The Art of Exploration · a diary of day trips, natural places, and miscellaneous adventures

Clear Blue Sky

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 in Illinois
Clear Blue Sky

I awoke this morning to sunlight streaming in the bedroom windows. The whole room glowed with warm light. It was the first sunshine to show its face in over a week and despite the icy air outside, I was determined to enjoy it.

The temperature display on my nightstand read 12 degrees. The sensor, which dangles just outside my back door, is always generous with its estimation of the temperature as it lies sheltered against the house. The true temperature was quite likely to be in the single digits. Despite the deep freeze, I couldn’t miss out on the sunshine. So I bundled on layer after layer and headed out for a hike at Daniel Wright Woods.

Once at the forest preserve, I sat in my car for a few minutes contemplating whether or not a walk was really a good idea. But the bright blue sky and the clean white snow convinced me it was better to be outside in the arctic air than sitting at home watching television or cleaning the kitchen. So I got out of the car.

The frigid wind bit at any exposed skin. I quickly pulled on my hat and tucked my sleeves into my gloves. I stuffed the bottoms of my jeans into my boots (I could really do with a pair of gaiters). I made sure to seal any air leaks in my gear before I started hiking. Once airtight, I felt warm. I felt ready to explore. I felt like an astronaut. Or a deep sea diver.

I surveyed the available paths on the forest preserve map. One path wound around the small lake near the parking lot. It looked like it would be a dull half-mile walk. Another path followed the perimeter of the woods, a three-mile walk. I wasn’t sure I could withstand the cold for that distance. A third path criss-crossed the other two paths at various intervals. This made it possible to pick and choose segments along the way. If I got cold, I could duck back down a path towards the parking lot. If I got ambitious, I could take a turn and indulge in another half-mile of trail. It was an easy decision. I would criss-cross the various paths and see how long I could hike in the icy air knowing it was always a quick jaunt back to the car.

The first section of trail headed into the woods. The trees looked sparse, almost fragile without their leaves. They stood like wind-battered twigs knee-deep in ice and snow. The trail was packed down with a dense tapestry of boot impressions and ski tracks. The tracks grew more sparse the further I walked. I turned onto a side path and followed the sound of rushing water. In five minutes I was standing at the edge of the Des Plaines River. The edges of the river were frozen and the ice creaked and moaned. The middle of the river was flowing fast. At the banks, water gurgled and cavitated beneath the ice. Tree branches drooped over the water, heavy with ice and snow. Every so often one would crack under the weight of its wintery load.

I followed the path north until the point where the river had broken its banks and flooded over the trail. It wasn’t frozen. It was just cold, boot-soaking river water. Dead end. I turned around and hiked southward. The scenery was beautiful—bright, simple, clean, fresh. There were signs of flooding all around—clumps of trees rooted in six inches of frozen water, sections of trail entombed beneath a thick frosting of frozen Des Plaines.

After a good half-hour’s hike, I came to a familiar scene: the trail turned and dipped into the river. Thwarted again, I had nowhere to go but back to the car. I was ready to head home anyway. The blaze of the midday sun reflecting off the sugar white snow was overpowering my eyes. I dug my sunglasses out of my backpack. Despite the comfort of the darkened lenses, I craved the more gentle hues of fall, the soft light of an overcast day.

Just as I turned for one last look at the river before heading home, my eye caught a flash of gold—a few leaves still clung to a sheltered branch. They were yellow and orange and amber all at once. I looked closer, I could even see a soft hint of green. In winter, you have to savor any splash of rich color you can get, whether it be bottle blue skies, turbulent mud-brown rivers or golden-green leaves.

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