Winter Hiking on the Tallgrass Prairie

“How utterly astonishing our instant here (a time scented with dim remembering).”—Stephen Rowe

*****

It’s no coincidence that the weather has finally taken a turn and become, well, winter-like. In January, the prairie moves into its deep frosty mode. Hiking for the next eight weeks likely means cold hands, a less colorful landscape, more gray skies, and occasional brutal winds with few trees to block them.

Fermilab natural areas, Batavia, IL.

No wonder a lot of us opt for a book about prairie and a hot mug of tea, sitting by the fireplace and eschewing any physical effort! But the joys of the winter prairie are worth getting up off your duff and hoofing it out to the trails.

Not convinced? Here are a four ideas to get us outside to appreciate the winter tallgrass prairie.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

1. Think “subtle” rather than “eye-popping.” “There’s not much going on out at the prairie right now, right?” That was a question from a staff member where I volunteer as a prairie steward; asked when the wildflowers had long stopped blooming, and the prairie was settled in for the winter. Of course, I answered, “There’s always a lot going on out on the prairie!” Yet, to tune in to what’s happening in the winter is like fiddling with a fussy TV antenna. You do know what that is, right? Or maybe you have to be a certain age…. . The winter prairie takes patience, time, and the willingness to pay attention.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s long been said that the tallgrass prairie is a landscape that whispers rather than shouts. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the Rocky Mountains, or a Florida sunset. And yet. The tallgrass prairie is more than just a quick shot of postcard-type beauty. There is enchantment in the singular…

Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

…and awe in the sweep of the prairie landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL. Wilson Hall in the background.

The grace and loveliness of the prairie—-especially in winter–sneaks up on you as you walk the trails.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look closely. This is no monochrome landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Winter wildflower and grass structures have a charm that may be more compelling than their warm season forms.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

There is a simplicity and rhythm that threads through even the most common of prairie plants.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

A quick hike doesn’t always reveal these aspects of the winter prairie. It takes time.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Slow down. Pay attention. Who knows what you’ll discover?

2. Read the stories the prairie is trying to tell you. The writing is everywhere. Look down, around your hiking boots. What do you see?

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Scan the grasses. What narratives do you read there?

Tail feather, mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look up. There are chapters to be read in the tops of the trees along the prairie’s edges.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

So many tales the tallgrass has to tell you! The prairie is waiting for you to read its stories. All you have to do is show up. Look. Listen. And let the stories unfold.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

3. Take your cell phone. What? Yes, you heard that right. Winter prairie wildflowers and grasses may look completely different than their summer personas.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Load the free app iNaturalist on your phone before you go, and you’ll increase your knowledge of prairie plants in their January mystery guises.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

If you hate the idea of a phone on your hike, take your camera. You can always snap a photo of mystery plants, load them on your laptop or desktop or tablet, and use iNaturalist to take a photo of your image when you are back home to ID them. I also made a resolution to do more eBirding in the new year, so I use my free mobile eBird app to tally the birds I see on my prairie hikes. Again, if you don’t want to take your phone for birding, you can note what you see on a piece of paper and log the data at home. Fun!

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

4. Prepare before you go. Dress for the weather. That means something to keep your head covered. Comfortable footwear. Warm socks to keep your feet warm. Mittens or gloves will keep your fingers toasty. I like fingerless gloves, as I’m tapping my phone app iNaturalist to check a plant ID, or (this year) keeping an eBird list of the feathered fliers I see as I hike. Sometimes, I tuck a “Hot Hands” pouch into my gloves, or a reusable heat cartridge in my pocket for extra warmth (there are many versions of these, I have the Zippo rechargeable hand warmers that were a wonderful gift from my family).

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s worth the prep. If you are cold, wet and miserable, you’ll rush through your walk, unable to concentrate on what you see. Bundle up!

Before you leave home, make a thermos of something hot and delicious to enjoy when you are back in the car. Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate taste amazing when you have just come off the trail, rather than waiting for that hot drink until you are back home. I like to sit in the car for a bit, drink my coffee, and reflect on my hike as I defrost. Maybe you do, too.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

What tips do you have for enjoying the winter prairie? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Please share! The winter prairie is out there, waiting for you.

Ready to hike?

Let’s go.

*****

The opening quote is from Stephen Rowe (1945-), co-author with David Lubbers of Abiding: Landscape of the Soul. Rowe is a contemporary philosopher and educator.

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

Just a few tickets left! The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Library Lecture, Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. This is an in-person program in the beautiful Sterling Morton Library; masks are optional but recommended. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.

Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.

9 responses to “Winter Hiking on the Tallgrass Prairie

  1. I’ve been quietly enjoying your blogs for quite a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose Marie Harring

    The soft muted colors of the prairie bring calm and comfort! Thanks for all the tips for winter hiking…
    If my feeet get cold, that’s it…so make sure your feet are snuggly warm.
    Think to be amazed while hiking…to find the extraordinary in the ordinary!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is always so exciting to see your name! I’m with you — I don’t like cold feet. Those “toe warmers” are pretty fantastic when the temps dip below 20 degrees or so. So delighted to hear from you. Happy hiking Rose Marie! —Cindy 🙂

      Like

  3. Thanks much, both for the keen look outside AND for the four points to encourage doing it well! I shared with my IL kids in hopes they will find themselves out this weekend with you. Whistle if you see them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My MS research was to identify and collect specimens of prairie plants. So, with a garden shovel, I set out to dig up some Silphium sp. only to break my shovel handle after much grunting and prying. After more research, I learned prairie plants have more below ground than above ground, and some have roots to 30 feet.
    Older and wiser. Linda W. Curtis

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello, Linda! What a great MS project. And how amazing about your shovel — whew! Those prairie roots are thick and STRONG! Thanks for reading, and for taking a moment to comment. Cindy 🙂

      Like

  5. My tv still has an antenna. My family only turns the tv on during severe weather or an occasional movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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