Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Wonder of Allerton Park

When I awoke yesterday to a thick overcast and the sound of wind howling alongside the house, I wasn't sure how many families from our Cub Scout pack would show up for the nature hike we'd planned at Allerton Park and Retreat Center in nearby Monticello, IL. I was pleasantly surprised when seven scout families showed up at our caravan rendezvous point at the school at 9:30am. Raindrops were falling, but judging by the radar, they wouldn't amount to much. When outdoors with some of the younger scouts and their siblings, we have to ensure reasonably comfortable weather conditions. Hiking in 40 degree rain with gusty winds wouldn't qualify, so I was hoping the forecast would hold and the woods of Allerton would provide some cover from the elements as well.

As we made the 25 minute drive from Champaign to the far side of Monticello, the fates smiled on my decision not to cancel. The further west we traveled, the brighter the overcast became. We were even treated to a few stray beams of sunlight through slight breaks in the clouds. Upon our arrival at the Allerton visitor center parking lot, I was confident we'd have a pleasant morning for a hike.

(courtesy of Allerton Park and Retreat Center)
Allerton Park is the former estate of Robert Allerton and was bequeathed to the University of Illinois in 1946. The park covers 1,500 acres along the Sangamon River and is an amazing natural resource here among all the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois. With woods, prairie and large formal gardens, Allerton was recently named one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism. Our family has enjoyed visiting the park over the years we've lived in the area, so I was excited to share it with the scout families who had never visited.

We started our hike at Robert Allerton's former mansion, that now serves as the conference center in the park. My wife led the first part of the hike. As a geologist and educator, she was looking forward to teaching the scouts and their families about how rivers change over time. It's always a great pleasure of mine to witness my wife in educator mode, using her amazing gift for teaching highly technical concepts with vocabulary and examples that her students can easily comprehend.

The Sangamon River was very low, so we were able to see evidence of how the river is slowly carving a new main channel in this part of Allerton Park. From the spot where we stood, the scouts were amazed to see the high water mark on the tree trunks -- far over most of their heads.

After learning about rivers, we continued down the river trail (the yellow trail on the map above). The leaves have fallen from nearly all of the trees, many of them collecting on the river's edge. While a barren woods on the verge of dormancy may not present many obvious opportunities for teaching moments, I enjoy the challenge of finding interesting observations to share with the scouts. Along the trail, we found lightning-struck trees, knotty burls growing on tree trunks, and even an abandoned wasp nest hanging overhead in the branches. I discuss my observations in the form of questions to the scouts, and am always amazed to discover the knowledge and inquisitiveness in these young minds.

We were lucky to visit Allerton during the end of one of the controlled burns that happen in the park. While a few of the scouts seemed concerned when they saw puffs of smoke from some smoldering brush, I reassured them that is was an integral part of helping the forest rejuvenate itself. Fire is a natural occurrence in most wooded areas, necessary for a healthy forest. Controlled burns are a way to help nature along, while at the same time keeping a safe environment for park visitors.

Robert Allerton was an avid world traveler and art collector who believed in the beauty that lies in the combination of human artistry and nature. Many of Allerton's collected pieces are displayed throughout the park, expertly placed in harmony with the natural surroundings. The scouts and their families seemed to appreciate the sculpture intertwined with nature.

As we returned to the parking lot by way of the formal gardens at Allerton, many of the scouts exclaimed how much they enjoyed the hike. For a group of boys who we often find hard to pull away from Star Wars, Mario and Legos, I'd say that's a rousing endorsement for the wonder that is Allerton Park.

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