than the well-marked trails we’re more accustomed to. Still, though, this made our little hike seem tons more adventurous!

One of the things that immediately shocked me about the preserve was the sheer amount of plant diversity. A common problem that we don’t often consider in “wild” areas is invasive plant species. Thanks to the accidental introduction of non-native plant species from home gardens or from general recklessness, many so-called natural areas can become shadows of their former selves; native plants sometimes being no match for invasive species. Here, though, thanks to the efforts of many organizations and dedicated individuals, a tiny gem of ecology is being restored and preserved for future generations.

IMG_3698So many plants — native and non-native — were in bloom for our hike that it was irresistible to try to capture photos of all of them. Once we got home, I did my homework by identifying some of them. One of the first plants to capture my attention was a large, Dandelion-like flower. I loved its name: Meadow Salsify (plant names so seldom sound like verbs). I also loved how — like the Dandelion — the plant is not only beautiful but edible. Though much larger than the Dandelion, the flowers of Salsify also turn into giant globes of feathery seeds which are spread by the wind.

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Boastfully, I correctly identified an herb after having only seen it in an herb compendium: Yarrow. Yarrow is a very useful medicinal herb — not to mention a pretty flower to have around. The leaves are delicate and fern-like with millions of little facets that appear like little leaves; thus its Latin name Achillea millefolium. For millennia, Yarrow has been prized as a topical healer of wounds — it’s an astringent and it stops bleeding. But, it’s also tasty in a tea that reduces fever and stimulates appetite. In general, it’s often combined with other medicinal herbs as a sort of “cure all”.

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Red Clover was peppered in all along the meadows and grassy areas we walked through. The flowers make a sweet-tasting tea useful in supporting your liver and cleansing the blood. The tea is also a traditional treatment of bronchitis and similar respiratory issues. Of course, honeybees also make good use of Red Clover, busily turning it into one of my favorite things (honey). In case you were wondering, I did not actually gather any of these flowers or herbs on our hike. Though it was tempting, I prefer to “take only pictures and leave only footprints”.

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Along the way, we also saw some beautiful wildflowers we were already acquainted with, but maybe weren’t aware that they also bloomed in white: Blue Spiderwort, White Spiderwort, and White Lupine. I was especially grateful to finally know the proper name of Spiderwort since I’d often seen it in my great-grandfather’s garden but never really knew what it was.

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At first, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the hiking offered at the preserve. The whole area has less than 6 miles of trails, after all — most of which we were prepared to not even be able to find based on descriptions we’d IMG_3724read. We started out on the “brown trail” which was to take us directly to the peak of Gander Mountain. If impressed, we planned to make our way down some of the “red trails” which were reportedly “unauthorized”. I never thought of myself as a devil-may-care person who might go about doing “unauthorized” things!

By the way, Gander Mountain isn’t really a mountain, technically it’s a kame — a steep mound of sand or gravel left behind by a glacier. As we reached the peak, it was amazing to think of a giant sheet of ice heaving so much sand and gravel from below… like a giant shovel, slowly pushing its way across the prairie.

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From the peak, we could see far out over the Fox River Valley, making out pieces of nearby Chain O’Lakes State Park (the lakes, of which, were formed by the same glacier that created Gander Mountain). A crisp breeze, a bright, sunny day, my beloved… it was time for a picnic!

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James and I usually enjoy the finest of haute trail cuisine, so I wanted our anniversary hike to be no exception! I made mini ciabatta sandwiches: one Mesclun & Brie, and one Black Forest Ham & Brie (we went halvsies so we could sample each). Then we split a miniature, fruit-sweetened Peach Pie that I’d found at the grocery store, recently.

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By the time we’d reached the peak of the “mountain” and enjoyed a brief repast, we’d both become very much impressed with this little forest preserve tucked up in a far corner of Illinois (at 957ft, you can actually see Wisconsin from atop Gander Mountain). Aside from the impressive wildflowers, forage-worthy herbs, and other wild edibles along the way, we’d had our first sighting of an Indigo Bunting. Knowing how much I love blue things, you can imagine how eagerly I’ve been awaiting my first sighting of this bird — especially after looking at its picture in my birdwatching book for years, wondering if such a striking blue bird really exists! I was ecstatic!

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As we started down from the peak, heading down one of the unmarked, unauthorized “red trails”, we entered a breezy thicket of oak trees where we began to hear a very interesting bird call. Scanning the branches with our eyes, we finally found the bird. We both got very good views of it with my binoculars while trying to memorize its features (especially since I’d forgotten to bring my birdwatching book). James was fascinated by this bird’s peculiar way of singing — throwing its head all the way back and flipping its beak open while bobbing its head, almost cartoon-like. Once we arrived home, I quickly looked up the bird we’d seen and identified it as the Eastern Towhee. It’s a shame I can’t take photos with my binoculars, but if you click on the links I’ve provided for both birds, you can see tons of pictures and even videos.

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Just outside the thicket was a beautiful, rolling meadow full of more wildflowers — not to mention two notable edible goodies: mulberries and wild raspberries. After walking through the meadow, it became apparent to us that we’d momentarily lost sight of our “unauthorized trail” and had accidentally found our way back to the car.

Undaunted, we turned right around and headed back up the “mountain” which, admittedly, began to feel more like a real mountain the second time we ascended it. Once again at the peak, we found what appeared to be another unauthorized trail heading down the mountain. Soon, we found ourselves in the serene meadow, again, having emerged from the oak thicket only to have our trail evaporate.

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It was definitely on our third ascent of Gander Mountain that we truly felt we were burning off some of that brie we’d so recently enjoyed! Arriving at the peak for the third time, we ventured southward until we found what was another unauthorized trail — one that definitely steered clear of the “Meadow of Lost Trails” (an unofficial, unauthorized name I’ve given it). Very quickly, we made a steep descent driving deep into a forest where we encountered many overly-caffeinated chipmunks who chirped at us incessantly. By and by, the unauthorized, “red trail” led us to the second arm of the “brown trail” we’d not hiked. We followed it deeper into the woods until, at times, we were surrounded by its emerald canopy overhead and its sprawling undergrowth all around us.

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Our makeshift map suggested that the “brown trail” would lead us to the “yellow trail”, but instead, we must’ve found another unauthorized “red trail” which lead us to the bottom of what had to be the steepest face of Gander Mountain. On this, our fourth and steepest ascent, we were practically walking with our faces to the ground so that we did not fall backward! We definitely burned off that peach pie (and its tender, flaky crust)!

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Arriving back at our car, at last, I turned back to face the meadow. I heard an easterly wind tip-toeing, sweeping across the meadow grasses, making that whispering sound as it danced up and around to touch the leaves of the nearby trees. I realized what a beautiful, rugged, and simple thing we’d witnessed — all of it. How our little hike had turned into so many different, wonderful discoveries of relatively ordinary things. How what might have been construed as “utter map failure” had resulted in some of the most enjoyable hiking we’ve ever had.

Our hike of Gander Mountain had been so serendipitous, we talked about it for much of the way home and even the next day. While selecting the photos and moments to share for this entry, I realized, too, how beautiful, rugged, and simple a marriage can be. Two people, taking off down their own, unauthorized trails, finding their way, making their own discoveries… surely there’s no better way to celebrate the first of many anniversaries.

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~ by Jason on June 14, 2011.

2 Responses to “Weekend Roving: Gander Mountain (late spring)”

  1. Wow that was special to me I can only imagine how it was for the both of you…
    I loved it but would have never been able to keep up LOL .
    And would have had to eat a flower for a snack cause I would have been hungry LOL.

    • It’s amazing how filling a sandwich and a slice of pie can be, mom… though it is a funny image you’ve put in our heads: you walking around with a flower hanging out one side of your mouth! 😛

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