Enjoying the Bounty of Starved Rock State Park

I’ve known this place since I was a young lad of five or six, maybe even before then. When I took up the motorcycle hobby, some 35 years later, I discovered that Starved Rock State Park was a favorite stop for bikers, especially those who live along the Interstate 80 corridor in Illinois. And so it seems as though everybody knows about Starved Rock—so why write about it—yet even today I know motorcyclists who have never been there. So for the benefit of those alleged few, let’s take a ride.

arrived_22676903162_o

I rode there last fall—Sunday, November 1, to be exact. It had been a particularly mild day, the kind where a leather vest and hoodie still provided sufficient warmth, so I suited up accordingly and headed out for my afternoon ride. At that point, I hadn’t even been certain where I was going, but before long I was making my way toward Utica, Illinois.

From my home base in Plainfield, there are three common ways to get to Starved Rock: fast, scenic, and somewhere in-between. The fastest route is via Interstate highways—in my case I-55 down to I-80, where the speed limit is 70, and then straight west to the Highway 178/Utica exit. You miss a lot of cool stuff by going that route, but if time is of the essence, it’s nice to have this option.

The in-between route will keep you off the Interstates, and give you some scenery, but it’s still a rather straight shot. From my neck of the woods, the objective is to get to Yorkville. From the intersection of Illinois Highways 47 and 71, head southwest on 71 toward Ottawa. Enjoy the scenery and be mindful of the few small towns you will encounter along the way, some of which are known to be speed traps. Once you get to Ottawa, you have two options—stay on 71 through Ottawa and beyond, enjoying a few twisties along the way and entering Starved Rock State Park from the south, or turn west onto Highway 6 and take that until you reach Illinois 178 and turn left, toward Utica, eventually entering the state park from the north.

The scenic route, my personal favorite, is to take Illinois Highway 6 west until it intersects Highway 71 in Ottawa. Illinois Highway 6, from roughly Morris to Ottawa, is relatively scenic and includes several pleasant, sweeping curves along the way. Once you reach Ottawa, you have the same two choices that I mentioned earlier, stay on 6 or take 71.

Me, I say why should I have to choose? Therefore I tend to take one route going into the park and the other coming out. The order I choose usually depends on the time of day, but we should talk about the differences. If you take 71 heading west toward the park, you will travel through downtown Ottawa, which is not exactly a booming metropolis, but is still much larger than a small town. Once past Ottawa, you will encounter a stretch of technical riding, something rather rare in northern Illinois. Expect a few tight, blind curves and elevation changes. They’ll be over before you know it, but give this road the respect it deserves. I have encountered deer, wild turkeys, incompetent drivers and large trucks along this road. Trust me, I know.

I had an interesting experience along that curvy stretch of 71 about ten or twelve years ago, when I was leading a group of ten bikes home from a run out to Bishop Hill. As I leaned into the first curve, I felt this sharp, stinging sensation on the upper right corner of my forehead, followed by another, and another, and another. Apparently that corner of my open-face helmet had snagged a wasp, which was making its displeasure known by attempting to perforate that corner of my forehead. So there I was, trying to remain calm as I navigated those twisties with my right hand and slapped with my left until I got rid of my unwelcome hitchhiker. My maneuvers may not have looked too graceful, but I managed to stay on the road and get rid of the wasp, so I think I did okay.

If you take 6, you’ll encounter a few sweeping curves and a fair amount of farm fields. You will also find an excellent Cajun restaurant called Ron’s Cajun Connection, right before you reach Utica. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but if it’s open, there will likely be a line to get in. It’s that good.

starting-up_22701653931_o

Let’s talk a little bit about the park itself. This is one of the most popular state parks in the area, if not the most popular, so the odds of ever finding it deserted on any day of the week, at least during riding season, are slim indeed. But it is well-attended for a reason. This place is beautiful! Situated along the south bank of the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park offers an assortment of hiking trails, a variety of camping accommodations, a nice hotel/lodge, a pretty cool visitor’s center, gift shop, etc. As state parks go, the restaurant at the lodge is pretty good. Check out their Sunday brunch offering.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The centerpiece of this park, in my opinion, is its namesake, Starved Rock. It’s the stuff of Native American legend, which describes a tribe of Illiniwek who were engaged in battle and trapped upon the butte until they starved to death. Whether that story is true or not, Starved Rock is a beautiful place, offering scenic views of the Illinois River and the surrounding countryside. The ascent to Starved Rock now involves a series of wooden staircases. Back in the 1960’s, when I first went there, we climbed steps carved into the stone itself. And if you look through the current wooden staircase in certain places, you can still see what’s left of those stone steps… childhood memories for me.

going-down_22677080602_o

Hungry? In Utica, besides Cajun Connection, check out Duffy’s Tavern, offering friendly faces and good sandwiches, or Canalport, a bit of a step up, offering the best homemade bar chips in the area, I think. There are other options, but these are the ones I know personally.

On the Ottawa side, check out Hank’s Farm, a restaurant and gift shop outside of town on Illinois 71. During riding season, check out the free-roaming chickens, peacocks, etc. on the grounds. They also do a decent Sunday brunch.

For whatever it’s worth, my current leather vest came from Stonehead Leather and I got my leather jacket from Mix’s Trading Post. Both of these Utica business establishments are well-respected by the biker community and both have earned my endorsement as well.

Surely there is more to be seen in this neck of the woods. What I offer you here is but a taste.

Until next time…

Advertisements

Tales from the Dockside

scan0005
Before I was a biker, I was a boater. Before I became a boater, I was just a guy who wanted a boat. But all that changed on July 4, 1990 when I was thrust into the world of recreational boating by the makers of Royal Crown Cola. Let me tell you about that.

It had been a typical 4th of July holiday in Bensenville, where my wife and I lived at the time. I had been grilling outside and drinking copious amounts of Diet RC Cola. In fact I had been drinking cans of Diet RC for weeks, because of a contest they had been running at the time. Specially marked cases of the product had been proclaiming, “Win A Boat Instantly!”

So there I was, doing some dishes in my kitchen. I had just drained another can of Diet RC and was tossing my can into the trash when I remembered the contest. I literally stopped in mid-toss, drew my hand back away from the trash bin, brought the empty can up to my right eye, and peered inside to see the winning code printed across the bottom.

BOT

I put the can down and stared straight ahead, stunned into disbelief. After taking a breath or two, I put the empty can back up to my right eye and looked inside again.

BOT

Now my heart was racing. I had just come that close to throwing a 17-foot Bayliner into the kitchen trash bin. But I hadn’t thrown it out. There I stood, alone in my kitchen, still just a little bit dumbfounded by the whole thing as I stared at the winning can in my hand. I had to tell Karen. I wanted to call out to her so eloquently, “My dear, come see what I have here,” but instead I began bellowing at the top of my lungs, “Boat!” That wasn’t what I’d meant to say or how I’d meant to say it, but that’s all that came out, again and again. “Boat! Boat!”

combine_images

My poor wife came scrambling into the kitchen at top speed, probably expecting to find that an ocean liner had somehow crashed into our heavily wooded back yard. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I still couldn’t say any multisyllabic words, so I held the can out to her and said, “Look!”

Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye. Her other eye popped open when she realized what she was seeing. Then seized by the same excitement, she began to yell at the top of her lungs, “Boat! Boat!” I’m sure we sounded like a couple of overgrown Muppets on Sesame Street. Eventually we regained the gift of human speech, but that’s pretty much how it started.

Months later, we took possession of the craft. While at the dealership, no fewer than three people jokingly cautioned us about remembering to install the boat’s drain plug. First there was the business manager, who collected the sales tax for which we were responsible, executed various forms, and otherwise gave us legal possession of our new boat. “Here’s all your documentation, here are your two keys… oh, and here is your drain plug.” She handed over a plastic bag with the little brass plug inside. “Don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”

scan0004Then there was the young man who took us up on the boat to give a crash course in what and where everything was. The last thing he said was, “Did they give you the drain plug?” I nodded. “Good! Well, don’t forget to put it in. Ha!”

Finally there was the guy who helped me hitch the trailer to the back of our tow vehicle, a 1980 AMC Eagle (we were people of simple means back then, as we pretty much are now). As I got into the car, he called out after me, “Hey, you know the drain plug is out. Did they…” I held up the little plastic bag and waved it back and forth. “Ah, good! Now don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!” I shook my head, smiling. Don’t forget to put the drain plug in… What kind of an idiot did they take me for, anyway?

I’ll never forget the first time we took that boat out. We had hauled the boat up to my in-laws’ place in Kenosha. Yes, it was a bit of a drive from our home, but they lived a lot closer to water than we did and had ample space in which to store the boat and trailer, when we weren’t using it—which turned out to be most of the time. I still remember what great pains we had taken to ensure that we had everything before leaving Bensenville. We had picked up a lot of essential equipment in preparation for our maiden voyage: PFD’s, dock lines, anchor and rode, a chart of Lake Michigan, 2-way marine radio, air horn, first aid kit, and on and on and on. Then there were the few things that had come with the boat, like the ignition key, hitch lock key, operating manual, and—oh, yes—the drain plug, which I stuffed down into my right front jeans pocket, so as not to leave it behind.

scan0001

A couple of hours later, we were at Kenosha Harbor, preparing to launch our Sweet 17 for the first time. Karen and I were both a little nervous, having never launched a boat before, but we had gone over the process many times on our way up from Illinois and worked as a team to ensure a smooth execution on the ramp. Right.

I was at the wheel, trying very hard to look cool as I backed the trailer into position on the ramp. Karen stood on the dock, signaling and calling out helpful directions. “A little left… A little more.. Straighten out… Go right… No, right… No, your other right… Wait! Okay, pull forward and straighten out.” You get the idea.

We were finally lined up relatively straight on the ramp. I set the car’s parking brake and got out so that the two of us could make ready. We removed all the tie downs, fastened the dock lines and fenders, and unhooked the bow eye safety chain. Karen took the dock lines into her hands and stepped out onto the dock as I got back into the car and began backing down the ramp. Slowly, slowly, slowly I went until the boat floated free and Karen drew the lines in. She would stay with the boat at the dock while I went and parked the tow vehicle. That hadn’t been so bad! I felt proud as I drove away and up toward the parking lot.

I pulled into an open parking space, shut off the car and got out. Being the conscientious sort, the last thing I did before shutting the car door was to feel my right pocket for the car keys. I slapped my hand down against my right leg… and felt that little brass drain plug.

Dale Earnhardt would have been proud to see how fast I sent that car and trailer across the parking lot and down the hill, back toward the launch ramps. As I barreled down the hill, I could see Karen waving frantically and pulling on the dock lines for all she was worth as the back end of the boat sank lower and lower into the water. She didn’t even have to direct me as I backed down the ramp—not that she could have, anyway.

I put the back end of the trailer as far into the water as I dared to, set the parking brake, and flew onto the deck to help my wife draw the boat forward, its bow now pointing up toward the top of the ramp as­ though to say, “Get me up there now!” It took some doing to winch the boat onto the trailer, but we got it done. Then, with the bow eye chain safely in place, I hauled my boat, trailer, and quite a few gallons of Kenosha harbor up to the top of the ramp, where we let the incline and gravity help drain the water out.

scan0003

While we were standing there, another couple pulled in on the opposite side of the same dock. The man hopped onto the dock and began walking up toward the parking area, to retrieve his tow vehicle and trailer. He paused as he passed us, glanced at the water streaming out the back of the Sweet 17 and deduced, “Forgot to put the drain plug in, eh?” His tone was not the least bit unkind as he said this. Rather, he just looked at me knowingly and nodded, his gray hairs catching the sunlight as he did so. I felt a little better after that.

scan0002

We did get out on Lake Michigan, once we had gotten everything relatively dried off, and had a wonderful time out on the water. I felt rather skipper-like as we skimmed the waves, waving at other boaters and observing people on shore as they watched us passing by. Gulls flew overhead. The sun shined down upon us. Despite a rather challenging start, it turned out to be a good day.

mason-awardIn the months and years that passed, I made a point of furthering my boating knowledge. I took a safe boating class offered by the United States Power Squadrons, then went on to join the Chicago Power Squadron, became instructor qualified and began teaching sessions of the course myself. One year I even won an award for my teaching efforts. My students always appreciated the stories I offered as real-world examples of certain principles they were trying to learn, but my drain plug story always got the biggest laughs.

Until next time…