Why stay indoors when there’s so much to explore in your own backyard? Jamie Johannsen leads a tour of the best outdoor winter activities our region has to offer.
There’s great beauty in the winter landscape. It’s wonderful to soak up the peace of a snowy landscape and hear the sounds of winter birds flitting through powder-dusted trees. Even where there’s no snow on the ground, we may see crystalline hoarfrost on grasses, leaves and milkweed pods.
We can appreciate the beautiful latticework of bare branches silhouetted against the sky. Whether cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, photographing nature, bird-watching or just ambling through the landscape on foot, we discover facets of our favorite natural areas during wintertime that are hidden to us during warm weather. The Old Northwest Territory’s abundance of public trails, parks, preserves and nature centers support this quest.
Hiking and Nature Study
On a winter walk, the world looks different; even the most familiar places are magically transformed.
“I love winter and hike with my dog or ski every weekend,” says Katie Townsend, Rockford resident and environmental educator. “To keep myself indoors during the winter would be like not opening one of my Christmas presents. I would miss calling out to chickadees, watching snow crystals, noticing the silhouettes of the forest trees and the fantastic muted shades of blonde prairie grass accented with blue or crimson. Plus, it’s prime time to view animal signs.”
Winter’s bare branches reveal bird nests and other animal homes. It’s fun to try to identify the type of bird that has built a certain nest, by learning about nest shape, form, placement and materials.
Some nests are tiny, intricately woven creations. Others are minimalist constructions of a few twigs placed precariously across supporting branches. Still others are large and untidy works of grass and twigs.
“Just remember not to disturb or remove the nests,” says Townsend. Most birds don’t return to old nests, but other animals, such as mice, may use them for shelter; squirrels and chipmunks use them for food storage.
Lena Verkuilen, educator at Welty Environmental Center in Beloit, enjoys being outdoors in the winter “for all the special things winter brings.” The sun sets early, so a hike or ski after work is good for viewing winter constellations. “Look for Orion high in the sky with his sword, and his dogs Canis Major and Minor at his side,” Verkuilen urges stargazers. “The Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, points to the North Star and is interpreted many different ways by various cultures. “A cup in our popular culture, The Big Dipper was the drinking gourd guiding escaped slaves north to freedom, is a giraffe in some African cultures, a horse and cart in Great Britain, and a fisher digging at the ‘skyland’ in certain Native American lore,” says Verkuilen.
Verkuilen appreciates seeing subtle changes that occur as winter wears on and gradually turns to spring; she notices them after spending a good deal of time outdoors. When the days begin to warm above freezing, but nights are still cold, she’s inspired by the thought of sap starting to rise in maple trees.
“Just when you think spring will forever be elusive, you’ll notice buds starting to swell on the trees,” says Verkuilen. “Throughout the winter, on warm days, we may notice some animals out and about that are dormant during winter, but are not true hibernators. They include skunks, mourning cloak butterflies and ladybugs.” Animals that are active all winter long leave clues to their activities.
For many people, tracking birds and animals adds fun and intrigue to winter hikes. Tracking is best learned in winter, because footprints, feathers, fur, scat and blood show up well against a snowy white background. “My favorite is seeing otter tracks, with the unique combination of footprints, tail drag and the indentation in the snow that marks a good belly slide,” Townsend says.
She recalls a highlight of her winter tracking experiences. “There was a pattern in the snow that resembled a mini snow angel. It had a little red dot in the middle.” Townsend surmises that a preying hawk made this interesting form when its wings touched down on the snow. She assumes a successful capture was made, based upon the drop of blood left in the impression. In the forest preserves of Winnebago County, Townsend usually finds at least one deer kill made by coyotes each winter.
“Sometimes, on my way home, as dusk falls, I even hear the coyotes howling.”
Townsend observes that the color white is a nature decoder. “Colors, shape and movement seem to be more visible in a snowy white background,” she says. “Winter plumage of most bird species is not as bright in color as it is in the spring, but the snow helps me to pick up on the details. This also holds true for viewing mammals such as red fox, white-tailed deer and squirrels. It’s funny, but in the winter I seem to see even the whiskers of animals.”
Our region is blessed with an abundance of diverse hiking trails in public natural areas. Forest preserves, state parks and conservation areas provide public trails through a variety of ecosystems. “I like a variety of landscapes,” says Townsend. “Most of my hiking, skiing or snowshoeing sessions include a river or lake and forests and prairie in the same adventure.” Some of her favorite locations for winter explorations are Atwood and Sinnissippi parks and all the forest preserves in Winnebago County.
The glaciated topography of the western Illinois counties along the Mississippi River offers both challenging terrain and exhilarating scenery. Jeff Horn, land stewardship specialist at Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, favors winter hikes at Keough Land & Water Reserve near Galena.
“The view of the Mississippi River and the effigy mound groups is outstanding in the wintertime,” he says. The shapes of the 1,000-year-old ceremonial effigy mounds located here are easier to discern with vegetation died back.
Photography and Art
Painter Andrew Wyeth said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”
Many painters, photographers, writers and other artists appreciate the unique aesthetic experiences revealed by various winter conditions. The light, colors, textures and shapes of local landscapes seem to belong to an entirely different world than summer’s verdant lushness. Venturing out into a winter landscape may offer a deep blue sky and purple shadows cast by the trees and plants. Or, it may present small treasures; frosted leaves; intricate filigrees of bare stems and grasses; bright berries hanging like jewels in the sun.
“The quiet beauty that reigns in a winter landscape is the reason photographers enjoy winter,” says Jo Daviess County resident and wildlife photographer Barbara Baird.
“The mere texture of snow, accompanied with varied shadows, is an art form.” Baird likes to capture landscape and wildlife images on Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation properties that overlook the backwaters of the Mississippi River, particularly Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve.
Rick Barton, a cross-country ski outfitter and instructor, is an accomplished nature photographer who scouts various locations while skiing, then returns later on foot with his camera.
“What makes winter nature photography different from other seasons, and also very challenging, are the extreme variations in light,” Barton explains. “If there’s snow on the ground, bright light and glare are what I have to work with. Yet, other days offer diffused light and misty conditions, which give photos a very soft and subtle quality.”
Barton usually takes color photos and enjoys the contrast of bright blue skies and sparkling snow on sunny days. He also likes the muted hues of leaves, bark, rocks and lichens under overcast winter skies that provide even lighting.
Winter Bird Watching
While people don’t necessarily think of the Old Northwest Territory as a premier winter hangout, many birds do. Those that nest in arctic regions fly here to stay during the winter. Typically, more than 30 species can be viewed throughout the colder months. Bird-watching can be a fun way to chase away winter blues.
A lack of leaves and other vegetation makes it easier to spot birds and study them without obstruction. In Winnebago County, avid birder Jack Armstrong looks forward to this season so he can find northern species absent during other times of the year.
“Great spots for bird-watching are along the rivers, especially when part of the water is frozen, but enough is open to provide food and water for the birds,” says Armstrong. “Look for areas of good cover, and trees with seeds for the birds. Klehm Forest Preserve and Arboretum [in Rockford] is a good bet because of the many fruit trees that provide necessary survival nutrition for birds.”
Birds commonly seen in our winter woods include the dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, tufted titmouse, northern cardinal, blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, red- and white-winged crossbill, evening grosbeak, pine siskin and black-capped chickadee. Armstrong recommends listening for great horned and barred owls calling at dusk.
“In open fields and prairie areas, look for horned larks, short-eared owls, lapland longspurs, snow buntings, red-tailed hawks and rough-legged hawks,” he suggests. Among top winter birding locations in Winnebago County are Rock Cut State Park, Severson Dells Forest Preserve, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, Oak Ridge Forest Preserve, Nygren Wetland Preserve and Aldeen Park. In Ogle County, there are White Pines State Park and Castle Rock State Park. In Boone County, LIB and Distillery conservation areas are good bets for birding.
In LaSalle and Jo Daviess counties, bald eagles are the stars of winter birding, since they feed on fish in the wide-open Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Several communities host bald eagle festivals. In January alone, they include the Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days; Quincy, Ill., Bald Eagle Watch; Clinton, Iowa, Bald Eagle Watch; Dubuque Bald Eagle Watch; Keokuk, Iowa, Bald Eagle Days; Muscatine, Iowa, Bald Eagle Watch; and LeClaire, Iowa, Bald Eagle Watch.
Cross-country Skiing & Snowshoeing
“Many folks only experience nature in winter when they’re begrudgingly shoveling the snow or whizzing past it on sleds or snowmobiles,” observes Roscoe, Ill., resident Jessie Mermel. “Cross-country skiing provides a beautiful blend of invigorating, calorie-burning exercise with the meditative peace and solitude of the winter landscape.”
Along with their two sons, Mermel and husband Randy have enjoyed learning to ski in local forest preserves. Many in Winnebago County are ideal for cross-country skiing when there’s a good snow base, Mermel says. Kieselburg, Hononegah, Sugar River, Pecatonica River, Oak Ridge and Deer Run are her favorites. Trails beginning at Oak Ridge can be followed into Deer Run for a total of five miles. Skiers should take snow conditions into consideration, since forest preserve trails aren’t groomed.
“Any trail set up for hiking can be used for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing,” says Verkuilen. “You need to use caution in areas that have drop-offs, like Magnolia Bluff and Carver Roehl county parks in Rock County. These trails are generally not heavily traveled in winter, so Rock County parks offer a nice, contemplative outing in most cases.”
For those who seek more strenuous exercise, Verkuilen recommends the ski trails at Rock Cut State Park in Loves Park, Ill., and trails in the Kettle Moraine system of Wisconsin. Fifteen miles of groomed cross-country trails at Rock Cut State Park wind through rolling terrain in scenic woods and prairies. Trails groomed for both classic and skate-style skiing offer glimpses of Pierce Lake, where you may see bald eagles. Skis and snowshoes can be rented at the concession shop.
To the west, in Jo Daviess County, Jeff Horn recommends the trails at Wapello Land & Water Reserve in Hanover and Buehler Preserve in Galena for cross-country skiing.
In all locations, hikers should be considerate of cross-country skiers. Some trails are groomed specifically for skiers and hikers are asked not to use them when snow conditions are good for skiing. If the trail is a shared one, take care to walk on the side of the set ski track.
Rick Barton has introduced hundreds of people to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, from the Paddle and Trail shop in Loves Park, where he is store manager. The store also has a location in Beloit. “What I promote more than anything is that snowshoes and skis provide access for getting into different parks and preserves where people might not go when the parks are full of underbrush,” says Barton. “This gives everybody a different perspective on our parks.”
Paddle and Trail leases both snowshoes and skis and has noticed a growing interest in snow shoeing.
“Families who want to go beyond winter hiking discover that they enjoy wearing snowshoes to take them places that are more isolated and wild,” says Barton. “We take our favorite summer trails and they become explorations that we never would have had in the summer.” Snowshoeing doesn’t take much time to master. Once you get a feel for walking in them, you feel a sense of freedom to go places where there’s a lot of snow.” All ages enjoy snowshoeing.
In response to growing interest in cross-county skiing and snowshoeing, local organizations, such as Boone County Conservation District, Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation and Welty Environmental Center, are providing group instruction and guided family outings. These are ideal opportunities to receive both technical help and insightful interpretations of winter wildlife and landscapes.
Barton, a land protection advocate, believes that experiencing the land in winter is essential to understanding what we have here. “With the different perspective winter gives to people, I believe it’s easier to explain why we preserve the lands we do,” he says. “It kind of peels away the pretty layers. Plants, trees, hills, valleys and rocks take new forms. You can analyze their essential structures and gain new insights as to why we need to protect watersheds, wetlands and wildlife corridors. When I guide the Winter Wander at Nygren Wetland, I find that people seem to get it quicker.”
Winter is indeed an amazing journey that reveals splendid surprises. Spend time outdoors in parks and preserves this winter, and allow yourself to be amazed.
Outdoor Winter Events
Hikes & Walks
Natural Land Institute
Wander at the Wetland
Sat., Jan. 26, 5-9 p.m.
Hike, ski, or snowshoe your way around Nygren Wetland Preserve with a guide or on your own, and see the full moon glimmering on the trailsThe snowscape, bonfire, luminaries, and refreshments will provide the perfect ambience. Bring your own cross country skis/snowshoes or rent adult and children’s equipment ahead of time at Paddle and Trail in Loves Park, (815) 636-9066. Free. Registration requested. Call or email Natural Land Institute, (815) 964-6666, firstname.lastname@example.org, by Thurs., Jan. 24.
Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF)
Family Luminary Hike/Ski
Sat., Jan. 26, 4-8:30 p.m.
Bring the family for a luminary tour of Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve, an 85-acre natural area overlooking the Mississippi River. Event sponsored by JDCF and Fever River Outfitters. Bring or rent snowshoes, cross-country skis.
Welty Environmental Center
Full Moon Hike
Mon., Jan. 28, 5-6:30 p.m.
The full moon is a great excuse to shake off cabin fever and go for a walk. Meet at the pavilion in Beckman Mill County Park before heading out on the trails. Free for Welty members, $5 per non-member. Call (608) 361-1377 or email email@example.com for information. Registration by Jan. 28.
Atwood Center (Atwood Park)
Atwood Wanderings-Wilderness Explorer
Saturdays, Feb. 2 &16, 9 a.m.-noon.
Hike through the woods to search for animals, animal homes, animal tracks and more. Indoor activities include a puppet show and a live Birds of Prey presentation. Hot cocoa and a cookie provided after the hike. For ages 6-12, $7 for residents, $9 for non-residents. Pre-registration required. If you register online for both morning and afternoon programs for the same day, please contact customer service at (815) 987-8800 for a $2 discount.
Welty Environmental Center and Rock Co. Parks Dept.
Nature Rocks – Good Oak: Candlelight Oak Savanna Hike
Friday, Feb. 15 at Magnolia Bluff County Park, 5-7 p.m.
This hike is inspired by the essay “Good Oak,” in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Hike or snowshoe by candlelight. The moon rises late, so be ready to enjoy a starlit evening. Some snowshoes available. For all ages. Cost is $5, with a family maximum of $15. Call (608) 361-1377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information. Register by Feb. 11.
Skiing & Snowshoeing
Boone County Conservation District (BCCD)
Snowshoeing in January and February
The district will offer snowshoe classes to groups this year. Contact BCCD at (815) 547-7935 for more information. If you’re interested in joining the staff on a snowshoe trek, call (815) 547-7935 to have your name placed on the list.
Boone County Conservation District
Eagle Watch Field Trip
Sat., Jan. 26, 7:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Travel by bus to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Ill., for a day of eagle watching along the Illinois River, plus a live birds of prey program & nature seminars. Departs 7:30 a.m. from Gustafson Nature Center, 603 N. Appleton Road, Belvidere; returns 6:30 p.m. Registration required at (815) 547-7935.
Byron Forest Preserve District
Eagle Watch Field Trips
Sun., Jan. 27 & Sun., Feb. 17, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Visit Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Ill., to see wintering eagles, frozen waterfalls and the rustic lodge, plus the lock and dam. Departs at 11 a.m. from Jarrett Center, 7993 N. River Road, Byron; returns 5 p.m. Registration due by noon, Jan. 23, at byronforestpreserve.com.
Feb. 20 noon-3 p.m.
Ages 6-12 join the Atwood staff on a hike to look for birds in their habitats and identify trees. Indoor hands-on activities include figuring out why different birds have different beaks, and making a birdhouse. Atwood Center, Atwood Park, 2685 New Milford School Road, Rockford, rockfordparkdistrict.org.
Welty Environmental Center
Thurs., Feb. 21 at Big Hill Park, 10-11:30 a.m.
There’s no school in Beloit on Friday, so stay up late to call for owls. Learn amazing owl facts, then head out to call a few. Dress to be outdoors. Call (608) 361-1377 or email email@example.com by Tues., Feb. 19, to register.
Welty Environmental Center
Full Moon Hike and Owl Prowl
Mon., Feb. 25, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Meet at the pavilion in Beckman Mill County Park to hike the wetland boardwalk and north woods trail, enjoying moonlight and starlight, and calling for nesting owls. Call (608) 361-1377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information. Register by Feb 25.