Thursday, October 31, 2013


 Webster's dictionary says one definition of a garden is a region of great fertility or beauty----and in the case of this photo example---a region of "equestrian beauty"!   I entitled this blog about the final full day of Road Scholar Program #13085 a "garden" expedition because it started out in the "equestrian garden" of the Camp Ondessonk stables ( ), and ended in the area of Shawnee National Forest, known as the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area ( ).  After our group had a hearty breakfast in the St. Noel Center, we proceeded to the horse barn, so we could watch 70 horses eat THEIR hearty breakfast!  The seventy horses gathered in the corral outside the barn in the morning, knowing that a delicious meal would be waiting for them inside.  Then when the gate was flung open, there was a stampede, similar to what one would see at a family reunion, potluck dinner in the South!
 For their morning meal, the horses are fed a mixture of several grains (lower left photo), chosen for the nutritional content of the individual cereals.  The upper left photo shows how the Ondessonk staff member carries the big bucket of grain mixture, so that the Road Scholar participant could dish out the correct portion to each animal (left photo).  Each horse stall had a small feeding trough built into the wall, to hold the grain (middle photo).  Considering how many horses there are, you can see that it takes a lot of horse stalls, and a lot of portion dipping, which meant that all of the Road Scholars were able to try their hand at it, if they so desired. 
 I had climbed up on one of the stalls, to try to get an overhead view of how big the barn was, as well as the Road Scholars who were doing the feeding (left photo).  While I was up there, a dentist in our group took the picture of me, shown on the right side of the collage.   (Perhaps he thought I was likely to fall, so the photo could be used as a restoration guide, when I knocked out all my teeth from a "faceplant" into the floor below!)
 I also got up into the barn's hayloft to take the photo of the staff (Johnny, Dru, Xavier, Danae, and Olivia---with Director Brian in back) that had been with us all week.  The pretty lady in the bottom right photo is Megan, who oversees the horse programs at Camp Ondessonk.  The photo of boots and riding helmets in the upper left, is a reminder to say that Camp Ondessonk uses CHA Certified Instructors to provide detailed instruction  in basic horsemanship and riding technique in their arena.  Besides operating weeklong horse camps for youngsters, there is also a horsemanship program for those in the Road Scholar age group ( i.e., 45 years and older). 
 The horse barn at Camp Ondessonk is the only barn I have ever been in, that had a stained glass window in it!  One is not surprised to see beautiful stained glass windows in the chapel at Camp Ondessonk (right side of collage), but a stained glass window in a barn, is a delightful surprise!    
 From a stained glass window created as an enhancement to worship the true and living GOD, the Road Scholars proceeded to an area of the Shawnee National Forest, that has the secular name of "Garden of the Gods" (commonly abbreviated as G.O.G.) Wilderness.  It was about an hour drive by van from our camp, and we started at the place called "Hitching Post Trailhead".  This trail meanders through 5.8 miles of wilderness area within the national forest boundaries.  The G.O.G. Wilderness is a 3,318 acre parcel of land within Shawnee National Forest, and has parts in four different counties in Southern Illinois. 
 We learned that this particular hike was saved for the very last day, so that the program director and hike leaders would have time to assess the group's physical abilities to complete the long trek.  That is because there are no vehicular access roads along the way, and once a hiker gets a distance into the woods, there is no "turning back".  The vans that dropped us off, were driven via highways, to the pickup points several miles away!  The trail is mostly flat, and easily discernible (left photo), with a few steep climbs (upper right photo), that caused  some "huffing and puffing", as we ascended.  Even though the trail seemed to be well maintained, there were a few big trees that had fallen across the main path (perhaps during the government shut down a week earlier!), that had not been dealt with (lower right photo). 
 One passes some sandstone ridges along the way, whose beauty was enhanced by the carpet of red leaves on the forest floor, and the "curtains" of yellows and oranges that drew the eye's attention away from the trail.
 We stopped for lunch on top of a high bluff, that looked over the surrounding Shawnee Hills.  Unlike most of Illinois, this area was never covered by glaciers, which is one of the reasons that its appearance is so different from the rest of the state, accounting for it being the most visited Wilderness Area in all of Illinois. 
Our group huddled together for a quick photo, after we finished our lunch, and proceeded to march off the remaining three miles of our hike.  The temperature was perfect for hiking at a steady pace, but when we stopped for lunch, we found ourselves putting those coats back on, that we had packed away earlier in the hike!   Our pre-trip guidelines had advised us to dress in layers, and it was good advice!  Even though I carried a rain slicker in my back pack all week long, I am VERY THANKFUL I never needed to use it!!  PTL!!
 When Shawnee National Forest was established during the Great Depression, part of the impetus for its designation, was to save the depleted farm lands between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  To accomplish this, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) planted thousands of pine trees.  In the photo on the right, Camp Ondessonk staff member, Johnny, points out a pine tree, bearing the "i" blue symbol, that is the official marker blaze for the River to River Trail.   He also pointed out that the pine cones from this species are  more conical shaped (left photo), than pine cones one sees in other areas.
 Near the end of the trail, there is a divide, where you can take the spur that leads to "Anvil Rock" (lower right photo).  It is a fascinating geological formation to explore, and a photographer's delight!  The photo on the right simulates the rocks "biting off" the man's head, and the lower left photo reminded me of an abstract painting of a bony skull!   I read that these orange-colored layers are called "liesegang bands", and were created when ground water mixed with iron in the soil, to form a rust-like substance, which eroded at a different rate than its surrounding sandstone. 
 After several hours of enjoyable hiking, we arrived at the official Observation Trail of G.O.G.  It can be accessed by automobile, (for those who do not want to hike several hours to get there!) and we were happy to find our vans there, so we could put our backpacks inside (which were not needed for exploring the Observation Trail).  This area also had indoor toilets!  The toilets were handicap accessible, and parts of the Observation Trail are also handicap accessible. 
 On the far end of the loop made by the Observation Trail, you have the opportunity to climb out on the hoodoos, and other unusual sandstone formations. 
 These striking patterns and shapes were created by erosion of the sandstone.  That is because eons ago, there was a thick bed of gray sandstone in what is now Southern Illinois.  It was later uplifted, creating a sandstone plateau, that you see in this photo, hundreds of feet higher than the surrounding hills.
 The formations have been given various names, and some people call this formation the "Camel Rock".  Can you see the camel?
 When our merry band of hikers made it to this highpoint of our day, we were TIRED, and as such, took advantage of the sun-heated "rock mattress" to stretch out and enjoy the view ( or nap! )
 This is another view of "Camel Rock", and the scene one often sees on postcards and marketing brochures, telling about Southern Illinois ( )
 As our Road Scholar group completed their final hike together, each participant had a sense of "V" is for "VICTORY"!  We had met the challenge set before us, and it was a great feeling of accomplishment!
 In considering the beauty of God's great outdoors, that we had experienced in Shawnee National Forest, I was led to the phrase in I Chronicles 16:33a that says "Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD..."  And the trees, were not the only ones singing for joy before the LORD, so was I!!  This was for sure, a joyous day with "MILES OF SMILES"!!   Tricia     Addendum:  One of the participants in our group was wearing one of those electronic devices that tells how many miles one walked.  The total for the four full days of hiking was about 36 miles.
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


 On Wednesday, our Road Scholar group ( ) explored the  Cache River State Natural Area (  ).  This vast landscape covers 14,328 acres in Johnson and Pulaski counties, of Southern Illinois.  There are more than 18 miles of designated foot trails within Cache River State Natural Area, so it was a perfect location for a "walking seminar and field trip" in  this distinctive part of Illinois.
 After crossing the trestle bridge shown in the collage above, the hiking trail was beside the Cache River for a distance, before it branched off to provide access to the shallow wetland, called Heron Pond. 
 The hiking trail had several Interpretive Panels along the way, which help the visitor to spot significant aspects within their visual field, that they may not be immediately aware of.  In addition, our Road Scholar group was fortunate to have botanist Chris Benda in our midst, who was an encyclopedia of knowledge about the habitat we were exploring!
 The cone-shaped objects in this photos are called "knees", and are a prominent feature of the cypress swamp we were traversing.  Some of the short ones were "hiding" under leaves along the trail, and almost brought me to MY knees a couple of times, as I stumbled over them!
 During our October visit, the water was covered with a floating carpet of brilliant emerald-colored duckweed.  I was reminded of the tiny dots the famous artist Monet used to create his masterpieces in days gone by!
 Our group gathered at the end of the floating boardwalk for a photo, to help us capture this moment in the great outdoors, for future reference and recollection!
 A path  called "The Linkage Trail" took us to the Illinois State Champion Cherrybark Oak Tree.  Seeing this giant specimen will be a visual aid for me for the Bible verse Jeremiah 17:8, that says "He is like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit."
 As one peered into the swamp, the little "knees" surrounding their "parent", reminded me of little gremlins, hovering around their mama and papa.! 
 The brochure we received on the Nature Reserve called the cypress trees "living pillars", which is illustrated in this photo.  The canopy they create high above the swamp is home to bird-voiced tree frogs---which some  consider to be the most beautiful of all the frog voices. 
 A place within the nature preserve that one should "for sure" visit, is the Cache River Wetlands Center (618-657-2064).  Besides having clean (indoor!) restrooms, there is a wildlife viewing area (equipped with binoculars), exhibit area explaining the history of Southernmost Illinois, gift shop, elevated boardwalk over the pond, paved, wheel-chair accessible nature trails, and a connection to the Tunnel Hill Trail, popular with bicyclists.  In addition, a staff member is available to answer questions, and help you plan your visit.  There is a theater where our group saw a video, with beautiful images and helpful information, about the Cache River State Natural Area.  There are also picnic tables, so it was a perfect spot for the hungry Road Scholars to have their picnic lunch, which had been prepared and delivered by the efficient staff at Camp Ondessonk ( )
 As the name implies, sections of the Tunnel Hill State Trail, are part of the "rails to trails" movement, and we actually saw the tunnel, for which it is named.
 After lunch, our group went by van to the area called Lower Cache River Access point.  This is where canoes and kayaks can enter the water to paddle through the Lower Cache River Trail, which varies in length from 3 to 6 miles.  The canoe trail enables one to paddle up and touch the state champion bald cypress tree.
 Even though our group was not canoeing,  we were still able to  see the champion tree from this viewing platform  Like many trees within Cache River State Natural Area, it is more than 1,000 years old.
 The fields along the trail leading to the overlook have been reforested, and provided more autumn leaf colors than anyplace else we had visited!
 From the canoe trail, we traveled by van a short distance to the boardwalk at the Section 8 Woods Nature Preserve.  This area is popular because it take visitors by the State Champion Water Tupelo tree.
 And human beings were not the only ones along the board walk!  This beautiful caterpillar, that looked like a pipe cleaner, was also making its way to the famous tree!
 When the boardwalk ends, you find yourself at the Big Cypress Tree, shown in this collage.  It, too, is more than 1000 years old, and has a buttress circumference of more than 40 feet.  Folks can go inside it, and the photo on the right of the collage shows that once inside, Chris and Johnny were both able to stand up straight!  They positioned themselves inside, so that they could "boost up" anyone who wanted to be photographed with their head sticking through a hole in the tree.
 This collage shows that one of the guys took them up on their challenge, and posed for our cameras.  The photos on the left shows that getting your photo taken was the easy part---it was getting OUT of the tree that presented a challenge!
 In this area of Southern Illinois, where east meets west, and north meets south, there are four distinct ecological regions.  This unique assemblage of physical attributes, soils, and climate zones, has led to a developing viticulture venture, with nearly fifty wineries involved in grape production.  With "agritourism" on the rise throughout the USA, Southern Illinois  has become a popular spot on the map.  Our group stopped by this "bella terra--beautiful land" venue to freshen up, after our hiking ( ).  You can learn more about the agritourism going on here by visiting or phoning 1-800-C-It-Here  .
 When we arrived back at Camp Ondessonk,  we saw that the staff had been busy all day, preparing for our "foil supper" cookout.  There were torches lighting the way through the woods, where we found our dining table, (complete with white tablecloth!) ready for us hungry hikers.  The chef had put chicken, beef, or vegetarian entrees in heavy folk wraps, along with vegetables, so that all that had to be done was set them on the hot coals.  After the staff had used a food thermometer to assure the ingredients were fully cooked, we chose whichever entrĂ©e we wanted, and completed out our dinner plates with baked beans, rolls, condiments, and potatoes.  And even though our tummies were full, we gathered around the campfire for the hallowed tradition of making S'MORES!!  It was the perfect end to a perfect day, and brought us "MILES OF SMILES"!!  Tricia
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