Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Liesegang Banding in Southern Illinois

This is my Happy New Year post and to celebrate 2019, I went on a hike at Giant City State Park.  I covered some new terrain thanks to a friend and we came across the most spectacular displays of Liesegang Banding on the sandstone cliffs that I have ever seen. 

Liesegang Banding

Liesegang Banding

Liesegang Banding

Liesegang Banding is a term that describes precipitates forming rings in sedimentary rock and it was named after German Chemist Raphael E. Liesegang in 1896. 

Liesegang Banding

This one looks like a cookie cutter!
In southern Illinois, the rings are formed by iron deposits in the sandstone.  When sand was being deposited in a shallow sea, iron was mixed in and solidified in between layers of sandstone.  The resulting iron bands are less erosive than sandstone so weathering exposes the iron and often in a way that is intricate.  Very interesting formations result and the colors are due to other minerals in the rock. 

Liesegang Banding

Liesegang Banding

Liesegang Banding
There are beautiful displays of Liesegang Banding across southern Illinois, but another location that has very artistic examples of Liesegang Banding is at Garden of the Gods.  I'll save that for another post.  Here is one more from Giant City State Park in Jackson County near Makanda, Illinois.

Liesegang Banding

Thursday, December 13, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 10: Bald Knob (Alto Pass) to Grand Tower

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

It was a gorgeous day for hiking today and a good example of why hiking in December in southern Illinois can be so awesome.  The sun was shining and it reached 50 degrees.  The perfect weather for completing my thru hike on the River to River Trail on the 10th day since starting in Elizabethtown.  Plus there is rain forecast for the next several days so the timing was good to finish today.

At the trailhead in the Bald Knob Wilderness
My wife and dog Ruby were able to join me on the final leg of the journey today and that was awesome.  However, several complications delayed our progress this morning.  We needed to drop off a car at McCann Springs Trailhead at LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area so we drove from our home in Makanda to Alto Pass and took a variety of backroads from there to get to Scatters Road that would lead us down along Grassy Knob to LaRue Pine Hills.  But shortly after turning on to Scatters Road, we encountered a large track hoe installing culverts and clearly we were not going to pass on this road today.  We were so close to the trailhead too!

Progress thwarted on Scatters Road
We had to backtrack all the way to Alto Pass because the closest bridge to get over the Big Muddy River to the north is on Sand Ridge Road and to the south are two wilderness areas (i.e., roadless areas).  Once getting back to Alto Pass, we drove south on Highway 127 and encountered a road crew placing rip rap along the road bank and waited some more.  Then we took State Forest Road through the Trail of Tears State Forest to Highway 3 and then north to the levee road on the south side of the Big Muddy River where we encountered more road crews.  They were laying fresh gravel on the levee road, but the rock was super coarse so we had to take it slow.  I am all for road repairs, but the lack of options in this remote area made for quite a hassle and quite a delay.

Finally we departed from the Godwin Trailhead and I put my frustrations behind me.  I felt so happy to be on my way toward accomplishing my goal.  Although I had gotten into the routine of hiking every day and figuring out the logistics of section hiking the trail, I was looking forward to returning to my normal daily life.  But the thought did cross my mind to keep going until I reached the Pacific Ocean!

At the Godwin Trailhead
The entire section from Godwin Trailhead to Pine Hills Road is splendid.  It is mostly singletrack through quality oak-hickory woodlands with very little mud or invasive species.  The trail work with switchbacks in the section in between Hutchins Creek Road and Pine Hills Road was especially well done in my opinion.  There were some downed trees, but I imagine it's tough to keep all the trails clear all the time.

Hiking through the beautiful oak-hickory woodlands at Clear Springs Wilderness

Walking across a downed tree
There are 21 species of oaks in Illinois and many hybrids as well.  But some are very common and those frequently encountered along the trail are named after colors:  black oak, red oak, and white oak.  Black oak has thick and dark bark, red oak has dark bark that is flattened in vertical strips, and white oak has lighter colored bark that is thinner and usually very flaky up above on the trunk.

Oak Woodland
Left to right: black oak, red oak, white oak
I was pretty excited to finish the trail and my trail companion made it easy to just talk and walk.  Before we knew it, we were at the Hutchins Creek crossing.  The creek was low so crossing was easy and we took a short break here.

Crossing Hutchins Creek
The trail is nice in this area in that it covers very steep terrain, but doesn't do a lot of up and down.  I don't mind hiking up and down hills to get to the next spot, but sometimes trails go up and down for no good reason.  The trail in this area starts at a fairly high elevation and follows a ridge, descends to the valley and follows it for awhile before crossing Hutchins Creek and climbing back up to a ridge.  Along the way, I spotted many plants like White Bear Sedge (Carex albursina).  It would be really cool if this sedge was named after the white variant populations of black bears that occur in British Columbia, but instead it's named so because it was first discovered and described in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

White Bear Sedge (Carex albursina)
We hiked on and I started to notice some of the differences along this section of the trail.  Most of the trail up to this point goes through the Shawnee Hills Natural Division, but once the trail enters Union County, it enters the Illinois Ozarks Natural Division.  This area of Illinois is among the oldest rock in the state.  The substrate is a mixture of limestone, which is basic on the pH scale, and chert, which is acidic.  This diversity of soil directly translates into plant diversity, as plants, just like humans, can only tolerate a narrow pH range.

We were keeping up such a good pace we decided to take a quick break.  It's good to take breaks often, but to keep them short.  Naturally, I looked at the surrounding vegetation.  I spotted a couple shrubs and looked at their twigs

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
I ran into a very common shrub called PawPaw (Asimina triloba).  Most people have heard of the delicious Pawpaw fruits that have the consistency of bananas, in fact, some joke and call them hipster bananas, referring to their trending status with young people in urban areas.  Either way, fruits can be hard to find, even though this species is so common.

One reason for this is that they cannot self-fertilize and are clonal.  So that Pawpaw patch referred to in the song is a population that is genetically identical.  To ensure proper gene flow, Pawpaw flowers need cross-pollination, which is performed by carrion insects like flies and beetles.  This is why the flowers are maroon; they resemble rotting meat and sometimes even smell bad, in order to lure in pollinators.  This explains the folklore that a Pawpaw tree will only produce fruit when an animal dies at the base of it.

Pawpaw has distinct buds as well.  At the tip of each twig is a brown feathery naked bud.  Naked in this sense means lack of bud scales.  Bud scales protect the tender tissue within the bud from harsh winters, think of it like a parka.  But Pawpaw is the Annonaceae, the Custard Apple family, which is a largely tropical family.  No need for bud scales when you live in the tropics!  Also, this feathery bud resembles a fine tipped paintbrush and reportedly John James Audubon would use Pawpaw twigs as paintbrushes to make his bird paintings as he traveled across Illinois.  Ok enough about Pawpaw.

Clear Springs Wilderness Area
After 3 hours we reached Pine Hills road and walked downhill to the trail for Inspiration Point.  The official trail follows the road down the hill instead and I can't figure out why that was done for one cannot bypass Inspiration Point!  It lives up to its name.  Although it appears on the new signage that walking out on the rocky ledge that juts out from bluff is discouraged, people still go out there and there was a couple there on our visit.  I snapped a quick selfie, then went to more stable ground to make a video.

Selfie on top of Inspiration Point

Old Juniper clinging to the limestone cliff

View north from Inspiration Point
The trail from Inspiration Point continues downhill to the McCann Springs trailhead.  This is a short, but great path, especially in the spring.  The wildflowers change as one proceeds uphill, from mesic woodland to dry woodland.  We arrived at our car at the McCann Springs trailhead and drove slowly down the extremely rough levee road.

McCann Springs Trailhead
LaRue Pine Hills is an ecological gem.  It gets its name from the former town of LaRue, which was located nearby, and the fact that pine trees grow here.  Earlier in the blog I explained that while pine trees are common in southern Illinois, almost all of them have been planted (or spread from planted populations).  The only native pine species in southern Illinois is Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata).  It is an Illinois endangered species and the limestone hills of LaRue Pine Hills RNA is one of only two places where it grows naturally in Illinois.

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata) at LaRue Pine Hills

LaRue Pine Hills Research Natural Area
I considered walking from the bridge at Highway 3 to the Mississippi River at Grand Tower, but it was getting late in the day and when I realized the gravel road connected to Grand Tower, it seemed pointless to walk it so we drove to the end.  It's really unfortunate that the trail ends with a 10-mile roadwalk to the Mississippi River, but there is not much for public land to connect to in this area.  I felt like Inspiration Point made a pretty good unofficial end to the trail, but it can't be the River to River trail without ending at the river!

Illinois Botanizer on the banks of the Mississippi River

Jar of Ohio River water

End of hike ceremony
I carried a little ketchup jar of Ohio River water in my backpack the entire trail, at the suggestion of a friend who had hiked this trail years ago.  It was a good way to ceremoniously end the thru-hike.  I also made sure my feet touched the water, as I did when I started at the Ohio River.  Plus a selfie by the new trail sign was in order.

My boots touching the Mississippi River 
New signage at the western terminus of the trail

Some final thoughts.  Overall, my body took a moderate beating and in hindsight I think I went too far too fast on the first day.  I think that led to knee pain for the rest of the trail, but I don't feel any pain now that I'm done hiking.  And Ruby is all healed up too.

Ruby is a black lab/boxer mix
I estimate I actually only walked 122 miles, which includes all the trail miles and some of the road walking.  However, I did a lot of other walking each day getting to and from the trailheads.

My path on Day 10 in red, drove path in pink to Mississippi River
A few suggestions regarding the trail route.  I realize there are many factors that govern the decisions about where to route the trail and I am not privy to these limitations.  But there are two obvious places where I suggest the trail should go through.  The first is at the Garden of the Gods Wilderness.  Leaving the observation area I suggest going north to see Anvil Rock and down through the natural area to H-Rock, instead of going around to the south because that way skips this remarkable canyon.  Also, as I mentioned above, taking the trail to Inspiration Point down to McCann Springs is a better option than hiking down the hill on Pine Hills Road.

I am thinking of devising an alternative River to River trail route that covers more terrain with less road walking (likely meaning off-trail hiking will be required).  This route would explore more of the hollows of southern Gallatin County, connect to One Horse Gap via Gibbons Creek Barrens, Williams Hill (the highest point in southern Illinois), and Gyp Williams Barrens, thus skipping that road walking section, and go north after Crow Knob to Sand Cave, Bell Smith Springs, Jackson Falls, Jackson Hollow, and Fink Sandstone Barrens.  I realize that the trail intentionally skips going by natural areas, as it's an equestrian trail and horses are not allowed in natural areas.  But for hikers, I propose these alternative options and maybe one day a trail can skirt the edge of these places like it does at Crow Knob.  Anyway, here is an image of my path in red and the road walking I skipped in black (the western section in black is the former official route from Battery Rock).

My overall path on the River to River Trail
I hope my trip inspires other people to hike this awesome trail and for those who can't hike I hope this blog gives them an idea of what it's like.  I wonder if anyone else has attempted a thru-hike the way I did, hiking the trail contiguously, but not backpacking and instead day hiking it in sections and staying at offsite locations and returning in the morning.  Doing it this way helps make a thru-hike possible for many more people and I hope reading this blog gives folks an alternative idea of how to hike the River to River Trail.

I hope someday soon I can adapt this blog into a book that can be taken along on the trail, for hikers to read to learn more about the ecology and natural history of the region or for anyone interested in learning more about southern Illinois.  It's rich in its biological diversity, in its landscapes and in its people.

The Stats
Start: Elizabethtown
End: Grand Tower
Miles: 122 (estimated out of 157 total)
Days: 10
Average: 12.2 miles a day
People encountered on the trail: 2 on day 6, 4 on day 8 (6 total)
Wilderness Areas: 5 - Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek, Panther Den, Bald Knob, Clear Springs
Public Lands: 5 - Shawnee National Forest, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Touch of Nature Environmental Center, Devil's Backbone Park (City of Grand Tower)
Natural Areas: Whoopie Cat Mountain, Garden of the Gods, Lusk Creek Canyon, Double Branch Hole, Odum Tract, LaRue Pine Hills
Useful links: River to River Trail Society and http://rivertorivertrailhike.com/dir/.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

River to River Trail across southern Illinois Day 9: Makanda (Cedar Lake) to Alto Pass

Today was another glorious day of hiking across beautiful southern Illinois!  It was my wife's birthday so she took off work to join me on the trail.  Another person I know who lives nearby to the trailhead of the section I would be hiking today decided to join us as well.  And Ruby dog was good as new, back on the trail and loving it.  It was fun to have some company on the trail.  We left a car where the trail comes out on Waterplant Road (Cedar Street) in Alto Pass and on our way to the beginning of section of trail we planned to hike today we stopped at Cliff View Park along Skyline Drive to take in the views.
At the Lirley Trailhead
Cliff View Park in Alto Pass
We started at the Lirley Trailhead this morning, which is just a few miles south of my house in Makanda.  The previous day I was hoping to hike all the way to Old US Highway 51, but I ran out of daylight and finished at the Makanda Inn & Cottages instead.  This meant I would have to skip a little bit of trail between Shepherd Lane and Highway 51 since it didn't make sense to start with that little section in between two sections of road walking this morning.  I skipped some road walking in several others places along the route, but wanted to make sure I hiked all the sections of trail.  Skipping this little section would bother me all day.

I didn't stop to take many photos because I was talking to my trail companions, but the trail starts in a powerline cut and shortly enters the woods.  The trail down to the first creek crossing was nice singletrack and I saw more Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) leaves that had one fruiting stalk from last spring remaining in the middle of it.

Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale)
Orchids produce capsules, with thousands of tiny seeds inside.  The capsule splits open once ripe and the tiny, dust-like seeds are easily scattered far and wide with the wind.  However, this great seed dispersal strategy comes at a cost.  The tiny seeds have little to no endosperm.  This is the stored energy the plant will need at the beginning stages of growth until it can photosynthesize on its own.  It's not much energy so the orchid seed is reliant on mycorhizal soil fungi to feed it nutrients.  A small seed landing in an area with the necessary soil fungi is the limiting factor and that is one reason why orchids are fairly rare.  This also means that orchids do not transplant well and should never be dug up from the wild.  All that being said, the Puttyroot Orchid is fairly common in the woods of southern Illinois and I saw some leaves on every day of my 10-day hike.

Ruby running through white pine stand
There is some major soil erosion on the trail in this area as well as invasive species infestations.  I focused on the conversation instead of the Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).  We passed through some pine stands and hiked non-stop to the rocky section of trail that divides Cedar Lake from Little Cedar Lake to the south.  This is a sweet spot.
Although the sun was shining, it was a little windy and the air was cold.  So we sat at one of the campsites in this area that offered a little protection and ate lunch.  After lunch our companion took the trail back the way we came, while my wife and I continued to to Alto Pass.

Looking south at Little Cedar Lake
Looking north at Cedar Lake
Selfie with my wife at Cedar Lake
Rocky spillway separating the two lakes
After crossing the spillway between the two lakes, the trail goes up a hill and parallels the lake, but winds around a couple small ravine valleys that have nice oak trees among the sandstone exposures.   I've heard the former valley of what is now Cedar Lake was an awesome canyon before it was flooded to create the lake in the 1970s and I'm glad at least there is a little bit of sandstone outcrops that remain visible on the hills above the water line.

Cedar Lake from the dam crossing
4.4 miles to the trail crossing between the two lakes
I found a couple neat plants down by the water's edge.  There was this large floating object the size of a softball, but it looked like a brain.  This is the conglomerate fruit (a compound drupe) of Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera).  The tree co-evolved with Woolly Mammoths and since those are now extinct, it's considered an evolutionary anachronism.  This species was widely planted by Native Americans across the Midwest.

Fruit of Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera)
Another plant that is an evolutionary anachronism is Honey Locust (Gledtisia triacanthos).  It's a legume that produces large seed pods that were eaten and dispersed by Woolly Mammoths.  These animals would also rub against the tree and damage the bark so it evolved thorns to protect itself.  Most armature produced by plants are called thorns when in fact, most are technically prickles.  Roses have prickles, so do blackberries, greenbriars, and many others.  Prickles are an outgrowth of epidermis so they can be easily broken off the stem.  Thorns are modified branches and cannot be easily broken off.

Thorns of Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
The water at the lake's edge was slightly frozen in places and I noticed a plant floating at the surface of the water, but under the ice.  It is appropriately named Pondweed (Potamogeton sp.) and is an aquatic plant.

Pondweed (Potamogeton sp.)
One of the best things about hiking in the winter is that one can see through the forest.  And in many places along this trail that means seeing outcrops of sandstone.  Often these exist in higher quality sections of forest that contains a good assemblage of oak species of various size classes.

Sandstone woodland
Another thing that pops out when looking through the woods this time of year are the trees, typically in the understory, that still have brown leaves.  The term for this is marcescence and there are a few trees that exhibit this, but most commonly it's American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) that's holding its leaves while most other species have dropped theirs as part of their winter dormancy.  A prevailing theory for marscence is to deter herbivory.  Mammals like deer are less likely to eat the tender leaf buds on young twigs with dry, crunchy, brown leaves on the twigs, plus mature trees that have leaves primarily in the canopy do not typically retain them in the winter; they don't need to because animals can't reach them.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
The Shawnee National Forest is very fragmented so it is a matrix of public and private land and this can make it tough to find ways in and out of certain tracts of land.  The trail in these areas often follows an old forest service road that cuts across private land, but is a public right-of-way.  These sections are often rutted out, muddy, and full of invasive species, but like I said before it still beats road walking.  We followed a field and barbed wire fence on an old forest service road and soon were at our car.

Our car on Waterworks Road by the bridge
We drove into nearly Cobden to get some gas and decided to go to Fuzzy's, the local tavern, for a beer for my wife's birthday.  It was a nice treat at the end of our hike.  Then I realized there was still enough daylight left in the day for me to hike the short section of trail I missed the day before.  We drove back to the Lirley Trailhead to get our other car, moved it to the crossing of Highway 51 and Old Highway 51 near the smiley face water tower, and then my wife dropped me off at Shepherd Lane.  I walked down the road and into the woods and completed the short 2-mile section of trail.  That would help me sleep that night, knowing that I didn't miss hiking any sections of trail hiking.  I hiked back to my car and went home.

The smiley face water tower in my hometown of Makanda
We hiked 8.3 miles in 4.5 hours and our path is in orange.

Today path is in orange