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MORAINE VIEW STATE RECREATION AREA
Like most state parks in Illinois, a lake is its centerpiece.
Unlike those parks, it isn't named after the lake.
Moraine View sits right in the middle of the Bloomington Moraine (one of the four largest in Illinois) and, well, you do the math.
Dawson Lake does fulfill the aforementioned stereotype, and its 158 acres offer fishing, boating, and even swimming (Memorial Day through Labor Day).
You don't have to be in the water to enjoy the lake, though: car campers can lay claim to some choice sites on the lake's shoreline.
The lake didn't bring me here, and neither did the car camping.
I came here for the Tall Timber Backpack Trail.
The mile-and-a-half loop trail sits in the isolated southwest corner of the park.
Alongside the trail are 10 Class "D" primitive campsites. The closest sit only a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, while the furthest will take you three-quarters of a mile into the woods. While it isn't legitimate backcountry, it is about the most dispersed "campground" you'll find in this part of Central Illinois.
Be sure to call ahead.
The "backpacking" portion of the park does close down nine weeks out of the year for controlled turkey hunting. Unlike my last trip, I only heard the prey (turkeys) this time around, and not the predator (shotgun-wielding crazies). Luckily we got to leave our blaze orange at home, and came the last weekend prior to their next hunting season.
Now, finding an IL State Park is fairly easy.
If there's corn, keep driving.
If there're trees, you're either getting close or there already.
Aside from some trees, LeRoy is home to a sizable wind-harvesting community, dotted with enormous wind turbines whose purpose I didn't fully understand until my second night at the park. Then I realized how much of a cash "crop" wind seems to be around these parts.
Make your way into the park and keep hanging right-hand turns. If you've crossed a bridge over the lake, you've gone too far. The last parking area before said bridge is the trailhead for the Tall Timber Backpack Trail.
Here you'll find a couple privies (what difference separating them by gender makes is beyond me), a well pump with potable water, trash cans, and the [self-serve] permit station.
You want a shower? A.) wait until May, or B.) learn the hard way, like my hiking buddy Ryan did. Who'd have thought the bushcrafter would lose a game of "Shower Chicken" to the hiker?
Well, come our first morning, and come 80-degree weather, he bowed-out before I did and wound up using the well pump to make lemonade from the lemons he was dealt.
No shower, no shame, folks!
Did bring a comb with me - a UL splurge, but an appreciated one.
Obtaining a permit is like pumping gas here in Illinois: do it your own darn self.
The rate is six bucks a night, and since it's engraved into the wooden sign, I highly doubt it'll be affected by inflation - not like they've the money to commission another wooden sign.
It's a habit of mine to toss a few extra bucks in with the requested amount. Call it a tip. Call it the inability to make change. Don't call it unhelpful.
The well pump was running, and there wasn't a boil order, so we'd no problem sourcing all our drinking water from it. During a wet season, you can also filter out of the creek that runs through the trail, too.
Since sites cannot be reserved, and all are first-come, first-serve, we just figured better to hike the trail until we found one we liked, than pick it ahead of time and find it occupied by someone else.
We headed out counter-clockwise on the trail, which is the direction that'll take you past the campsites in numerical order.
Metal poles with small orange diamonds display the site numbers and make them easy to find (with the exception of #9, which is unmarked). Each has a fire ring and a picnic table.
SITE #1, right of the trail, is the most popular and closest (along with #10), and while it's roomy enough for tenters and wooded enough for [hammock] hangers, it does sit right behind the park road. The convenience here is as much a deal-breaker as it is a deal-maker.
SITE #2, left of the trail, is the campsite we called home for the weekend. With the possibility of thunderstorms in the forecast, the high ground made the decision-making easy. While it is huge (our hammocks were hung a small hike away from another), it does sit in the backyard of Site #3. Which would be a deal-breaker, if it weren't for the fact that site's fenced-off and has been closed for all of the seven years my hiking buddy has been coming here.
The rest the sites we didn't see until we hiked the full trail on our second day.
SITE #3, left of the trail, doesn't seem like it'll be hosting campers anytime soon. Might as well keep on moving to the next one.
SITE #4, (again) left of the trail, is large and just as good as the aforementioned for tents and hammocks. With the exception of the smaller or uneven sites, most along the Tall Timber trail are flexible enough to host either. However, in the summer months, this site also hosts more mosquitoes than any other. Stick to this one for the cooler months.
SITES #5 and #6, both right of the trail, sit adjacent to another and are the most remote on the trail (near the halfway point of the loop, approximately three-quarters of a mile in).
#5 is the larger of the two, and both are accessed by a short walk through underbrush that resembles a game trail.
#6, however, is one of the smallest on the trail and is best suited for a couple at most, if not a solo camper.
SITE #7, left of the trail, doesn't share space with another site. With a larger clearing and fewer trees than other sites, this one's best-suited for the ground-dwelling population. There was only one other group aside from us. Ryan and Bryan (considering my hiking partner named Ryan, this just made things confusing as all heck). Didn't get much a chance to talk to them, but it made sense - they made camp here, at one of the sites furthest from the trailhead, and the most we saw of them the entire weekend was their campfire during a night hike our first evening.
Before you reach the next site, you'll take a bridge over the creek. This has been a wet season, because a six-month winter melted down into flash floods. Despite that, the creek was low and slow moving, if moving at all. Stick to the well pump.
In an ironic contrast to the convenience of the bridge, a widowmaker came crashing down in front of it, blocking the trail.
The entire weekend we found ourselves asking how folks hiked the trail without ever passing our site. Well, turns out they ran into this, and turned right around.
SITE #8, literally - and I mean LITERALLY - to the right of your ankle as you hike past, is the site you only take if each and every other site is occupied. The small size limits the number of places you can pitch a tent (or hang a hammock). The uneven ground makes it inhospitable for a tenter, and the close proximity to the trail ruins a camper's privacy, regardless of his shelter choice. In short? If you choose this site, you're gonna have a bad time.
SITE #9, left of the trail, is a long, narrow site. While the lack of a marker makes it hard to find, the obvious clearing (and even more obvious picnic table) make it known to the passerby hiker. While it has some elbow room to it, it doesn't have privacy: the longest side of the site is also the one the trail runs along.
(No picture(s) for this one - didn't recognize it was actually a site until I passed it by!)
On the way to the next and final site, you'll see a creek, and you may even think you've found another water source.
This is runoff from the main lake, where you've boat motors and swimmers sharing the same water as the fish. Again, if you haven't sensed a theme - stick to the well pump. If it foams? Leave it alone.
SITE #10, left of the trail, is one of the two most popular sites. This one offers the same proximity #1 provides, without being near a park road. In some sort of unofficial tradition, a set of four log stumps is maintained here creating a circle of "chairs" around the fire ring.
There's enough room out there to claim a small piece of it for yourself, and while it is likely you'll have neighbors, it isn't likely you'll be able to neither see nor hear any of 'em.
My biggest complaint with the park lies in the maintenance - or lack thereof.
Our second day brought some gusty winds with it, and it marked my first experience with the infamous "widowmaker."
Well, "widowmakers." And yes, plural.
A whole lotta plurality.
These ones? Between 70 and 90 feet tall.
Definitely putting the "Tall" in "Tall Timber Backpack Trail."
The trail is filled with dead trees, and the further you hike down it, the more you'll see. Luckily, most of them seem to be dead and downed, but many still - if only temporarily - stand.
Ryan's wife came by our first morning, and the same moment her eyes lit up, I heard a booming "CRACK!" behind me: a couple hundred yards away, a tree cracked in two, and lodged itself in the fork of another.
I hung back to write some notes at the picnic table while he walked her back to her car. While they were gone, a tree - and I've never before seen this in my life - what looked like exploded into eight or so pieces and fell STRAIGHT to the ground.
When a tree tips toward the ground in one piece, you can at least run in another and/or the opposite direction. This tree would've taken out anything standing beneath it. Truth be told, it scared the hell out of me.
I put the notebook down and - for peace of mind - walked over to where I hung my hammock and made a thorough check for any more widowmakers. Because, if I found any, I was moving my hammock someplace else. Luckily I'd been smart enough to do it right the first time, but the experience made for a very real reminder of the danger they pose for the unsuspecting.
If nothing else, I'm grateful. Hanging a hammock forces me to mind the trees around me - something tenters don't always think about.
So, if hiking wasn't the main attraction, why was I here?
I came here to meet my friend, Ryan.
We met last fall at nearby Weldon Springs SP. I went from passerby hiker, to dinner guest, to campsite crasher. And we've been friends since.
He's a bushcrafter who carries everything...and two kitchen sinks. It makes him a good fella to know amidst a zombie apocalypse. He carries fifty pounds of everything in his military-grade, Mystery Ranch pack.
He'd probably best describe me as an ultralighter who'd wear Cuben Fiber (tags cut off, of course) underwear if he could. My "bad back" (spinal stenosis) forced me into ultralighting by circumstance. I carry no more than 20 pounds in my minimalist Mountainsmith pack.
And so we became hiking partners, hoping to learn from another by sharing our gear and our strategies with another, and from them, merging our collective experience into a usable approach to hiking.
This trip was his: call it "Bushcraft Boot Camp," or "Bushcraft 101."
Survival's a pass/fail course, and well, my friend was going to make sure I earned passing marks if ever that test came.
Many will argue the ability to survive is directly proportional to how well one makes his shelter.
Well, we bought and brought ours: Warbonnet Blackbird hammocks.
Not knowing how much Ryan snored, or how much I snored [or would admit to], I pitched mine a small hike away from his. We'd more than enough campsite for it, and well - got our money's worth!
My setup on the first night, relying heavily on a WB Travel Sock and an AHE New River UQ to both cut the wind and the chill.
A view of the setup, sans Travel Sock winter cover, with the bug netting rolled back and tied off.
"Nudie" pics of the infamous Warbonnet Blackbird 1.1 DL.
Note that this is the updated, 2014 revision of the Blackbird, whose mesh more closely resembles the XLC and extends further down the sides to increase breathability and visibility.
However, longer-toenailed folk beware, as the extended mesh does continue further into the footbox than it did on the previous model, and makes for a less durable surface for your feet to be pressing against.
The additional mesh does make for nice views while you're laying inside it, however, the breathability is more appreciated in summer than winter.
Hence, Travel Sock.
Our first morning erred damn near 80 degrees.
Hence, no Travel Sock.
The "shelf" is really a handy place to store about darn near anything.
However, limit it to either essential items or lightweight ones: once the weight of its contents exceeds the tension of the shock cord guy-line, it will begin to sag and fall inward toward the hammock. This negates staking-out the sides (keeping them from collapsing inward on the occupant).
Not wanting to turn my shelter into a pressure-cooker, I stripped the Travel Sock and UQ off. Since storms were a possibility, the hammock was tucked up and into the tarp for my second night.
ENO's fullest-coverage tarp can be likened to a miniskirt. This is the absolutely maximum of coverage you'll get without touching the tarp from inside your hammock.
For those wondering, yes, I'm minding the "foot box" of the WBBB.
While my skills weren't quite at the level of manufacturing foraged wood cooking utensils, I did take inspiration from my friend, and fashioned tent stakes from wood I found near my hammock. Gotta admit, not having to pack in, clean off, or pack out tent stakes is something I'm going to try to continue doing on my future trips.
These "stakes" were a lot longer and reached far deeper into the soil than the MSR Mini Groundhog stakes I had packed in (and forewent in favor of the natural equivalent).
Once we hung the hammocks and pitched the tarps, it was time for me to do some learnin'.
Fire was our focus.
Most the trip revolved around the importance of a well-made, easily-lit, and self-sustained fire.
Now, I'll warn you: there aren't many pictures from our tutorials.
You'll probably notice there aren't many "Selfies" from knife-wielding bushcraftsmen. There's a reason for this. And those who've attempted to prove otherwise probably lack the necessary fingers to capture the aforementioned "Selfie."
Here's the tripod we fashioned from three comparably long lengths of wood, with a grill grate hung from the toggle.
Ryan, demonstrating the how splitting wet wood can be a way of finding dry wood.
Making tongs, because, well, he can make tongs.
Normally I'd call him a "show off."
We then built a long fire with a pyramidal arrangement of wood, with the quickest-burning at top, and slowest-burning on the bottom.
You build a fire once.
Much the same, I was taught that a proper fire need be lit just as many times.
He taught me how to create an ember, and what to make one from. With it, we'd light the fire once. And only once. After that, it required a bare minimum of effort to maintain and became almost self-sustaining. If you want a part-time job, you can find one outside the backcountry, and maintaining a fire shouldn't be one of them.
Thanks to him, I've given up carrying paper matchbooks and Mini BIC lighters, whose functionality can be compromised the second they're wet.
All I pack, use, and need now is my firesteel.
If I can make an ember, I can make a fire.
Here's a closer view.
While he did share his bushcrafting knowledge with me, Ryan did a good job of keeping mum when it came to his spice rub.
The finished and "plated" chicken is below.
Speaking of plates?
Snow Peak frying pans do not equal plates.
The collapsible handle on my frying pan/plate gave out on me during breakfast on the first morning.
As best I remember, I didn't order my eggs "Sunny Side Down," nor did I expect to rely upon the "Five Second Rule."
Also - warm weather will quickly turn trail mix into trail mush.
Brought my bear bag down from the tree our first morning to find my trail mix turned into a grainless oatmeal. Love your strategies, Mr. Skurka, but this trip marks the last time I'm carrying chocolate in the springtime.
As sides, we cooked-up a little pan-fried bannock along with some sautéed brussel sprouts and onions.
Now, if nothing else, Ryan has been the first and only person to get me eating brussel sprouts. So much so, I went in for seconds on them. Guess I can say I'd make my Mama [and my nutritionist] proud!
Since my high blood pressure doesn't much care for the caffeine in coffee, and my taste buds wonder why I'd even bother with coffee when it's decaf, I tried drinking cider this trip.
I'd have to say I liked it a great deal. There's no need for adding in any kind of sweetener or creamer, and it's good right from the get-go!
Less to pack in.
Less trash to pack out.
Keeping things warm while I packed up camp on our last morning.
This stupid-simple, Reflectix cozy from AntiGravityGear is some of the best money I've ever spent.
Can't say it was anything but a helpful, fun, and well-needed trip.
Six months of this Chicagoan's cabin fever had him wanting out on the trail worse than ever, and man, it came at the right time.
Next month, we're revisiting the River Ridge Backpack Trail at Forest Glen Preserve and focusing on hiking over camping.
But...I'm bringing sunscreen.
All it took was one eighty-degree and sunny morning to give me sunburn.
And Chicago, without missing a beat, brought another inch-and-a-half of snowfall the following Monday and thus made it the second worst winter in history.
And also made it walking, sunburned, into the office on Monday morning.