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In Service of Summer: A Brief Guide to Nature

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The city grind makes it hard at times to get back to nature. Pack a picnic or lace up your boots, there’s something out there for everyone.

For an educational trip outdoors, head out to the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs (9800 Willow Springs Road). Find out about the area’s rich historic past ranging from glacial formations to Indian trails. The Schoolhouse itself is a great location for children to learn while enjoying some fresh air.

In the same vein, visit Graue Mill in Oak Brook (3800 York Road) and see the only working waterwheel gristmill in northern Illinois. The attached museum showcases the inner workings of the mill itself. It is also one of the remaining stations of the Underground Railroad, with a full exhibit with photos and interactive displays.

If plants are more your thing, visit the Garfield Park Conservatory (300 North Central Park) located on Chicago’s West Side. Take the Green Line, getting off at the Central Park Drive station. View prehistoric ferns and lush foliage in any of their multiple greenhouses. Check in with the park for scheduled events or workshops. Read the rest of this entry »

A Day in the Park: On the Lakefront, from Dawn to Dusk

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Photo: Elias Cepeda

Summertime brings people out to their lawns everywhere. Good neighbors may have good fences in the backyard, but front yards welcome exhibitionists, chatty neighbors and strangers who stop by lemonade stands, especially on sunny days. In suburbia, homes are ripe with lawn during the summer, inviting kids in bathing suits and on bikes. Grown-ups hold barbecues and everyone plays ball. In the city, the boundaries dissolve even further. Deprived of personal front yards, we share. We play in the sun together. Like any neighbors trying to share space, we fight sometimes, too. Rather than argue about who gets the tricycle next, our neighbor’s browning grass, or how much the lemonade should go for, we wish Taste of Chicago never got Grant Park, we ask why the pavement’s crumbling and we grumble about the money being spent—or not—on improving our front yard.

It’s a complicated shuffle, especially when Dad isn’t Chief Executive of the Front Lawn. There’s the Park District, of course. They take care of the lawns, but not the ones in Millennium Park. Those are under the Department of Cultural Affairs. And they contract operations out to MB Real Estate, which deals with the day-to-day challenges of a much-loved park. They too contract out some of the work—they hire a cleaning staff to do things like pick up trash, wipe benches and the Bean, and clean bathrooms. “The largest problem about keeping Millennium Park looking good is, as its popularity increases, so does of course the traffic flow,” says Neal Speers, director of operations for the park. “Grass isn’t designed to have 100,000 people walk over it every day,” says Speers, who has to “find the balance of protecting the landscape but still letting people use it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Men in White: The venerable sport of lawn bowling carries on, hidden in plain sight on the lakefront

Parks & the Great Outdoors, User's Guide to Summer 2 Comments »

Bill Ibe, Sam, JoeBy Ilana Kowarski

Hidden near the parking lot of the Museum of Science and Industry, people meet in a green near a little brick building. Seen from afar, their rituals seem somewhat strange. They dress in all white, use odd hand gestures, and throw balls on their lawn. I have decided to meet these people. A Scotsman dressed in white shakes my hand, and smiles, “I’ve got something for you.” He introduces himself as John Clark, reaches into his bag and takes out a tiny ball, which he twirls between his fingers. Clark grins and exclaims in brogue, “These are the best bowling balls out there. There’s no excuse for not playing well when you have these.” I nod. I take the ball and throw it across the grass. The ball bounces and goes only a few feet. “Try again,” he tells me. I throw the ball harder, and it goes further, but in the wrong direction. “It’s not an easy game,” Clark shrugs.

Like many Scots, Clark loves land bowling, and considers the sport to be an important part of his heritage. Clark has been playing the game for years, both in Scotland and here in Chicago, at the Lakeside Lawn Bowling Club. Read the rest of this entry »

This Particular Patch: Nelson Algren’s Indiana getaway

Memoirs & Miscellany, Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips 14 Comments »

algren-houseBy David Witter

Nelson Algren bought his beach cottage in Miller, Indiana in 1950, partially from the proceeds from the film rights to “The Man with a Golden Arm.” I was born on Juniper Street, across the Calumet Lagoon from his cottage a few years after Algren had left. However, tales of the man whom many consider to be Chicago’s greatest writer have echoed through my family gatherings ever since.

In a way, a lot has changed in Miller since Algren and Simone de Beauvoir drank, swam, hiked, made love, wrote and enjoyed the dunes area just east of Gary only forty-five minutes from downtown Chicago. Yet a lot has stayed the same, and it is not hard for Chicagoans to spend a summer afternoon retracing the steps of Algren in Miller. Read the rest of this entry »

Of Fish and Feathers: Watching the watchers at Wooded Island

Birding, Fishing, Parks & the Great Outdoors 2 Comments »
Urbanrules/Creative Commons

Urbanrules/Creative Commons

By Patrick Roberts

It is 7:40am on a Saturday, and I am smoking a cigarette on Darrow Bridge, waiting for birders to appear. A friend waits with me, and a debate between us is why we are here. Inexplicably, she believes fish to be more interesting than birds. I disagree. In flight and song, birds capture the imagination and lift the spirit. Think “Ode to a Nightingale.” Fish, by contrast, lack all personality. I don’t know of any odes to a fish. Nonetheless, my friend is unconvinced, and so we have come to Wooded Island in the heart of Jackson Park to gain perspective.

During the summer, Wooded Island draws birders and fishers alike. The birders stroll the trails, eyes upon the trees; the fishers troll the lagoons, eyes upon the water. This morning, we hope to join one of the semi-organized bird walks that have been a fixture on Wooded Island for years. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning throughout the year, birders gather on Darrow Bridge and set off together in ornithological fellowship. Read the rest of this entry »

Mellow Michigan Meanderings: To Harbor Country and back by train, boat, bus and bicycle

Bicycling, Memoirs & Miscellany, Parks & the Great Outdoors, Road Trips, User's Guide to Summer 1 Comment »

michigan1By John Greenfield

On a hot August morning, I load my bicycle with camping gear and catch Metra up to Kenosha, Wisconsin. As usual I’ve stayed up late packing and haven’t slept much, so I snooze during most of the hour-and-a-half train ride.

Taking a combo of Route 32 and bike paths I ride thirty-five miles to a dock on the south side of Milwaukee for the high-speed ferry to Muskegon, Michigan. The main function of the ferry is a shortcut for drivers who want to avoid Chicago congestion, and the lower deck of the boat is packed with cars, RVs and motorcycles—mine’s the only pedal bike. Read the rest of this entry »

Summer in the Park

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I have always felt that the best parks in Chicago can only be reached by bus and don’t have neighborhoods named after them. Indian Boundary Park, located at 2500 West Lunt, is no exception. I have a special connection to the park. Sometime in the late 1980s, I remember watching my parents and neighbors build the maze of wooden castles, bridges, spires and tunnels that comprise its playground, and when my pet rabbit started chewing the wires behind my dad’s stereo, it got a new home in the park’s petting zoo. They nixed the petting zoo a couple years back, but the park still has the only outdoor zoo you’re likely to find on the Far North Side, containing deer, sheep and some very mangy alpaca. On the weekend you can take yoga classes and see no-frills local theater in the old fieldhouse. After hours, the playground is a haven for dog walkers, Latin Kings and high-school kids with no place else to go hang out.

There’s not much else to say about Indian Boundary. It was named after the West Ridge borders established for Potawatomi villages in the early 1800s that were breached just before the turn of the century. It has tennis courts, a lagoon, a geyser-style fountain to play in, and copious elote and paleta vendors. I’ve fallen in love there at three different points in my life.

There are about a hundred days of summer between the solstice and the equinox. Add another thirty for the rise in global temperatures, then subtract twenty for Chicago weather weirdness. That leaves a lot of time to take the Western Avenue bus north for a visit, and if you don’t, it’s practically criminal. (Eric Strom)

Blowing in the Wind: Michael Workman goes and flies a kite

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A few years back, I tried flying a dual-line stunt kite at the Eiffel Tower. It was a violently hot day and the only wind was an occasional dry wheeze. The standard launch technique of backing the kite off the ground by yanking the grips doesn’t work in such conditions. At best, it stays aloft a few seconds before crashing to earth. There’s simply not enough wind.

While the Eiffel Tower may have been just for the birds, summer in the Windy City attracts kite fliers from all over the country. Chicago’s a natural for the pastime. But there are some unique challenges to kiting in the city: power lines are everywhere, all the parks are lined with trees, there are very few wide open spaces. FAA rules don’t permit flying above 400 feet and it’s rainy enough to deter fliers who know that: even though they’re flying with a cloth line, it’s still capable of conducting electricity when damp. Nonetheless, throughout mid-summer, the sky above the city’s lakeshore gets dotted with everything from traditional diamond kites, four-line “quad” sport kites, parafoils and seven-foot Japanese Rokkakus, or “roks,” octagonal kites with richly illustrated sailcloth front panels. Occasionally an inflatable lizard or an octopus kite shows up floating across the ether in Astrobright orange, as if it just crawled up out of Lake Michigan and took to the skies, trailing tentacles of wind-whipped Mylar. Read the rest of this entry »

Urban Jungles: Sampling Chicago’s natural and manmade wonders by the dozen

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By Shelly Ridenour

The hunter, weary from hacking through the road-rage safari that is Lake Shore Drive, scans the familiar terrain of the concrete jungle. Towering above and blocking out all traces of sunlight  are not trees but the massive monoliths he has come to know as “skyscrapers.” The natives scurry along, careful never to make eye contact lest they are accosted–not for their scalps, but for spare change. It is a sensory overload: the sound of honking cabs, the smell of bus exhaust, the occasional sight of a disarmingly domesticated pigeon. From tiny speakers hanging above the store windows of Marshall Field’s, the call of the wild blares forth; today it’s Toni Braxton, mooning over a broken heart. Donning his bravest gameface, our modern Hemingway takes a deep breath and reinforces his resolve. Today’s holy grail: to bag a restaurant wait time of less than thirty minutes.

Just another day in the Chicago “wilderness.”

The term may seem about as relevant as “jumbo shrimp,” but there actually is such a thing—at least according to the Chicago Wilderness consortium. Recently, the granola league came up with what it calls the Twelve Natural Wonders of the Chicago Wilderness. No, we’re not talking Sears, Hancock, Monadnock, et al; this is a serious collection of classic Midwest landscape–prairies, savannas and woodlands. Since we love dirt and plants as much as the next person, we couldn’t resist the temptation to check out this list. We even came up with some wonders of our own.

So, whether you’re itching to get back to nature or whether the very thought of purple loosestrife makes you itch; whether you’d rather hike a trail or a sidewalk; whether you’re into the song of the dunes or some honest-to-God Chicago blues, we’ve got the perfect summer day escapes—a combination of Chicago’s twelve natural wonders and their dozen man-made, citified parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

Sapped: In the gritty city, one tree can make a difference

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By Thomas Washington

A City of Chicago truck pulled to a squeaky halt behind our apartment building with a crew of lumberjacks perched in the back priming their chainsaws. They came to chop down a century-old elm tree that stood in the way of plans for a public housing site next door. I gathered something ominous was in store for the tree months earlier when men in hard helmets painted a red ring around its midsection, perhaps some sort of death code among city planners. Days later they followed up by spraying fluorescent orange stripes along the property. It’s never a good sign when you see these guys in your neighborhood. Read the rest of this entry »