The dismal economy has me thinking a cheerful outdoors thought:
Bring back the CCC!The Civilian Conservation Corps was the silver lining of the dark cloud that was the Great Depression.
Nicknamed "Roosevelt's Tree Army," it did double duty of providing employment and protecting the nation's natural resources. Some 3 million young men served in the CCC between 1933 and 1942. They planted trees, built roads and forest fire lookout towers, protected streams from erosion, and built 800 parks and nearly 52,000 acres of campgrounds. In Illinois, CCC crews planted 60 million trees and created 1,192 miles of trails. What better time than our current crisis to give a big wet kiss to this legacy of the last one?
You don't have to travel far. The Skokie Lagoons were built by the CCC, and the Cook County Forest Preserve is dotted with CCC picnic shelters. Cook County was home to at least eight different CCC camps, where men lived in armylike barracks and created vibrant communities.
"It was more than just bricks and mortar," said Jim Havlat, building architect of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. "At Camp Skokie, they ran their own newspapers."
But if you want to travel far, you can. The Corps left its mark on forest preserves, parks and state lands throughout the area. Here are a few particularly attractive and well-preserved sites. Pack a lunch -- this is a recession-themed outing -- and enjoy.
"I love this building. I always wanted to live in a log cabin," said Melinda Tury, a volunteer naturalist.
She was sitting at the front desk of an impressive one, the sandstone-and-timber visitor center at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, Oak Brook, part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. CCC crews built it in 1934, using logs felled from a stand of trees on what is now the parking lot.
And without power tools, marvels Debbi Gayon, education site manager. "He's using an ax," she said, pointing at an archival photo of a CCC worker planing a log, part of an exhibit on the CCC.
For a trip further back into history, check out the building's buff-colored limestone, which was quarried at the district's Waterfall Glen site. "If you look very carefully, you can see fossils," said naturalist David Andrusyk.
Originally a boathouse, it had a floating dock in back and boats for rent, until water pollution ended the attraction. But the waterfront location, with windows overlooking Salt Creek, is ideal for watching waterfowl.
Don't stop with the nature education center. Head out on the trails to see the site's CCC picnic shelters. And then head out to the country, to White Pines Forest State Park in Mt. Morris.
White Pines is home to an extensively renovated CCC-built lodge and cabins, known as White Pines Inn, all boasting impressive stone fireplaces. But there is more.
"Basically, the entire park was developed by the CCC," said Dan Stewart, the park's superintendent.
The park is a beauty -- 385 acres in the Rock River Valley, creeks meandering beneath footbridges and the last stand of natural white pines in Illinois -- the southernmost in the U.S.
The hiking trails, the footbridges, stone retaining walls at the edge of the creek -- it's all courtesy of the CCC.
The trails are delightfully hilly in spots. And the picnic shelters are particularly charming, their steeply pitched roofs giving the shelter a storybook quality. In winter, people wrap the open sides with plastic to block the wind, build fires and stay cozy.
You could stay here for days -- and if you had reservations, you could -- but our CCC tour is not finished. Fire up your book on tape and head for McKinley Woods in Channahon.
What McKinley Woods, part of the Will County Forest Preserves, has is location. Yes, it has a CCC picnic shelter, a sweet open-sided building with one of those massive hearths. But the particularly fine thing about this shelter is what lies just beyond it.
Namely, the I&M Canal. From the back of the shelter, you can walk down steps to a little deck jutting into a quiet inlet of water. It's too peaceful for words. If that isn't heaven enough, cross the footbridge to get to the canal trail, at this point a narrow ridge surrounded by water on both sides. Pick a direction, and walk; you've got 60 miles to choose from.
"We love it here; it's beautiful," said Cassie Jones 17, of Shorewood, who was sitting atop a picnic table in front of the shelter with Matt Matesevac, 16, of Minooka.
Pretty much everything CCC is. The last words on our tour are, "Thank you."
Outdoors alert: Those who mourned the closing of area state parks are taking off their black hiking duds. Gov. Pat Quinn has reopened Castle Rock, Lowden and Illini State Parks. And though Channahon and Gebhard Woods were on the original hit list -- and the "bucket list" tour I proposed in November -- both were reprieved and never closed in the first place.
Now the tour can be a celebration. Check it out at chicagotribune.com/stateparks.
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IF YOU GO
The Fullersburg Woods Visitor Center is at 3609 Spring Rd., Oak Brook. The main entrance to the woods is on Spring Road, one-half mile south of 31st Street. Call 630-850-8110 or visit dupageforest.com.
White Pines Forest State Park is at 6712 West Pines Rd., Mt. Morris. From Oregon, take Illinois Highway 2 to Pines Road, turn right and follow the signs about 8 miles to the park entrance. Call 815-946-3717 or visit. dnr.state.il.us.
McKinley Woods is on McKinley Road in Channahon, which is reached off U.S. Highway 6, but not easily. There are no signs for the park. Look for McKinley Road, 3.5 miles south of the intersection of U.S. 6 and Interstate Highway 55. Turn left on McKinley and drive 1.9 miles to the end and the park entrance.
Check out these historic forest preserve structures built by the CCC
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