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Archive for the ‘State Park’ Category

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Entrance to Pere Marquette Lodge

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The Lodge’s restaurant has lovely stained-glass window panels, including this one of an eagle

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Part of the park, with view down to the Illinois River

We began our eagle-watching weekend on Friday night at the Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park, an ideal place to use as a base. Open all year. Reservations: call 618-786-2331, or www.PMLodge.net .Their slogan is “Come and stay, the natural way”. Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center, a few miles north of Grafton on Highway 100—the Great River Road—is on the edge of the state park by the same name. The 8000-acre park is set in the rolling bluffs and woods overlooking the scenic Illinois River.

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A picture of Pere Marquette in the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

Pere Marquette State Park was founded in 1932 under the name “Piasa Bluffs State Park’ (named for the legendary Piasa Bird, see later). The original purchase of 2,605 acres was made for $25,000, through a combination of local donations and state matching funds. By popular appeal, the name was changed to Pere Marquette State Park, reflecting Father Marquette’s connection with the early history of the area. Today the park encompasses 8,050 acres.

Father Jacques Marquette (the French Jesuit missionary-priest who came to North America to share his faith with the native people), with explorer-cartographer Louis Joliet, was the first European to enter what is now Illinois in 1673, where they met members of the Illini tribe. They were paddling down the Mississippi River on an expedition commissioned by the Governor of New France, trying to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. When the local people told them that this river emptied in the Gulf of Mexico, they turned back and went along the Illinois River, stopping at a point near what is now the state park. A large dolomite stone cross commemorates this landing close to the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

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Painting of Marquette and Joliet’s trip along the river

Marquette’s journal gives the first written description of the land that is now Illinois. Excerpt found at the Pere Marquette Visitor Center: “We have seen nothing like this river [the Illinois]…for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beaver: its many small lakes and rivers. That on which we sail is wide, deep and still.”

But, the history of the park is much older than this. Throughout the hills, ravines, woods, and prairies of the fertile area along the Illinois River, Native American people hunted game, gathered food, and later made houses. Archeologists describe 6 Native American cultures from this region and have found fragments of pottery, spear points and planting tools. About 150 burial mounds are distributed throughout the park, most still unexcavated.

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piasa2A fascinating legend still survives from these early days. Early people painted 2 huge pictures on one of the bluffs of a creature called Piasa—part bird, with the face of a man, scales like a fish, horns like a deer and a long black tail. Marquette and Joliet saw these and were initially afraid. What was this creature and what was its significance? Supposedly it preyed on local Indian tribes, until it was killed by Illini Chieftain Owatoga, whose village was near Elsah. The original Bluff Picture was painted so Indians, passing on the river, could shoot poisoned arrows at the “Bird”, in memory of their deliverance. A modern painted Piasa Bird is maintained to this day on the bluffs about 20 miles south of the park close to Alton.

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The Lodge is a huge, sprawling structure

PMsignThe Lodge was originally built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) from 1933-1939, supposedly over a Native American village site. It opened for business in 1940 and was dedicated in 1941. The cost of construction was $352,912.00. Timbers of Douglas fir and western cedar from Oregon were used, along with limestone from the Grafton Quarry.

Recent expansions and renovations blend in with the native stone and rustic timbers of the original. The massive lodge building has 50 guest rooms, an indoor pool, game room, a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Mary Michelle Winery/bar, and gift shop.

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The Great Hall

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Kids love this game too

The focal point is a an enormous hall with vaulted ceiling called the Great Room Lobby, decorated with 4 very attractive hanging fabric collages/tapestries of a woods pattern—leaves, branches, creatures—and a mammoth stone fireplace (50 feet high and said to weigh 700 tons) with cheerful dancing flames (very welcome in the frigid cold). Couches, tables and chairs in original 1930s style are grouped around for visitors’ use and a large wooden floor chess board and chess set is well used, especially by kids. Many tables have other games on them too. Picture windows all along one side open to the Brussels Terrace, which gives a great view onto the Illinois River,

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Breakfast in the restaurant 

especially at sunrise and sunset. This is also a favored venue for weddings—and we watched one the Saturday evening we were there. The lodge also offers 22 stone guest cabin rooms, in 7 cabins, a short walk from the main building.

The Lodge overlooks the Illinois River and is just a short walk from the Pere Marquette Visitor Center, which has a lot of useful information about the park’s fauna and flora, the history of the area, and bald eagles.

A wonderful weekend.

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“See that eagle high in that tree?”

Much of this information is set out at the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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FUN FACTS ABOUT BALD EAGLES

—The term “bald” refers to the old English word “balde” meaning ‘white’, rather than ‘without feathers’. Adult birds (4-5 years old) have a distinctive white head and tail, and dark brown bodies.

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—Young birds vary in color from solid dark brown to mottled brown and white plumage.

—Adult beaks and eyes are bright yellow. The hooked beaks are used for tearing flesh.

—Eyesight is very keen, up to 5 times better than human vision. They can see a rabbit about two miles away, for example. They have both monocular and binocular vision.

—eagles are one of the largest birds of prey in the world; they are 3 to 3.5 feet tall, with a 6.5 to 8-foot wingspan.

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—Eagles mate for life and usually go back to the same nest, which they keep adding to. Some nests end up around 10ft wide, weighing hundreds of pounds.

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Part of a nest in the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

—Females weigh up to 15lbs, males 8.5-9lbs.

—They eat fish mainly, but sometimes also eat ducks and geese. They can also be scavengers on dead or injured wildlife, such as ducks or deer, especially in winter. They also pirate food from other eagles or other birds.

—Their powerful 2-inch talons are used to take prey.

—They lay 1-3 eggs, which take 35 days to hatch. In 75 days the eaglet is almost full grown and ready to fly.

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—The main predator is the raccoon, which takes eagle eggs.

—Eagles fly 20-40 mph in normal flight, but can reach speeds of 100 mph while diving. They can fly up to 300 miles per day when migrating!!

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—The average age is about 15 years, but they can live up to 30 years in the wild, and to 50 years in captivity.

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During the Bald Eagle Days festival in Alton, Illinois, you can even pat a costumed eagle!

 

 

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Liberty, a rescue bald eagle, on show at Alton Visitor Center

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The Illinois River was mostly frozen over in early January 2018

WINTERING BALD EAGLES ON THE MISSISSIPPI and ILLINOIS RIVERS

A privilege and a thrill to watch the US national bird

Don’t forget your binoculars!

Eager to see an eagle? Well, you can watch our national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring on six-foot wings, diving down at 100 mph to snatch a fish from the water’s surface, or perching on a tree branch. And Midwest residents don’t have to travel to Alaska (or Florida) to do that. Bald eagle sightings have increased along the Mississippi River this winter, on locks and dams in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Just one hour north of St Louis is a great spot to see large numbers of these magnificent birds in winter, which we recently did in spite of the extreme cold.

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P2040054.JPGAround Alton and Grafton, Illinois, is an area bounded by two rivers, the Illinois River and the Mississippi, with a third, the Missouri River, a few miles south. (In the native language of the then-local Illini tribe, ‘grafton’ means “gathering of waters’). State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas, Federal lands, and Nature Conservancy areas along these rivers recognize the importance of this area. Cliffs, bluffs, woods, wetlands, bottomlands and prairies provide a paradise for a wide variety of flora and fauna. This area is on the N-S bird migratory flyway, so it’s frequented by many migrating birds at different times of the year.

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P2050074.JPGFor most people, the most famous visitor is the bald eagle, which is attracted here by large bodies of water with adequate food supplies and large land areas with minimal human disturbance. This is the second largest wintering ground for eagles flying from their nesting places in the Great Lakes States and Canada (the largest is in N. California and S. Oregon) and the chances of seeing eagles improve as the number of bald eagles continues to increase as a result of improving numbers. As our guide joked, “This is the eagles’ Florida”.

The bald eagle was on the Endangered Species List: Their numbers were down to as few as 417 nesting pairs in the 1960s, because of loss of habitat and widespread use of harmful pesticides, especially DDT. Banning DDT and increased habitat protection under federal law have led to a significant increase in the number of nesting bald eagles, so in 1995 the eagle’s status was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

It is thought that this area supports an estimated winter population of 2500-3000 eagles, and the birds are spotted daily. The wintering eagles use large trees on the river banks for daytime perches, as food is readily available in the open water, especially near dams (they enjoy the fish that are confused/thrown up by the locks and ferries), but they prefer large trees in the nearby sheltered valleys and ravines for night roosts.

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Woodlands in Pere Marquette State Park

mapThe 15-mile scenic Great River Road between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park is very accessible to eagle-watching enthusiasts. Here the road runs along the base of limestone bluffs that rise almost 200 feet above the Mississippi River. Early French explorers (such as Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet) called these ramparts “broken castles” and the scenery alone makes the drive worthwhile.

In winter, many Eagle Events are planned (such as Bald Eagle Days from Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center: reservations required) or you can plan eagle-viewing yourself with the aid of a pamphlet, “The Eagle Watchers Guide”, which you can pick up at the Alton Visitors Center, Pere Marquette Visitor Center, or the National Great Rivers Museum. Or more information at www.visitalton.com 

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Like wolves and lions, eagles have captured people’s imaginations over the centuries. The Native American Indians revered the eagle as a messenger of the gods and, as your eye is drawn ever upward to admire its graceful soaring, you can understand why, and realize that actually legend is not a match for the reality (eagles have been tracked flying as high as 30,000 feet and because they fly so high is why the Indians thought they were delivering messages to the gods). Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey as the national bird, but the eagle was chosen in 1782 because it’s a true American species (the only other endemic eagle in North America is the golden eagle) As we watch this magnificent bird, we’re very glad the turkey wasn’t chosen!

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Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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Liberty, a rescue eagle is 26 years old and very comfortable with crowds of people

Start at the Visitors’ Center in Pere Marquette State Park, a few miles beyond Grafton on Highway 100, the Great River Road (You can also begin at the Alton Visitor Center, which doesn’t have as many displays but did have a live rescue eagle on display this January). They have good displays on the flora and fauna and natural history of this area and lots of information on eagles, including an informative movie. (See Fun Facts about Bald Eagles in the next article). The Center offers its own Bald Eagle Days program on some days in the season, which you need to sign up for when there, or call 618-786-3323. We took part in this one Sunday, and it was excellent. A State Park interpreter leads the program, driving some people around in a van while others follow in their own vehicles.

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We also saw trumpeter swans

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Our guide, Scott, sets up a ‘scope and points out eagles and their nests

frozenriver3But, to do a viewing trip yourself, drive north from Pere Marquette about 8 miles on 100 to Fuller Lake Wildlife Management Area. Stop and look around at the trees along both sides of the river, and you may see eagles resting on the branches. Turn and retrace your steps past the park, keeping your eagle eyes open! You may see other cars stopped, which probably means they’ve spotted something, and if there’s a place to pull off the road, you can do the same. Just before Grafton is the free Brussels ferry over the Illinois River. It’s fun to drive your car onto the ferry and cross over to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, where you may see bald eagles, pelicans, white geese or trumpeter swans. Cross back (the ferry runs 24/7, every 10-15 minutes so long as the river is not ice-bound) and drive along the Mississippi, watching out for the birds, past Alton to the National Great Rivers Museum at the site of Melvin Price Locks and Dam. You can often see eagles in flight and feeding around this massive structure, or resting in the trees along the river. This January, for the first time in our experience, we saw that the Illinois River was mostly frozen over. Quite amazing to see that!

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So much ice!

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Casey, a red-shouldered hawk

On the opposite side of the river (drive over the big bridge at Alton and turn left) is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka the Audubon Center), one of the best locations for eagle viewing. They (in conjunction with the Alton Visitor Center) were hosting the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival the day were were there, with fun activities for kids and a live red-shouldered hawk on display. It was also fascinating to see an artist carving an ice sculpture of an eagle from a huge block of ice at the Alton Visitor Center and to see some other finished ice sculptures there and at the Audubon Center. The weather was so cold that the sculptures didn’t melt even a little bit out in the weak sunshine!

 

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SStrmmarketPere Marquette Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park has rooms in the Lodge or cabins in the grounds. For reservations call 618-786-2331or visit www.PMLodge.net . I’ll write more about Pere Marquette, the PM State Park and PM Lodge in a later post.

Other lodging options are listed at www.VisitAlton.com . Many restaurants in Grafton and Alton provide tasty lunch breaks. We really liked State Street Market in Alton.

NOTE: An alternative site in Illinois for eagle viewing is Starved Rock State Park on the upper Illinois River, much closer to Chicago.

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I would hug this tree if I could! Doing my best to show what a giant it is

I would hug this tree if I could! Doing my best to show what a giant it is

Our little car is rather dwarfed!

Our little car is rather dwarfed!

It’s Earth Day today (April 22)—the 45th anniversary of the start of Earth Day. Many groups and organizations are making a plea to the public to be aware of the environment and our earth and to think of ways to help it. Even Pope Francis gave an address today.

To honor the occasion, World Wildlife Fund is asking people to Hug A Tree, and send in pictures of the tree huggers, as a way to stand up for forests and to appreciate them more deeply. Taking care of our forests is certainly critical to taking care of the environment, so in that spirit I’m re-posting a previous article on the wonderful redwoods in northern California—where we hugged many trees!

One August a few years ago, my husband had a conference in Berkeley.

After the time in Berkeley, we had 8 free days and decided to explore parts of northern California. We visited little-known wineries, Lassen Volcanic National Park…and the amazing redwoods, which is what I’ll focus on here.

We rented a car from SFO International Airport (easy to get there on the BART) and set off north on Highway 1 over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and on highway 101 to the town of Willits, our night stop (at Old West Inn, and dinner at Al’s Redwood Room, with reasonably priced Thai-American food). It prides itself on being the Gateway to the Redwoods, which it is.

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The board says it all: "Giant Tree"

The board says it all: “Giant Tree”

Next day we continued north on 101 to Arcata, just north of Eureka, where we spent 2 nights as our base to the famous redwoods (in the Quality Inn, just off the highway). We hadn’t realized until we began this drive that one of the best places to see the magnificent redwoods is in Humboldt State Park, along the Avenue of the Giants, as it’s known. The number and size of redwoods here equals that in the Redwood National Park farther north.

We left the highway at Phillipsville, between Willits and Arcata, and slowly savored the next 31 miles of the Avenue of the Giants, the old redwood highway, which winds through the groves of trees, the road sometimes so narrow there’s only room for one car and you feel as though you could stretch your arm out the window and touch one of the giants. Luckily, there are numerous stopping points and a couple of short walks where you can get out and actually touch, or hug, a tree if you wish. These trees are amazing, so big and so beautiful that they inspire wonder and it’s hard to find the right words to adequately describe them and the effect they have on the awe-struck visitors.

Redwood trees are earth’s largest living things and as we gazed upwards it’s easy to believe. Sequoias, in the same family,

We saw many Roosevelt elk

We saw many Roosevelt elk

are also enormous—-they are often more massive, with bigger trunks, but are not as tall as the redwoods. It’s worthwhile doing the ½-mile Founders Grove walk, which has a booklet explaining the forest features along the way. They introduce the walk: “You are entering an ancient forest. This nature trail will provide a glimpse into the past and a look into one of the greatest forests on earth.”

The next day we drove a little north of Arcata to the Redwood National Park, another delightful spot, for redwoods and also for viewing Roosevelt Elk (which we saw in abundance). A must-do is the one-mile loop Lady Bird Johnson Grove Nature Trail, which also has an illustrated explanatory booklet. It winds through old-growth redwood forest and is a reminder of the extensive redwood forests that once covered the Pacific coast from Big Sur to southern Oregon.

We learned how intensive logging has reduced the forests drastically, and became stimulated to support efforts to conserve and preserve these giants, many thousands of years old. The day we were there, the grove was wreathed in a thick coastal fog, creating a truly mysterious, almost magical, feel, as the great, grey shapes appeared and disappeared.

The forest appears other-worldly in the foggy mist

The forest appears other-worldly in the foggy mist

There are no places to buy food in the park itself, but the little hamlet of Orick has a couple of cafes serving good diner-type food.

Back in the park, it’s also well worthwhile to drive along the Newton Scenic Parkway (the old redwood highway) to gaze and wonder again at these timeless giants, with a stop at the Big Tree Wayside. A short walk took us to the Big Tree, supposedly one of the most massive redwoods, with a height of 300+ feet and a 21-foot diameter. (To be honest, we felt we’d already seen bigger trees).

The 2 days walking amongst redwoods passed very quickly, but gave us a good introduction to these beautiful giants.

Take a look at my earlier article on Earth Day and its origins (written 5 years ago to celebrate Earth Day’s 40th year).

https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/earth-day-is-40-years-old/

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