Blizzaargh 2015

We’re getting pretty good at winter around here. Three of the last four have been serious business. 2011 was Chicago’s third biggest blizzard, which John and I endearingly named Blizzack! Then the winter of 2013/2014 was, of course, the Polar Vortex. And this year, on the anniversary of Blizzack!, Chicago had its fifth largest blizzard. This one, maybe we’ll call it Blizzaaargh 2015.

So today was an official snow day. The office shut down on account of the dangerous conditions. And let me tell you, snow days are even more fun as a grown up than they were as a kid.

Today’s schedule: a little reading, a little baking, a little daytime television, and a chance to break out the snowshoes and take some winter photos.

We used Christmas money to buy some of our own, and after busting them out for Bizzaargh, I can say it was worth the investment.

Snow in Chicago quickly turns to a slushy black mess, so heading out to the forest preserve at Herrick Lake in Wheaton with piles of fresh snow was a treat.

Many forest preserves and park districts offer snowshoe rentals. If you go, dress in layers–snowshoeing is a physical effort, especially if the snow is deep, and you’ll warm up quickly. Avoid cotton, which stays wet if you tumble or sweat. Wet and cold is a terrible combination.

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Flatness and Frozen Falls: Finding Beauty in Illinois

Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.

In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.

So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.

A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.

For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)

This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.


Lover’s Leap Overlook

The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.

Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook

Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.

In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.

LaSalle Canyon


French Canyon

Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.

So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.

If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.

How to: Go Out in the Cold

Holy bananas it’s cold out there. Literally every single Chicago-adjacent-living person I know has agreed that this is the worst winter that has ever had to be endured. A lot of the response to this has been for us to just not leave our homes ever. But sometimes, going out is unavoidable. Here’s how I manage it.

1) Under-layer: Sweater tights and knee socks on the bottom, undershirt on the top. Plus obviously all the other things I usually wear under my clothes that you don’t need to read about on the Internet.

2) Regular layer: This is commonly known as “Just your regular clothes; don’t go around naked, dummy.” Important factors to consider are that I’m wearing tights under my jeans, so my skinniest jeans don’t work, and I want my top to involve some warm sweatery thing, because while my office looks cool with its huge bank of windows, that actually just means it’s really cold all the time. (This is why we all got snuggies as Christmas presents this year.)

3) Outer layer: Snow boots. I adore mine, from Baretrap. They’re incredibly warm and comfortable (and cute, if I do say so myself), and they’re reasonably waterproof, although if you go ankle-deep into a puddle, you’re sort of out of luck no matter what. Coat, of course. I can’t bring myself to buy one of the ginormous sleeping-bag coats that many Chicago women swear by, including our own art director, but I do have a nice warm wool coat with a huge hood to keep the wind off. My gloves are cheapie convertible glove-mitten combos from Target, but it means I can use my El pass, keys, and phone without taking off my mittens, and they also have long-ish sleeves tucked under my sweater sleeves so my wrists don’t get cold. I also have a silly but warm fur-lined trapper hat, ear flaps down, of course, and brim pulled down over my forehead. And then I wrap a big Irish wool scarf under my coat and pull it up over my nose. So I have just my eyes exposed.

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Cute, no? Well, maybe not. But I am warm. And while I did have some frost on my eyelashes by the time I got to the El today, I did not lose a limb, and I did not whine *that* much. And I consider that a victory against the elements.

Frozen

Chicago, like most of the rest of the country, is buried in a deep freeze, polar vortex, Chiberia, whatever we’re calling this today. It’s just extremely dangerously cold outside. So no one is going anywhere. My very tiny voyage this morning was the very tiniest: from my bedroom to my spare bedroom / office. I may have lost a couple of toes last night while waiting for the bus.

Here’s the travel-related question that comes to mind from underneath all of the blankets I’m currently buried in.

When traveling from a cold climate (Chicago in winter) to a warm climate (let’s say, Argentina in summer), what do you do with your cold-weather gear? Do you leave it at home and then freeze on the way to and from the airport? Or do you wear it and then have to carry it around on your travels?

My typical answer to this is, unless I’m going to a resort where I will never have to move my bags under my own power once I arrive, I leave as much of the cold weather clothing as possible at home. This means on the way to the airport I wear my heaviest shoes, maybe two pairs of socks, jeans, a couple of shirts and whatever jacket I’m bringing, to the airport–basically, I pile it all on. I will also take a hat and scarf and gloves: the little things that you can squish down that don’t take up too much room or weigh too much.

But I’m also willing to concede that there’s maybe an answer that I haven’t thought of. So what is that secret solution, friends?