I had been seeing a few photos of the frozen waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park popping up on some groups and forums I follow. The forecast for Friday (3/7/14) was high of 40. I made a snap decision if I was going to capture them it had to be Friday before they started melting and the trails got so bad you could get there or they closed the trails altogether.
My good friend Jacki Pienta is the main photographer for Starved Rock Lodge gave me a few pointers and tips and I was off. She told me lots of stairs and lots of ice and that Yak Traxs were required. I was able to find a pair at Wild Country, I went with the Pro model. The pro model was $10 more but have a velcro strap to help hold them on. I can’t tell you how many times they saved me and my gear! Best $30 I have spent in a long time!
I decided that I was going to hike into St. Louis Canyon and Wlidcat Canyon. I wasn’t sure how much a overweight 53 year old could handle with a 17 month old knee replacement. I had been to Starved Rock several times to watch and photograph eagles, but had never been on the trail system so was sure what I was in for. St. Louis was the closest and shortest hike. Jacki stated 40 minutes from the lodge parking lot since the parking lot was closed. I went against her directions and parked off of Route 178 at the entrance to the St. Louis Canyon exit. There was room for 6 or 8 cars to park there since the road to the parking lot was closed and had not been plowed all season. I headed down the gradual slope of the road, it was peaceful and reminded me of the bunny slope at Devil’s Head, with a long winding curve to the left. I lacked a little confidence to how to find the falls, no map, just followed the footsteps in the snow. I was pleasantly surprised once I hit the normal parking lot and found really nice signs and trail markers!
Thought this would give you much more confidence that I started out with and an idea of why the Yak Traxs were required.
Finally, 18 minutes later and an easy hike I was at the falls.
Another tip from Jacki was to protect your gear if you do fall. I usually hike using a belt system, but last year in the Smoky Mountain I felt like my gear was way too exposed if I got caught in weather. I am a huge fan of Think Tank Photo and all my bags but one are from them. The one that isn’t is one I helped get started from their sister company Mind Shift Gear. I backed their project for the 180 Rotation Pro on Kick Started and was one of the first 500 to get this incredible bag. The bottom part rotates while bag in on your back and will hold a full body DSLR with grip and a large lens. The main compartment It has two main entry ways. One from the top, but the main section is from the section against your back and can be accessed while wearing the pack and never sitting it down in elements HUGE benefit while in the field. Keep belt fasten, slip both arms out and rotate entire pack to front. Almost makes a take to work on while changing lenses. The pack comes with a rain hood also. Easiest way is to watch the video from their site. Video #1
Hiked out back to the car and drove to the lodge for a bio break, map and reset for the longer hike to Wildcat Canyon. Heading out or the main parking lot you go down what hast to be 500 stairs. The stairs are steel with very aggressive industrial tread! My Yak Traxs kept getting snagged in the stairs. By the time I reached the bottom I knew I wasn’t going back out that way. Found out later you can park at the visitor center on the bottom and avoid these stairs. I was already pot committed since I left my car in the upper parking lot. Once again clear signage and several sets of up and down stairs as pictured earlier. 35 minutes to Wildcat Canyon. Once there I found 6 or 7 ice climbers there, and a Chicago TV station doing a story on them. Wildcat is the tallest standing in at 75 feet! Took a few photos, but wasn’t really interested in landscapes with the climbers in them.
Since I was already on the bottom and the climbers thought they would be done in an hour, decided to go check out two more falls. Headed to La Salle Canyon but ended up at Tonti. There were climbers there too, but was able to work around them. If you look real close in the first photo you can see the climber almost at the peak.
Behind the falls looking out.
I thought this was La Salle but after checking the map it wasn’t! We met some other people coming in that just came from La Salle and it had the best colors. What the heck, in this far, might as well go another 35 minutes to the next falls. The last third of a mile into La Salle was pretty dicey! No guard rails, icy trails sloping towards canyon floor (30 -40 drop)! The Yak Traxs saved me more than once. I had met up with another member of our local WeClickPhotoGroup. He was struggling with footing in normal boots, no Yaks. We both agreed we weren’t going back out that way. The front of La Salle was really disappointing, covered in dirt and debris. It was so bad I didn’t click off one photo! However behind the falls looking out I captured my favorite photo of the day!
In the photo above you can see the little creek winding though the canyon back towards the Illinois River. This was a flat level way out. Sounded like a great plan, so we carefully worked our way down to the creek. We weren’t very far in when we ran across this ground hog. He was stressed out, I believe he had fallen to the canyon floor, solid rock walls and everything frozen he was stuck. We tried to coral him back towards flat land and the river but he wasn’t in the mood for help!Never shot wildlife with a 16-35mm wide angle before. Good thing Ray let me borrow his 70-200mm.
We were making great time and were headed back to Wildcat to see if all the climbers were gone when the day got more interesting. First Ray broke through the ice and got both feet wet. That got my attention! I was really trying to be careful, but I too broke through about 10 minutes later, and right leg went in knee deep and filled boot up! All gear stayed dry! Good thing the temps were up to 40 and I had on wool socks. The fun was over, time to bust butt back to Wildcat, snap a few photos and climb every stair in the park with one wet foot! Man up big boy, you are only 5 or 6 miles from the car and between you and the car is several hundred stairs!
Put the camera gear away and headed back to the car. We went up the Wildcat stairs to the top and worked our way across back to the main parking lot. Safe and sound and back on the grid.
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