May I suggest the River Trail Nature Center?
A helpful fellow suggested it to me at the recent Wild Things conference on the Chicago area's natural habitats and wildlife. He was one of a number of knowledgeable folks who offered to share their favorite nature spots with the Tribune. He praised River Trail for its indoor and outdoor exhibits and abundance of deer. I would add a few qualities that make it an ideal spot for a "get-over-the-hump hike" for the winter-weary: accessibility to much of the Chicago area, manageable size and heated indoor toilets.Ready to get past that hump? You can start indoors. The exhibit building would be worth a visit just for the Cabinet of Curiosities, a display for a beaver's front paw, a mink skull and turkey tail fungus, among other treasures. It's like a young boy's ideal museum.
If that's not enough, though it should be, there are turtles basking beneath heat lamps; a caged kestrel; and a couple of northern water snakes wriggling through water in a tank, sometimes holding their heads above water and flicking their tongues.
But that's enough indoor fun. Outside, there are cherry-red cardinals partying at the feeder and cages for animals that have been injured or hand-raised and can't survive in the wild. Among them are a red fox, a red-tailed hawk, an American eagle, a great horned owl and a beautifully marked barred owl.
And outside, of course, is where you will take your "get-over-the-hump hike."
There is no bad season in the outdoors. At this time of year, "the woodpeckers are going crazy," said Sue Holt, the nature center's director. Baby squirrels are leaving their nests, coyotes are leaving tracks in the snow and screech owls are calling at sunset.
Two half-mile nature trails loop through the nature center. For maximum hump-hike benefit, I decided to walk both, with a bit of the nearby bridle path thrown in for good measure.
I started walking south along the Grove Portage Trail. It was pleasantly woodsy, though a little too short for mental health improvement. Instead of looping back to the exhibit buildings, I took the spur to the bridle path, and headed north.
On the bridle path, unmelted snow upped the aerobic ante. I crunched through it until the path reached the Allison Woods Picnic Area parking lot.
At the end of the lot there was a gate that led to the other nature path, the Green Bay Trail. I took a few steps and found myself facing a deer, frozen still and staring at me. Then I saw two more deer. Then three more. I looked and counted, looked again and counted again. I was surrounded by 11 deer.
They more or less shrugged their deer shoulders and wandered away. One walked the trail in front of me; when I followed, it leaped off, white tail raised like a flag.
The trail passed a vernal pond, now semi-frozen, and an ephemeral creek. River Trail Nature Center is on a flood plain, and the site is periodically crisscrossed with water.
And on a late winter hike, watch out for that water. A bridge over the creek and surrounding paths was covered with ice. It had melted just enough to coat it with water, as if a Zamboni had slicked it down. Bring your slip-on traction devices, or an orthopedic surgeon.
But don't forget to look down -- not just for safety, but to marvel at the sight of leaves suspended in ice beneath your feet.
The trail ends along the river, where Canada geese and mallard ducks were floating and flapping on the water.
The clouds thinned; a faint sun turned the winter woodlands warm with light. My hump hike had done its work well. An hour and a half of walking, wandering, listening and looking, and now life was better. I had set out in the slough of despond, and walked out of the woods humming. Someone should post signs outside forest preserves: "The outdoors -- nature's antidepressant."
As I drove away, I could almost see winter's hump in my rear-view mirror.
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IF YOU GO
River Trail Nature Center: It is at 3120 Milwaukee Ave., Northbrook, three-quarters of a mile southeast of River Road. Like other Cook County Forest Preserve nature centers, it is closed Fridays. For more information, call 847-824-8360 or visit fpdcc.com.
AND A FEW MORE:
Want in on the other tips I got at the Wild Things conference? Here are a few:
Lockport Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County
Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserves, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
Reed-Turner Woodland, Long Grove
Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve, Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Pilcher Park Nature Center, Joliet
Spring Valley Nature Center, SchaumburgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun