We need fresh air. We need exercise. We need to relax. Being out in nature is more important than ever during this era of COVID-19, given the stress, to say nothing of the physical limitations, it brings. Section 5c of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s “stay at home” order still allows walking, running, hiking and biking in open recreation areas as long as you practice social distancing. So here’s a short list of unique places far from the crowds.
First, though, being outside in a safe and satisfying manner is getting tricky. Let’s keep in mind this advice from Northwestern University infectious disease professor Robert Murphy: “It's not being outside that's unhealthy, it's congregating with people.”
Going for a walk with friends now requires keeping away from one another. Lots of people are trying it, but it takes some discipline.
Runner Ila Allen tried it with her running group. “The distancing is not hard but you do have to keep it in mind, for it's not a habit, ” Ila said. She says she’ll keep running until told otherwise because “it keeps me sane.”
If it’s tricky for those with group running experience to practice social distancing, for children it’s a huge challenge. Play is a congregating thing. A ride or walk with no playgrounds or sports is a hard sell to a 7-year-old. While on a bike ride, I saw a crowd of dog walkers, kids and parents who bumped into each other on a walk. They were trying to practice social distancing, but the gravity of their wide circle began to collapse with the dogs and then the kids falling into the center. A grandpa type was saying, “Don’t worry, dogs can’t get it.”
Obviously, it’s worth the effort to stay safe and keep sane. It might be safest to keep outings to the people you live with. But there’s an opportunity here to be a little creative and get a little more out of your time outside. Here’s a trick I used that might work for kids and adults alike: give your outings a focal point. It could be anything. In the best of times this would be, “Let’s ride bikes to get a slice of apple pie.” But with eating out off the table (unless you picnic!), why not make the focal point nature? Go to a forest for a bug hunt, or for a “biggest stick to hit your brother with” hunt. The older set might want to try a plant hunt, a tree hunt or how about a geologic quest like a waterfall? Do you have binoculars? Go to the next level and look for birds. E-bird could tell you where they’re at.
So where to go?
It’s getting a little tricky to navigate, but most forest preserves are still open. Openlands has some great tips and suggestions (bring your own water and snack, pee first, bring hand sanitizer) on its website. They also have a get outside map for brainstorming some new venues.
The state parks are closed; so are many city parks. Officials are clearly worried about people congregating at big parks and playgrounds. County forest preserves basically have only trails open. I was out at Buffalo Grove Nature Preserve recently and the parking lot was the most packed I have ever seen it. It’s possible it wasn’t just COVID-19 drawing the crowds; this nature preserve just went through a huge renovation and it looks great even while still a little under construction. It was a satisfying walk and not really crowded on the trails.
Waterfall Glen in southwest suburban Lemont is a huge forest preserve. Its 11 miles of trails wrap around Argonne National Lab. You can park in a lot pretty close to the waterfall or, if you like, you can park further away and make a hike of it. There's plenty of trails to roam. This area has other great options like Cap Sauers Holding Nature Preserve, but it’s fun to have a geological destination like a waterfall. It’s no Niagara Falls, so I don’t think congregating will be a problem.
It's spring. Look for plants.
My wife and I took a plant hunt in Elgin. We went first to Trout Park Nature Preserve. It’s a tiny wetland preserve right off I-90. The plant we came to see was skunk cabbage. It’s in flower right now and by late March the flower will be gone. I’ve always missed it before. Trout Park is a rare wetland spring (no dogs or bikes). Its mineral rich water makes a unique plant habitat possible.
Skunk cabbage’s flower is a red bulb that forces itself out of the ground and even generates heat to push away snow, making it one of the world’s few thermogenic (heat-making) plants. It’s thought to smell and be red, like dead meat, to attract the carrion flies and gnats that are around this early to pollinate it, but I couldn’t smell anything. It may be the leaves that come later that are smelly. The orb in the center, the spadix, looks oddly like a yellow coronavirus, but let’s not get into that. There was plenty of skunk cabbage at Trout Park Nature preserve. It was deeply satisfying to see this rare local wonder. The successful hunt really took our minds off our troubles and let us tap into wonders around us. Treat yourself to something like this.
We got back in the car and drove to Bluff Spring Fen to double down on the Skunk Cabbage Hunt. A fen is a groundwater-fed wetland. Bluff Spring Fen is maybe even more unusual than Trout Park (no dogs again). To get there you have to enter the Bluff Creek Cemetery (creepy and old) and drive to the back where there’s a few parking spots.
A huge industrial park sits on the other side of Bluff Spring Fen and sandwiched in between is this pretty little spot with lots of rare natives like skunk cabbage. Most of what you want to see is a half mile from the entrance.
There wasn’t as much skunk cabbage here as in Trout Park, but there were some large patches.The strange rolling terrain loaded with native plants must be wonderful in the summer. The Chicago Nature Now website tracks flowering plants and says skunk cabbage is also flowering at Pilcher Park in Joliet. Skunk cabbage is just the beginning of spring’s flowering plant show, but that means spring is here. I could see marsh marigolds and Virginia bluebells peeking out at Trout Park. Shooting star and trillium will follow. Regular plant hunts could go a long way to keeping us sane this spring.
Obviously we’re in a fast-changing situation with authorities closing outdoor spots where people congregate. But even the governor’s “stay at home” order recognizes the value of getting out. Go for it.
One thing to look out for, in Spain and Italy they banned recreational biking, not because of worries about the virus, but about concerns that injured cyclists would use much-needed hospital beds and medical personnel. A lot could happen.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed. Let’s take this opportunity to tap into the wonders unfolding around us, and stay sane and safe.
Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. You can follow him @JeromeMcDonnell.