Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Sunday I joined one of my hiking groups in an Earth-Day-related expedition to help in a Prairie-restoration project, clearing invasive species from the Hickory Grove Forest Preserve in McHenry County.

Settlers had brought plants with them from home in order to make their new country feel more familiar. Unfortunately, without the natural checks to their growth they had back home, these species took over the existing ecosystem, often killing out native species in the process.

The big invasive species we targeted was wild buckthorn, a tree that grows underneath native oak and hickory trees. It blocks the sun from getting to the native wildflowers, and also alters the ph of the soil, which in turn damages the Oaks. When the buckthorn is removed, a dense, bushy landscape becomes a beautiful grassy, open space with hickory, oak, and wild cherry growing up to the sky. It’s like being in an old western pioneer movie.

We were working to chop up felled buckthorn into pieces suitable for stacking for later burning.

I grabbed a bow saw and headed into an area of downed trees. The wood was still green, so the sawing was tough; I repositioned my stance and put some muscle into it.

Last week I’d biked to work three times and spent a good amount of time the previous weekend on my trusty Trek. This meant about 50 miles of hard pedaling, which was fun, and I felt great, but I’d also put a lot of strain on my lower back. Too much, it seems.


A spasm shot through my lower back. OK, fine; I thought. I’ll just reposition my hips and put less pressure when I saw..


Ok, Ok. I’ll just kneel so I’m not bending so much..


“Crap,” I muttered, teetering upright, my lower back cursing like a sailor.

I grabbed a pair of long-handled branch loppers, which allowed me to work without bending over. I approached each tree and executed a sort of pliƩ, and in this manner I was quite the lopping maniac (DIE! DIE, WILD BUCKTHORN, THAT TROUT LILIES MAY LIVE!!)

One couple had brought their yellow lab, Leo, to the event. He was young, he had boundless energy, and he sounded like a water buffalo when he crashed through the bushes. I entertained him by tossing sticks as thick as my arm for him to fetch. At one point he discovered we were near a shallow body of water; it was like watching a drug addict finding a meth lab in his basement. Leo was one happy, active dog.

We made excellent progress, clearing out a good bit of land. We then broke for lunch and took a 5-mile hike through the park. The weather was in the low 80s, so it was a bit warm, and since ticks were active there was no changing my zip-pants to shorts. I found a couple of ticks on my clothing, but fortunately had none bit me; one guy in our group was so prone to finding ticks on himself that he was nicknamed Tick Magnet.

The park was beautiful; I'd go back in a heartbeat, and may plan a day out for a nice long hike again. The group was excellent and the people friendly.

On the way home, my two passengers and I saw a Dairy Queen and turned into the parking lot with a screech of wheels. I had a small hot fudge sundae, which was ambrosial. So simple, and so perfect.

Heading back on 90 we got caught in traffic. The local highway authority, in its wisdom during construction, saw fit to have three lanes open for I-Pass holders and ONE lane open for cash-only customers. After a half-hour of waiting in line, I decided I’d had enough, and I swung back onto the highway, scorching through the I-Pass arch.

“I feel very Thelma and Louise right now!” called out one of the girls from the back seat.

They’ll never take me alive.

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