Post by Jen Berlinghof
It was a new year and a new trail, as we completed the last leg of our Des Plaines River Trail journey to hike the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. We began this hike just south of Route 22, which led us south through the recently completed trail section and beyond to the southern border of the county. We left our tracks upon the trail, just as the animals do along this greenway. Along the way, we found fresh signs in the snow that mice, squirrels, small birds, raccoon, deer, fox and even some intrepid fat-tire cyclists had all traversed the trail before us, taking advantage of a balmy 40-degree day in January.
Less than a mile into the hike we came across some curious tufts of black and white fur scattered along the trail’s edge, but there were no signs of tracks or a struggle. We had a healthy debate about which animal the fur came from, and then we came across more clues in the snow nearby.
What appeared to be internal organs of our mystery animal were scattered in a small area, yet, again with no tracks or other clues in the snow. After about a minute of looking down, as if a collective light bulb went off, we all looked up simultaneously to ponder the large craggy branches of a cottonwood tree overhead. This would be an ideal perch for a great horned owl, which is the perfect predator for a skunk due to its limited sense of smell. Our suspicions were confirmed when the telltale perfume of skunk wafted past on the next breeze.
We hiked on and soon found ourselves along the newest section of the trail that was completed in late fall. This new segment created the final link an uninterrupted Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway that now stretches the entire length of Lake County, Illinois—approximately 31 miles. We peeked through a veil of winter branches and saw that across the river was Edward L. Ryerson Woods Welcome Center—a familiar sight to most of us in the hiking group, although from an entirely new perspective.
We witnessed a flotilla of mallard ducks muttering about every bend in the river. While very common, the sheer number of the drakes’ iridescent emerald heads and the flashes of deep sapphire flanking the hens’ wings made the scene special.
A great blue heron flew silently past and landed within the branches, breaking up the mallard party for a moment. The “S” curve of a heron’s neck is made possible by specially shaped vertebrae, allowing for an aerodynamic flight profile and for quick strikes at prey from a distance.
The icy stillness of the river seems to be broken only by the whistling, two-toned mating calls of black-capped chickadees, ensuring that before we know it these ice shelves and tree silhouettes will melt away and more vibrant sounds and colors of spring will return.
As the trail wound away from the river, we came across a minefield of unearthed black walnuts that had been gnawed on by squirrels. Scientists have determined that gray squirrels are able to relocate the nuts they’ve buried by smell and visual landmarks, although they seem to be successful at these recovery efforts only about 25% of the time, leaving plenty of seeds to potentially sprout or be stolen by other squirrels.
Close to the end of the trail we saw the blur of a sharp-shinned hawk fly over an adjacent field and noticed a beaver’s futile efforts to gnaw down an already dead ash tree close to the river. Ahead we saw the last mile marker of the trail.
Our hike along the entire Des Plaines River Trail took us from June to January, from summer to winter, and from the Wisconsin border to the county line at Lake-Cook Road. Thanks for taking this journey with us. Now, it’s your turn to get out on the trail!