Lend me your (wood) ears

My 15-year-old son Sam and I went mushrooming today for the first time since December. Neither of us were expecting much but we wanted to get a jump on the season, and some fresh air. We went to Aldeen Park, a city park in the center of Rockford. I followed Sam as he led me several yards off the trail.

“I think I see wood ear,” he said as he took off.

“Really?” I shouted after him. “Are you sure?!”

Sure enough, he had found several of the species. He’s found them before and brought them back to me, but this is the first time I have seen them on the tree. This little guy was “born” last fall, but is still very soft.

It’s really quite a joy to find these little guys. Their scientific name is Auricularia auricula and it’s just a joyful little fungus. Below is the same wood ear, turned inside out. It flips just as easily as a dog ear.

The instant Sam turned the specimen “inside out” the fungus stopped being a mushroom and “became” the ear of a mythical animal. It looked and felt like the inside of a mysterious ear and we both felt like we were invading its privacy. Sam closed it up and we kept hiking. It’s been several years since I felt this way but there are times when I am convinced the woods want to be alone.

We didn’t stay much longer but we did stop to check on our old pal the artist conk. We wanted to see if he grew from the last time we saw him in November. And he did! It’s pretty amazing how he just hides in plain sight getting bigger every day, kind of like someone else I know.

Hey, it’s another late night (and short) blog. Thanks for reading and remember to watch what you say in the woods. You never know who’s listening. -Connie

Take A Hike In Northern Illinois!

A stand of white pine trees in the Kishwaukee River Forest Preserve.

I live in Rockford, Illinois with my husband, our four children and pets. It’s neither a small town nor a suburb. It’s a big town or, if you prefer, a small city. And it really spreads out: It has an area of approximately 65 square miles and a population of @150,000 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

For perspective, Chicago (pop: 2.71 million) has 234 square miles. Minneapolis (pop: @420,000) has 59 square miles. I include those two cities because I am very familiar with both and love them dearly. But I live in Rockford and am eager to share the beautiful and free places that make it so special. Here’s where we hiked in 2021:

Aldeen Park / Rockford University. If you want to get a quick, rugged two miles in, Aldeen is a city park that has a great trail system replete with a creek, dam, prairie, bluffs, hills and lots of deer.

I don’t have a picture of any of the dozens of deer we saw in 2021 but here is evidence of “buck rub.”

Aldeen also connects with the local university, which offers several unexpected moments of nature.

Sam and Angelo explore a pile of “junk” trees behind the university. They found numerous Artists’ Conks and Dryad’s Saddles growing on the decaying wood.
Most of the trees in that stash at the university are decaying and hollowed out from insects and mushrooms. Here’s Angelo taking a peek inside.

Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve. A family favorite. Spectacular views of the Kishwaukee River, lovely trails that connect with several other preserves, lots of biodiversity throughout the system and the “springs” are always a delight, no matter the season,

The “springs” in December at Blackhawk. Always teeming with spirit and life.

It’s easy to get a quick three miles at Blackhawk but you can track several more if that is your intention. Mushroom hunters: I found old, decaying chicken-of-the-woods and oysters here in December. I hope to harvest some fresh choice edibles in the spring, summer and fall!

Colored Sands Forest Preserve. Terrific prairie, lovely woods, nice view of the Kish. A busy thoroughfare for birds and bird banders so be mindful of the mist nets. Easy to get a quick two miles here. With a little ingenuity, you’ll track 10 miles because it connects with Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Wear bright colors during hunting season because hunters are out on nearby private properties. Speaking of bright, check out this Northern Cinnabar Polypore I found at Colored Sands on Christmas Eve:

Beautiful pore structure and a lovely burnt orange color. This is a Northern Cinnabar Polypore (Trametes cinnabarina) I found on a decaying log about twenty feet from the trail not far from the hawk station.

Deer Run Forest Preserve. Fern and I love it here. The trails go on for miles and take you through woods, by prairies and right up-and-into the Kishwaukee River. Easy to get a quick three miles in, but if you want more, you’ll track at least six. Hiking in the winter is delightful, but I can’t wait until the spring so I can forage for mushrooms here. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you see this tree in the spring, summer or fall, you are probably steps aways from several species of choice mushrooms! Hint: not a chicken, but a ______ of-the-woods!

Mushroom lovers: If you see this tree at Deer Run, you are very close to several species of choice mushrooms!

Funderburg Forest Preserve. Go there in May to check out the spectacular meadows. You will see unique shades of green in May. You can cover a lot of miles here, but it’s not my favorite. While most trails are inherently uneven, the trails around the cornfields can be ankle-twisters, not to mention boring. And I noticed there were a lot of horse flies particularly in the deepest sections of the woods all summer long. This is one of those places I wanted (and repeatedly tried) to unconditionally love, but I only recommend it as a place to see cool shades of green in the month of May:

Check out Funderburg in May when the meadows glow with glorious green.

Kishwaukee Gorge North. If you’re going for miles, you’ll have to repeat the course, but the gorge is great and the workout going up and down is intense and fun. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River and lots of mushrooms!

My sons exploring the gorge at Kishwaukee Gorge North in November. Several species of mushroom here.

Macktown Forest Preserve. Sort of small so park at the entrance to get your steps in. This place features lovely trails through a hardwood forest, nice views of the Rock River, an interesting cemetery where Hononegah is buried and educational signage about the history, native plants and more. But be careful. There is weirdness lurking in the woods:

Mysterious bin located fifty feet from the trail at Macktown. I was too chicken to get any closer. Jimmy Hoffa, are you in there?

Oak Ridge Forest Preserve. Unique structure and vibe. I always see something unusual here. Almost feels like you’re in the South. It starts by the Kishwaukee River then dips in and out of the forest.

This is a decaying giant puffball mushroom at Oak Ridge. The sunlight hit it in such a way that you can see its stunning purple hues. Most of the time, decaying puffballs look greyish-greenish-brown.

Rock Cut State Park. Located in Loves Park, this park features a beautiful forest, lovely lakes, camping and delightful trails. Once a year we rent a pedal boat and head out on Pierce Lake. It is especially fun to go early in the morning when it is quiet and misty.

Fern and Angelo on Pierce Lake at Rock Cut State Park.

Russell Woods Forest Preserve. In DeKalb County. Lovely views of the Kishwaukee River, nice trails, peaceful prairie and a nearby farm. Oh, and it has this sledding hill!

Russell Woods in DeKalb County. It’s a sledding hill in the winter but during the summer, it’s where we meet to share our writing or discuss the books we are reading. That’s Fern.

Severson Dells Nature Preserve. A family staple, easy to get in four quick miles. Interesting trails, lovely bluffs, an inviting creek and a pond that is teeming with life. Visit the woods in the evening to hear and see owls. Get an extra mile in by circling the prairie. Highly recommend the dells but avoid if it recently rained because it gets muddy and slippery.

Seward Bluffs Nature Preserve. One of the perks of hiking in the winter is that you will see things you wouldn’t necessarily see during the warmer months when everything is in “bloom.” Case in point: This dead, decaying tree 50 feet off of mile marker 20 is loaded with the biggest artists’ conks we have ever seen!

Angelo and I were stunned to find so many enormous artists’ conks on this old, dead tree at Seward.

I am certain we would not have seen these conks if the leaves were still on the trees. But there’s more to this preserve than behemoth mushrooms. Seward Bluffs has bluffs (duh), a river, campsites and lovely winding trails.

Be mindful of hunting season. Hunters have their lookouts right at the edge of their private property lines which border Colored Sands, Sugar River Alder and other forest preserves. It’s legal for them to hunt on their property and they are careful, but wear bright clothes if you hike in November and December.

Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve. Hands down my favorite forest preserve in Winnebago County. Exceptionally quiet, tremendous biodiversity, lots of long trails. Terrific prairie, woods, trails and creek. Wear bright colors in November / during hunting season.

Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve is vibrant and exceptionally quiet except during hunting season. Though not allowed in the preserve, it’s legal to hunt on the nearby properties and several people do.

Bonus Trails and Camping

The two “bonus trails” are in Minnesota and the campsites are at Rock Island State Park (not Rock Cut in Loves Park or Rock Island, one of Illinois’ quad cities) in Wisconsin’s Door County.

I’m including the Minnesota trails because even though I no longer live in Minneapolis, I still cherish these natural areas and visit them whenever I am the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And I’m including Rock Island State Park because it offers outstanding rustic camping sites on Lake Michigan or Green Bay and their trails are lovely and rugged.

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. Near the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The trails seem to go on forever. Years ago, when I worked in Bloomington, I used to come here on my lunch hour, so it’s possible to get a quick, satisfying 30-minute hike here. But I recommend carving out at least three hours so you can explore beyond the usual two-to-four miles.

Get your “butterfly fix” in the prairie and then head onto the trails of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge for a long, lovely hike.

Quaking Bog in Minneapolis. Located in the heart of the city and home to a beautiful, mysterious bog and several tamarack trees. If you get your fill of sphagnum moss, the bog quickly connects to Eloise Butler Garden, Theo Wirth pathways, more city trails and interesting neighborhoods. This was my “go-to” nature place when I lived in Minneapolis and it’s the first place I visit whenever I go back.

The quaking bog in Minneapolis in August.
Path to Lake Michigan on Rock Island in Door County, Wisconsin.

What are your favorite places to hike? I hope you consider adding a northern Illinois trail to your list. Winnebago County alone has 44 forest preserves and even though we’ve lived in Rockford for 13 years, we still haven’t visited every single one which brings me to my new year’s resolution: Visit more trails!

Thank you for reading. Happy Hiking! -Connie

Silent Hiking & Writing Party FAQ

Join us for a silent hike into the woods, along a prairie, near a river and by a creek. And then write!

Hello friends and family! Here are the frequently asked questions about the hiking and writing party! I hope you come! -xo Connie

Q: What’s going on?

A: A silent hiking and writing party! There will be no talking from 9:00-11:00 a.m. except when I record you reading your new writing, which I’ll explain further down.

Q: Where is it?

A: It’s in northern Illinois, not far from the Wisconsin border. It’s two hours north of Chicago and about ten minutes from I-90. The specific location will be kept secret until you RSVP.

Expect to hike into a forest as well as alongside a prairie and a creek.

Q: Why so secretive, Connie?

A: Because it is the most consistently quiet place I have ever been and though I am eager to share this “secret” with friends and family, I want to keep it that way to protect the wildlife that thrives there.

Q: What if the silent hike clears my mind so much that I can’t think of anything to write?

A: When we meet, I will give you a writing prompt, if you want one. You can use it or ignore it, but you do have to write!

Q: What if I hate writing?

A: I don’t care. Write.

Q: What happens if we all show up at the same time? Won’t the trails get congested?

A: I will send you onto the trails in staggered times so that you have your own space. There are plenty of ways to spread out. It is easy to get lost on these trails and cell phone services is spotty, but if you simply keep walking, you will make it back to the trailhead.

Q: What if I get lost?

A: Then you will die in the woods, alone. Bobcats will eat your rotting flesh.

Q: How much should I write?

A: As much as you want! You can write a haiku or a tanka or a sestina or an essay or a story or song or a play or a monologue or whatever. I’ll record you reading up to three minutes (about 1000 words) of your new writing.

Q: Why are you going to record me?

A: I am going to include everyone’s recordings in a video. Then I am going to share our video through Zoom and Facebook Live on Halloween Night at 7:45 p.m.

Q: What if I bring something I’ve already written? You gonna be mad?

A: Hell yes I’ll be mad! This is a new event and your writing should reflect the new event.

Q: Does that mean I have to write about the event?

A: You can write whatever you want. It just has to be new writing. Like, don’t show up with your laptop with a manuscript you started in 1997. Or even something you wrote last week. Don’t bring something you want to “dust off” or I will sic the bobcats on you.

Q: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned bobcats. Are there bobcats?

A: Bobcats have been reported in 99 of Illinois’ 102 counties, so probably. However, they are very secretive and I have never seen one there.

Q: Is there anything lurking in the woods that might scare me?

A: Not likely, unless you’re afraid of whitetail deer. But there are fox holes and gopher holes, so it is truly important to look where you are going. There are also countless walnuts on the ground, so keep an eye on the trails so you don’t accidentally twist your ankle.

There is one grill and Jesse will be grilling halloweenies on it.

Q: What if I get hungry from all that hiking and writing?

A: There will be blood snacks! Jesse will be grilling halloweenies and I will be serving a gigantic charcuterie. There will be plenty of vegetarian options. We’ll have bottled water, too.

Q: What should I bring?

A: Please bring your own pen, journal, notebook, etc. Bring your own chair if you want to sit alone, and, if you like, a jug of water to wash your hands, should you need to use the toilet.

There is one vault toilet on the premises, but there is another one down the road.

Q: The word “toilet” embarrasses me. Why are you even mentioning it?

A: Because there is only one vault toilet on the premises. No sinks.

Q: Jeez, how remote is this place? Will I be able to legally and easily park?

A: There is a small parking lot and another one nearby. I’ll help you get situated.

Q: What else is there in terms of comfort?

A: There are two picnic benches in the meeting area and one vault toilet. There is parking but no shelter.

Q: What if it rains?

A: If it’s lightly raining, we will persevere, but if it’s truly pouring we will cancel. I will make that call Saturday at 7:00 a.m. on Facebook and through email and texts.

Q: What time?

A: The in-person event is 9:00-11:00 a.m., on Saturday, Oct. 30 but Jesse and I will stick around later if anyone wants to break the silence and talk. There is also a nearby apple orchard and pumpkin patch for anyone who wants to really have a Midwestern fall experience.

Q: What if I get there early?

A: We will be there at 8:30 to set up and you are welcome to join us or get a head start on the lovely trails. Talking will be allowed all the way up until 9:00 a.m.

Q: What time will the video be shown?

A: The online event is Halloween Night from 7:45-8:30 p.m. I’ll send you the Zoom / Facebook information on Halloween.

Q: When will you send me the address to the secret location?

A: I will send you the address once you RSVP.

Q: How do I RSVP?

A: Email me at connievkuntz@gmail.com. Or call or text me at 779-772-0716.

Q: How much does this cost?

A: It’s F-R-E-E!

Jesse and I truly hope you can come! -Connie See Less