Monday, September 29, 2014

Guess who came to dinner?

The amateur naturalist can find subjects to study, even in the concrete canyons of a major city. Mother Nature tenaciously resists our attempts to subjugate her with all of our concrete and steel. Often times, we unknowingly create the perfect environment for certain species that have adapted very well to the disturbances created by human habitation.

Eating lunch with my wife at her workplace a week ago, I was able to closely observe the late summer foraging habits of common Yellow Jacket Wasps. Yellow Jackets, or yellowjackets, (either is correct), are a force to be reckoned with as high summer starts to give way to fall. Predators, yellowjackets are attracted to meat, sweet things, bright colors, and even perfumes. These colonial wasps build paper nests either in voids in building structures, as in the case of the introduced German Yellowjacket, Vespula germanica or in nests underground or in trees or shrubs as in the case of our native Eastern Yellowjacket Vespula maculifrons.

As my wife irritatedly waved her hands around her face and head in attempt to dissuade the advances of numerous yellowjackets, I sat calmly, not caring so much about the persistent close fly-bys of the wasps. As one half of my turkey sandwich sat in it's plastic container, my attention was captured when I observed a wasp land on the meat portion of the sandwich. As I watched, the wasp began consuming the turkey lunch meat. After a few mouthfuls, it left, no doubt to take it's meal back to the nest in order to feed some of the last few larvae to be hatched out from the final brood of the summer.

I tore out the section of wasp-eaten turkey and placed it in the lid of my sandwich container, hoping to observe more of this scavenging behavior. Sure enough, in a couple minutes another wasp settled on the lump of turkey and began consuming mouthfuls of my donation.

Curiously, at least two separate wasps landed on the meat and eventually carried away visibly large pieces of meat in their mandibles. In an effort to draw a few more wasps away from flying around our heads, I decided to lure them with an offering from our soft drink. In true Roman fashion, I poured out a libation to the wasp gods and watched as several of them landed and proceeded to fill up on the sugary soft drink. 

My wife was certainly less than thrilled to be sharing our lunch with wasps, but at least she could appreciate my unabashed curiosity about these much-maligned animals. Wasps can be maddeningly hard to tell apart, and I'm still not certain about whether I was observing our native Eastern yellowjackets, or whether these were the introduced, invasive German yellowjackets. If you can happen to get a good enough look at their faces (difficult at best without a magnify glass), V. germanica can often be distinguished from V. maculifrons by a triangle of three black dots on the center yellow patch of their face, just between the two large compound eyes. German yellowjackets arrived in the United States in 1970, and from what I have read have become the predominant yellowjacket encountered in urban areas. Vespula germanica are also know for being more pugnacious than our native V. maculifrons.

Many sources now note that German yellowjackets have spread from beyond urban areas and are now supplanting Eastern yellowjackets as the predominant species in more rural areas as well, probably due to their more aggressive nature. In spite of their pugnacious nature, and their insistence on turning any late summer outing into a festival of arm waving and swearing, I still find them fascinating creatures. The wasps we see clustering around the garbage cans and invading our fizzy drinks, and yes, even helping themselves to our sandwiches, are the last broods of the summer.

Almost all wasps and bees that we see are female workers gathering food to bring back to feed to larvae at their nest. In the case of the yellowjackets, some of those larvae will grow up to be reproductive females who will overwinter and start new colonies in the spring. The current wasps that menace our picnics and outdoor entertainment venues are almost all destined to die in a few short weeks when the first cold snaps of winter begin to hit. The queens who have dutifully laid thousands of eggs (sometimes as many as 40,000 in a season), will soon die off themselves. Those queens will be survived by their fertile offspring who will overwinter, start colonies of their own come spring, thus continuing the cycle.

Missed Opportunities

One of the most fortunate things about living in Chicago and being a regular bicycle commuter is that my daily ride takes me along the shores of Lake Michigan. As someone who dearly loves open spaces and nature, living in Chicago can be soul-crushing at times. However, my daily ride to work is along what locals call the Lakefront Path. My daily route is a winding double-track multi-user path that is closed to motorized vehicles except for police and emergency and the occasional park district maintenance truck or gas-powered golf cart. The path is about as pastoral as bike riding can get within the city. My route winds 11.5 miles one way along a path that meanders back and forth alongside the shore of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Much of the path is lined with trees and open grassy fields dotted with playgrounds and marinas.

In recent years I've watched as the city has begun converting wide open grassy expanses alongside the path back to restored habitats that closely resemble the prairies that existed along these shores back before the growth and development of the city forever altered the shoreline into industrial space and manicured parkland. When I first started riding the Lakefront Path (LFP) over 12 years ago, the entire space was formerly turf grass fields dotted with the occasional tree. Since 2009 the city has begun restoring several areas between McCormick Place to the north and 35th Street to the south to resemble the original prairie plant community by seeding them with various native prairie plants. As part of those prairie restorations, the city has also converted over a pair of lengthy sections of land as wildlife corridors, both along the lakefront and on the opposite, western side of the Lakeshore Drive highway that serves as a major north-south artery for the city. Unfortunately, precious little information exists on official city websites regarding the Burnham Centennial Prairie and Wildlife Corridors, however Indiana University has an excellent pdf file available online that describes the early stages of the prairie restoration, here: Burnham Centennial Prairie.

With such an oasis of natural plant communities attracting various birds and other wildlife, the stage is set for many of my commutes to include exciting encounters the likes of which I would never experience were I to drive to work everyday. Years ago, before I started commuting by bicycle I would drive to work along Lakeshore Drive. I could see these restored prairies and other pastoral areas a few hundred feet away, mostly oblivious to the growing rich diversity of wildlife just outside my car windows. A little over two years of bike commuting along the LFP under my belt, I've somewhat come to expect the occasional interesting wildlife encounter. 

So, as I was biking to work one morning a couple weeks back, I was approaching the southern end of the wildlife corridor and prairie restoration area as it begins near 35th street. As I rounded a curve in the path that we cyclists call "The Mini Point," in deference to the larger Promontory Point that is found further south at 55th Street, I spied a canine trotting along the open grassy field just south of the beginning of the newly established Wildlife Corridor.

I instantly realized the canine was in fact a coyote, and a radio-collared one at that! Chicago has a large resident population of coyotes that have been under study for several years now. You can read more about the extensive research project on Chicago's urban coyote population at the Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project. I've seen coyotes on my commute before. Once I saw a coyote running along the southwest side of the McCormick Place convention center in the evening, while another time I heard one in the morning, howling in response to hearing an ambulance siren. A few seconds later I saw the coyote trotting along through a strip of green parkland next to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. 

Back in the present though, I was less than prepared to document my most recent coyote sighting. Alas, as I fumbled with my cell phone camera, quickly shucking off my gloves I became more dismayed, knowing I was missing out on a potentially great photo. A cell phone camera is a very poor substitute for a digital SLR camera when it comes to recording images of wildlife, as I have learned on more than one occasion. As the cell phone camera pathetically fought to focus on the rapidly dwindling coyote, I switched from zoom back to wide angle, hoping to at least maybe catch an image of the animal as it trotted off into the distance, and knowing that no amount of post-processing in an image editing program was going to save this terrible quality photo.  


Aaannnd, there! Almost dead center in the the frame. Yes, that barely visible black speck is in fact the southbound end of a northbound radio-collared coyote. Elated that I had seen one of the animals from the study, I was also  irritated that yet again I had lost the opportunity to record the moment for posterity with a high quality photographic image. This wasn't the first time I'd had such a missed opportunity. 

In the past, on my bike commute alone (excluding hiking and boating trips), I'd seen a Snowy Owl and had only a crappy 1 megapixel cell phone camera to document this somewhat rare winter sighting. This was followed a few months later by another bird incident where I was left with only similarly lousy phone camera to document a Cooper's Hawk eating a freshly-caught squirrel on an ornamental stone railing along the east side of the Field Museum one afternoon. Another morning, as I rode north of Navy Pier I was delighted to see that what I had thought was a trash bag on the path in front of me, was in fact a Peregrine Falcon "mantling" the pigeon it had just killed. The bird took to the air with it's breakfast before I had hardly come to terms with realizing it was a bird.  Let alone one of the most impressive raptors one can see in and around the city.

In yet another instance of adding insult to injury I missed the chance to capture an aborted hunt by another Cooper's Hawk. One morning as I was biking the last few hundred feet to my workplace I startled, or rather foiled this poor hawk as it made a go at a Grey Squirrel that had just shot across my path. The squirrel narrowly missing being run over by my bicycle and I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of majestically fanned out wings as the Cooper's Hawk pulled up short from its dive to avoid being hit by the big human doofus on the bike who had just cost it breakfast. In all fairness, that last wildlife encounter could've only been captured had I been wearing a helmet cam, as the action happened far too quickly for still photography.

After having observed the radio-collared coyote and failing to capture even a mediocre image, I resolved that I was done with missed opportunities. A month ago, I indulged a little by spending some of our tax refund money to purchase a camera lens that would be versatile enough to allow me to photograph everything from panoramic landscapes to zooming in on far off wildlife. The used lens, which I picked up from KEH Camera was a Tamron 18-270/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD. All of that translates into lens that is capable of allowing the photographer to shoot a wide variety of subjects without needing to carry several lenses. The lens was thoroughly reviewed on While the lens has several compromises, I think it will serve admirably, allowing me to pack my Nikon D200 with only a single lens making my various trips easy to document with a minimum of gear to transport. Carrying fewer lenses means less weight on the bike while less switching of lenses in the field means less chance to get dust inside the camera body on the sensor.

I resolved to always carry my camera on the bike so that if at all possible, I'll be ready and able to capture rare wildlife images as they present themselves. I've also started carrying my Nikon binoculars as well, since I am biking through one of the best migratory bird hotspots. Sure it's a bit more weight to lug around, but no more missed opportunities.


What Would Jeff Corwin Do?

"What would Jeff Corwin Do?" 

That five letter question has become a mantra around our house over last few years. It all started back in November of 2006. The girlfriend of a friend was attending Northwestern University at the time and we were told there would be a free talk being given on campus by none other than former Animal Planet television show host and wildlife conservationist, Jeff Corwin. For those of you who may not know him, Jeff Corwin was the host of a popular program on the Animal Planet network, titled The Jeff Corwin Experience, which ran from 2001 to 2003. Later on Animal Planet Corwin would go on to host another program in 2005 called, Corwin's Quest. Corwin became known for his engaging manner and good looks, after all he was voted one of People Magazines 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002. It was Corwin's infectious enthusiasm for wildlife, that made his programs such a big hit amongst viewers during the early days of Animal Planet.

Excited to see Jeff Corwin speak live, we headed up to Evanston, Illinois to Northwestern University. After struggling with traffic and finding a place to park, we found ourselves sneaking into the auditorium about 15 minutes after Corwin had taken the stage. Fortunately for us, he was only just getting warmed up. What was to follow over the next hour or so was a talk that would come to change our lives in ways we never could have imagined at the time. It's easy for people to talk sometimes about how a book has changed their lives, or how a single event has made a lasting impact. I'd never really felt that I'd ever experienced any one thing that had that effect on me before. It wasn't until months later that we found Corwin's words had had a lasting impact on us.

Over the next hour or so, Corwin regaled the audience with stories of life behind the scenes of his show, The Jeff Corwin Experience. He talked animatedly with the same enthusiasm and sense of humor he brought to his show. Whether he was talking about the possibility of being stomped to death by a forest elephant,

or looking frantically around in tall grass for a venomous snake while remaining totally still.

As the talk turned from the light-hearted fare of television programming, Corwin began to describe how he himself, had begun to take a more critical look at his place in the world and ultimately his own impact on the environment. For the duration of the rest of the talk, he spoke about things individual people could do to affect real changes on the environment. I'd had a seminar class in college titled something like, "Studies in Ecology: Problems in the Environment," or something like that.

The gist of the seminar course was how much of what we do as humans in a developed world is unsustainable in the long run. From our reliance on massive monoculture food crops to the worlds ballooning population, it became obvious that as we begin to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet we also continue to promote many unsustainable practices. Everything from how we treat produce to withstand lengthy trips to market to the bottled water we drink and the over-packaged products we buy were discussed. Corwin spoke of many of these issues facing our growing population, echoing many of the concepts I learned years earlier in that college class but had all but forgotten or chose to ignore.

At the time, my opinion of Jeff Corwin was largely based on his work as a television personality for a wildlife show. I knew that he had a bachelors degree in biology and anthropology and that he also had a masters degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation. I mostly remember Corwin's show being mostly based on observing wildlife and as I recall there was little talk of conservation of species or what we as the viewers could do to help with conservation efforts ourselves. However, during the talk Corwin made good as a conservationist and began to explain how individual people could make choices that could indeed affect the environment positively. I don't know what it was exactly, but something about Corwin's talk clicked. What he said, meshed with what I'd learned a few years earlier. Maybe I was more in a frame of mind to begin embracing how to live a more sustainable existence with a lower impact on the environment.

One thing in particular from that talk has stuck with me all these years. Corwin spoke about recycling and reducing our reliance on packaged foods as one of the easiest ways of lessening our impact on the environment. When packing a lunch, he told how he would reuse ziplock baggies by washing them out until they literally fell apart at the seams. Until then, even though we recycled our glass and plastic, we routinely threw away things such as ziplock baggies that had only been used once. Cardboard boxes that contained our cereal or crackers were crushed and thrown in the trash when empty, rather than being recycled. The simple comment that really brought the message home was Corwin's take on how we need to think more about almost everything we do and what impact it will have on our environment.

The example he used was one of a granola bar. I'm paraphrasing, as I remember what he said all these years ago but it went something like this:

"So, take a granola bar. For the 200 or so calories that you get, this little bit of energy that maybe lasts you two or three hours, you now have this mylar plastic wrapper that you'll just throw away. For that small amount of calories and little bit of energy, you have this wrapper that will persist in a land fill for the next 1000 years, not to mention all of the energy that was used to produce it and ship it to you."

Every now and then someone asks you if someone has changed your life, or a book you've read has changed your life. I've never really felt that anything like that had happened to me. I'd never really read many books that I felt changed my life or gave me a new outlook. The same went for people I'd met. I'd never felt as if I'd met anyone who I could go back to and say, "Hey, yeah! My interaction with that person changed my life!" I didn't realize it at the time because it seemed like such a small thing, but with that one simple, real world example, Jeff Corwin planted a seed that would grow and continue to influence my decisions to this day.

We still struggle to reduce our packaging, but we have shifted to eating more meals made from scratch, getting away from the excessive and wasteful packaging of much of what is available in grocery stores today. In a continuing effort to reduce our impact and live more sustainably, we now recycle every imaginable thing that comes into our house, even the foil and plastic containers our take-out food comes in. If it can be recycled, it goes into bags to be taken to our single-sort recycling bins provided by our waste haulers.

There have been other things we've read, programs that we've watched on television since then that have continued to influence our outlook and our drive for sustainability in our lives. However, it's that talk by Jeff Corwin all those years ago that seems to have made the initial connection. Call it an epiphany, or the proverbial light bulb going off over ones head, or whatever. Today virtually every consumptive activity we perform is influenced to some degree by the thought processes now irrevocably altered by that one talk. I no longer buy imported beer, preferring to purchase craft brewed beer made here in the states, rather than shoulder the carbon footprint associated with beer that has to be shipped thousands of miles before it arrives at the store.

We buy our cat food from producers based here in the U.S. rather than factories that produce food in Thailand and ship it halfway around the world. We rarely drive our car anymore, going to the grocery store by foot or by bicycle, and if we do use the car we try to run as many errands as possible to make the usage of fuel the most economical. We've begun to look at electronic subscriptions to our favorite magazines to help further lower our carbon footprint and reduce the amount of material we recycle. We read Michael Pollan's thought provoking book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto which in turn has inspired us to try to eat healthier and more sustainably. When produce starts to go out of season and the labels begin showing that it comes from farther and farther away, we stop buying certain things. During the winter we'd rather buy more expensive apples that are cold-stored by local growers than pay for cheaper apples shipped from  somewhere like New Zealand or Chile.

From that initial talk we jokingly developed this mantra of, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Every now and then, we have to remind ourselves of the mantra. Sometimes it just seems easier to throw out a jar rather than rinse and scrub it out, but our environmental consciences get the better of us. We still struggle with some things. My addiction to granola bars keeps me throwing away those persistent wrappers, but I've taken steps towards learning how to make my own granola, thus getting the mylar monkey off my back. We're slowly getting better. It's an ongoing process. We still need to remind each other to recycle things, or maybe not buy a certain product due to concerns about packaging or sourcing. We remind ourselves to try to live more in harmony with our environment, and to try to minimize our impact on it. To this day, all these years later we still ask each other, "What would Jeff Corwin do?" Well, he'd wash that foil take-out container and put it in the recycle bin. That's what Jeff Corwin would do.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A rant about Christmas Trees - of the artificial variety

So, since I haven't lived with my parents for pushing 20 years or more I didn't have a Christmas Tree until a couple years ago. The wife and I decided to buy a fake tree. They look pretty convincing now and once you get a whole bunch of lights and garland and ornaments on them, you can hardly tell it's fake. Besides that, it still seemed to drop needles and the cats still climbed up inside it and regularly broke nice glass ornaments, so all in all, it was a good experience.

We didn't put it up this year, I think mainly due to holiday overload. We're both so totally over the whole Christmas-hype-b.s. Tired of the sales, the commercials, the rampant push to fuel this greed and acquisition holiday. We just weren't in the mood, so the tree never came out of its box in the closet. My parents never seem to stop spending way more on the presents than they should, and I never seem to be able to spend enough to equal their generosity. It's not supposed to be a game of "who can spend more money being generous in the spirit of giving," but it still ends up feeling like that.

I'm always cash-strapped it seems so I give what I can within reason and still end up feeling crappy because my parents always give more. At least these days my brother and his wife are doing about as bad as we are, so at least I don't feel bad because their gift giving is fairly modest. What sparked this whole rant though was the recently acquired knowledge that our artificial tree is a much more environmentally *unfriendly* option than a traditional live Christmas tree.

We try to live as environmentally friendly as possible. I bike practically everywhere so that I don't have to drive the car. We recycle virtually everything we can. And we try to purchase things in minimal packaging, avoiding stuff that has to be trucked long distances, etc. In short by not examining the whole tree thing more closely, we inadvertently committed a major environmental faux pas, perhaps even a crime against nature (trying inject a little levity here folks).

In the past I'd tried to keep one of those little baby Norfolk Island Pine potted trees, you know the ones that places like the big box home improvement stores carry all through December. Their little pots are wrapped in red foil and they even appear to have been dusted with festive glitter. Some even come with tiny little red, gold, and sliver glitter covered foam ornaments. They look nice for a few weeks until the hot dry indoor air and the lack of sunlight catches up with them. Eventually they succumb to their indoor existence and end up dessicated and dead, in the trash.

My parents had a Norfolk Island Pine that had lived through the move to three different states and had grown to a height of probably five feet tall and had lived at least 20 years or more before it finally died off for some reason or other a few years back. The Christmas Tree, despite its name is actually a Pagan symbol to remind people that even in the darkest depths of winter there are still green things to be seen. There is still life amongst the death and darkness of winter.

The tree was brought in to remind them of this life in winter and as the Winter Solstice approached, to remind them that the days would be growing longer and the slow climb out of the darkness of winter was beginning. The climb towards Spring and life and planting crops. So, I sit thinking of the artificial tree in the closet. It's sitting there sort of like a hidden shame. An artificial version of a symbol of life. It can't even get that right.

Because of its environmentally irresponsible construction, we'd need to keep it and use it for probably a few more years to justify its purchase cost over the cost of live trees. Even then, there will still be issue of the wastefulness of its disposal and all the unrenewable energy that went into its construction. For right now though, the tree will stay in its box in the closet. We'll have until sometime next year to decide what to do with it, whether we'll decorate it and it'll stand there as a monument to our mistake, or maybe as a reminder to think things through and make better environmental choices the next time.

Or, maybe we'll consider it a lesson learned and the fake tree will go to the curb to be taken away to the landfill while the real trees go to be recycled into mulch or to be sunken in lakes and ponds as fish breeding sites. Maybe next year we'll bring a real tree inside, cut from a local farm or perhaps in a pot. I think a real tree is a better way to honor the spirit of the season, to celebrate that in the midst of the darkest part of the year there is still life and the promise of brighter days ahead.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An afternoon on the North Shore Channel

It’s June 24th, my 39th birthday. After running a minor errand I’m now on the road with a kayak in the trunk of my car on my way to the Skokie Lagoons. The kayak is an Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Expedition touring kayak. The kayak is an inflatable, which is why it’s able to be in the trunk versus strapped to the roof of my car. This is no rubber ducky pool toy. At 13 feet long and made out of heavy duty PVC with a 1000 denier polyester covering, this boat is stable and tough enough for Class III whitewater. The Expedition is a birthday present of sorts to myself, an upgrade from a smaller, less-tough inflatable kayak that began leaking air along a seam the third time it was pumped up.

The Skokie Lagoons are a favorite paddling spot for me. Northwest of Chicago they offer calm waters, no motorboats, and lots of wildlife to be seen. However, heavy traffic due to construction on the Edens Expressway going north causes me to consider Plan B. Instead of Skokie Lagoons, I’ll paddle the North Shore Channel of the Chicago River. My put-in will be at River West Park, just off of Argyle Street and a mere 400 feet south of where the North Branch of the Chicago River jogs southward towards downtown. The North Shore Channel flows south from Lake Michigan several miles north and joins up with the North Branch of the Chicago River right here next to River West Park. If you were to follow the North Shore Channel its entire length you’d paddle northwards until finally you passed the landmark B’hai Temple with Lake Michigan a stones throw away through a system of small locks. It’s wrong to say the North Shore Channel runs northwards though, in fact the current flows from Lake Michigan south where it joins the North Branch of the Chicago River at River West Park.

I finally arrive at the park and mercifully find a parking space close to the put-in. Thankfully it’s a Tuesday, which means no Vikings soccer games at the nearby field, thus I get a primo spot right on the end next to the path going down to the waters edge. It takes a few minutes longer to inflate the kayak today. Knowing I’d be paddling today, I didn’t bother to remove about a half gallon of Lake Michigan that ended up inside the cockpit during some impromptu kayak surfing which occurred at the end of yesterday afternoons shakedown cruise. That’s a story for a later time. Thankfully my REI microfiber towel does in fact hold up to eight times it’s weight in water and continues to suck up the dregs after repeated wringing out.

Finally the kayak is inflated and I carry it the couple hundred feet down to the put-in. A guy named Tom stops to chat for a few minutes. He asks if my kayak is a folding model, never having seen a folding kayak or an inflatable up close. I tell him it’s an inflatable and begin to extol the virtues of its construction and design. He tells me about his experiences growing up in the Chicago area and paddling its many waterways in all different manner of canoes. We talk for 15 minutes about tracking and new canoe materials and the merits of old aluminum Grumman canoes that looked like barges but tracked straighter than newer composite material canoes built without keels. We shake hands and Tom wishes me a good day and good paddle and I wish him a good day too.

I climb into the cockpit and paddle away from the dock. My plan is to simply paddle northwards against the current for an hour then turn around and simply paddle back south to where I put in. The weather is a pleasing 80 degrees and sunny with light wispy clouds and gentle breezes. It’s definitely a good day to paddle. The first thing I notice is there are fluffy Cottonwood seeds scattered all over the surface of the water. I very quickly see my first of many signs cautioning that the waterway may become polluted with untreated sewage during storms and that it is deemed unsuitable for skin contact. No wading or swimming, and certainly no Eskimo rolls. Even if I knew how to perform an Eskimo roll, this is the last place I’d willingly do it.

I consult an EPA document on waterway water quality in the Chicago area when I get home and find that in fact the Illinois EPA rates the North Shore Channel water quality as “Good” on a scale of Good, Fair, and Poor. Interestingly, the North Branch of the Chicago River rates only Fair in water quality. I’m actually paddling one of the cleanest stretches of inland water in the Chicago area. As I paddle further north the first signs of wildlife I see are groups of Mallard Ducks. I pass a quartet of Mallards. It’s an adult male and female along with two male youngsters, distinguished by the mottled green feathers just beginning to grow in on their heads. I pass underneath the first of several bridges where streets cross over the channel. I resolve next time I’ll bring a Google map printout of the route so I know what streets I’m passing under. Not being a native Chicagoan I don’t know what these streets are and nobody thought to label them for the benefit of kayakers passing underneath.

I begin to pay more attention to my surroundings now that I’ve settled into a steady paddling rhythm. My passage startles a couple Black Crowned Night Herons from their perches. One perches in a tree 30 feet above the water but it’s still close enough for me to make out its ruby red eyes as I pass underneath. I hope it won’t be disturbed but it takes to flight again and heads upstream. Over the next 45 minutes or so, I’ll encounter these birds several more times. It’s possible the passage of my large yellow kayak is disturbing other Black Crowned Night Herons, but I keep wondering if these are the same ones I keep seeing. I’m apologetic for disturbing them, but even keeping to the center of the channel they still don’t trust this interloper in the large, oblong, yellow thing that lazily splashes upriver beneath them. One of the Herons finally flies far ahead and veers westward into trees far up the bank above the channel.

Looking to my right I see a Red-eared Slider Turtle basking on a log at the waters edge. My approaching bulk startles it. The turtle plunges off the log with a splash. A few minutes later I see a small dark-colored waterfowl swimming low in the water. I’m intrigued but I find myself cursing the lack of binoculars. “Next time,” I tell myself. I hope that I can get close enough to ID the bird before it flies away. The way it’s swimming, only the slender neck and dart-like head above the water tells me it’s a Double-crested Cormorant. I’ve seen Cormorants before at the Skokie Lagoons but I remember them being larger. Perhaps this is a younger bird. It dives beneath the surface and vanishes. I look for it to pop up nearby but it isn’t until a couple minutes later that I spy it a hundred feet downstream from me. I turn around and let the current slowly carry me back towards the Cormorant, hoping to get a better look. I observe it dive under a couple more times, popping up further downstream each time. Content with this brief glimpse I turn around and head north again.

A little further on, I see another pair of Sliders basking on a log to my right. The smaller of the two dives off the log in a splash. The larger one, probably a female judging by her 10 plus inch carapace, stays put. Her carapace has a peculiar tented quality to it rather than the typical gentle curve. The biologist in me wonders if she experienced nutritional deficiencies in her earlier life resulting in this vaguely peculiar shape. As soon as that thought is formed I’m also reminded of how many Red-eared Sliders are sold in local pet stores only to be turned loose in local ponds and rivers when their owners get tired of them. She could’ve been an unfortunate pet kept in a tank too small for her. Perhaps her domed carapace is the result of a poor diet in captivity. At any rate she looks at home on her log here in this river. I pass on by and she maintains her basking spot soaking up the suns rays unperturbed the passage of my kayak. Maybe she’s been out here on this stretch of river long enough to be accustomed to kayaks and canoes. Wondering where I am, I hail cyclist walking her bike along the street above. “What street is this?” I call out. “Peterson,” she answers. I find when I get home and consult a map that I’ve paddled nearly one and a half miles at this point.

I continue northwards. Up ahead, a family of Canada Geese with five goslings makes their way across the channel. These goslings are old enough to have lost their striped feathers but are not quite old enough to fly. I give them a wide berth paddling to the other side of the channel so as not to startle them. They reach the shallow bank on the either side and I pause to watch them. As the parents look on the kids begin to frolic. They dive into the water and burst out flapping their as yet ineffectual wings. Beating their feet and wings they rise up out of the water and splash back and forth with their mouths open in playful abandon. I’m happy to have witnessed this moment. I move on, careful not to overstay my welcome. I startle more Black Crowned Night Herons. I’m still wondering if these are the same two I’ve been seeing all along. Up ahead I can see what looks like a miniature Class I rapid spanning the channel. I wonder if there are rocks or some other obstruction in the channel causing the water to roil.

As I get closer I see more of the steel embankment reinforcements common to many sections of the channel. Now the whole channel is roiling with whitewater for a hundred feet in front of me. I read a large sign on the embankment that tells me this is the Devon Avenue aeration station and that when it is in operation there is a danger of sinking if you enter the channel when aeration is taking place. Not wanting to take any chances I look at my watch and see that I’ve been paddling over 45 minutes. I figure that’s close enough to my target of one hour of northward paddling so I reverse course and head south, flowing with the current. Perversely, the wind is blowing from the south so although the current is carrying me downstream I’m paddling with the same amount of force I used to overcome the current heading upstream.

I approach the bank where the adult Canada Geese are still watching over their frolicsome children. A couple human kids who look to be 10 or so ride their skateboards down a concrete ramp towards where the geese are. The kids are excitedly calling to another friend and pointing to me as I come closer. I have a feeling they’re not going to be respectful of the goose family’s personal space so I paddle to the opposite side of the channel to give the geese room to escape. Sure enough one of the kids runs towards the geese near the bank. The birds, probably used to meddlesome humans paddle out to safety midstream. I shake my head and wonder how kids can be so disrespectful to wildlife. I guess it all depends on how you were raised. Further down I pass the same female slider with the funny shell, still sitting on her log. A new bird catches my eye. Larger than a Robin it appears to be a slate blue-gray color with white stripes on either side of its head and a white breast. Again I curse the lack of binoculars to get a good look but I think I know what I’m seeing. A quick look in my Peterson guide when I get home confirms that I’ve seen a Belted Kingfisher. The day has just gotten 1000 percent better. I haven’t seen a wild Kingfisher since a family trip to Florida over 20 years ago.

The kingfisher never lets me get closer than 75 feet or so before it breaks and flies further downstream. I try to paddle more cautiously, even drifting, hoping that the lack of splashing from my paddling will allow me to get a closer look. I do eventually get close enough to be nearly sure of my identification. Finally the bird takes off one last time chattering its displeasure. Further on I startle some Black-Crowned Night Herons again. I wonder if it’s my friends from earlier. Flying ahead of me one bird eventually alights in the top of a tree high above the channel. I’m able to gaze up at it as I drift slowly beneath. Its ruby red gaze follows me as I pass beneath. The other Heron, perhaps more irritated at my repeated intrusion, takes to flight with a scolding, rattling “quork!

I’m getting close to where I originally put in. I pass a pair of large sliders basking among tree roots on a gently sloping mud embankment. One plunges into the water but the other remains undisturbed, hind legs splayed out behind it. I’m just thinking about how basking turtles always seem to look supremely relaxed with their legs often stretched far out behind them, when I pass a rusty corrugated pipe with another slider basking, hind legs stretched far out behind it. “Now that’s relaxing!” I think aloud. I come upon the small damn where the North Branch of the Chicago River turns southward away from the North Shore Channel. A couple course corrections and I gently ground on the gravelly mud where I put in. I step out into the shallow water and hoist my kayak onto the concrete landing. I shoulder my boat and with my paddle in hand walk up the path to my car. The words to describe my trip are already forming in my mind as I recall the sights and sounds of my afternoon exploration of the North Shore Channel.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I'm nobody you should know, other than a guy who really loves being outdoors, immersed in nature. I'm happiest out on a trail watching birds, bugs, snakes, turtles, lizards, or any of the other critters that make wild places their home. I'm equally at home out on a waterway paddling my kayak and observing what wildlife comes my way. I even appreciate the animals and plants that make their home among the canyons of concrete in a city. I started this blog partly to put to figurative paper my experiences with nature but also to retrain myself to be a better writer. Writing is not like riding a bike. It doesn't just come back to you. Occasionally the words flow from the pen (or keyboard these days), but they're never ready for prime time without editing beforehand. This blog will serve to hone my rusty skills and I hope those of you who read this will gain some vicarious enjoyment from reading about my experiences. The title of this blog, "I only went out for a walk..." is part of a larger quote from John Muir, one of the most engaging nature writers ever. In 'The Wilderness World of John Muir', edited by Edwin Way Teale (another legendary nature writer), the final chapter is titled 'The Philosophy of John Muir.' Teale writes of Muir, "In his journal he once noted concerning his lifelong devotion to nature: 'I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.'" I've always loved that quote and I feel it truly sums up what I feel when I'm out for a walk and I'm able to lose myself in nature. Enjoy.