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updated: 11/21/2011 8:15 AM

Nature hikes a perfect antidote to holiday frenzy

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  • A trail beckons hikers in Burnidge Forest Preserve in Elgin.

       A trail beckons hikers in Burnidge Forest Preserve in Elgin.
    LAURA STOECKER | Staff Photographer

  • Nature has reclaimed an old paved roadway, which is now a trail at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts.

       Nature has reclaimed an old paved roadway, which is now a trail at Freeman Kame Forest Preserve in Gilberts.
    LAURA STOECKER | Staff Photographer

  • Klaudia Tabor, left, and Kayle Keehn, both of Algonquin, along with Pepper, a pit bull, take a walk through Raceway Woods in Carpentersville.

       Klaudia Tabor, left, and Kayle Keehn, both of Algonquin, along with Pepper, a pit bull, take a walk through Raceway Woods in Carpentersville.
    BRIAN HILL | Staff Photographer, 2010

By Valerie Blaine
Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The holidays are here, and the frenzy has begun.

This is the time of year when rushing to and from places becomes a national obsession. It doesn't seem to matter where -- somewhere, anywhere, everywhere that our to-do lists demand we go.

If the very thought of this craziness stresses you out, it may be time to take the exit ramp from the rat race, find a forest preserve, and get off the beaten path.

Where can you find an "unbeaten" path? Footpaths meander throughout forest preserves in Kane County. These are less well-known than the extensive multiuse trail system that draws bicyclists, equestrians, runners, bird-watchers and more. These modest foot paths are gems to be discovered.

The value of untrammeled paths was at the heart of Henry David Thoreau's question, posed in 1862, "What would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall?" Referring to places controlled by the hand of man, Thoreau presaged an era of asphalt and concrete, climate-controlled buildings and interstate highway systems.

Today, unpaved, un-manicured, and unassuming paths are a valuable component of quality-of-life.

Walking has been usurped by driving, a 21st century phenomenon that Thoreau could not have foreseen. In the need-for-speed automobile culture of suburbia, the pace of life is increasingly frenetic. In stark contrast to the traffic-clogged highway is the quiet footpath in the woods. Speed is irrelevant on the trail and zero miles per hour is quite acceptable. Footpaths are made for slowing rather than going, for sauntering rather than scrambling. Here you don't need to use a turn signal, and you can stop without looking over your shoulder for oncoming traffic. You can sit on a log, lean on a tree, or kneel in the snow for as long as you'd like. On nature trails, pausing is the point.

But stopping isn't easy during the holiday rush, and listening is a lost art. This was quite evident on a recent field trip with 15 energetic fifth-graders. I led the group on a small trail through the prairie and instructed the students to pause, stop and listen. The students fidgeted, uncertain in the silence and unable to still themselves for two long minutes. These kids represent an entire generation that has been bombarded from birth by electronic stimuli ranging from plasma screens to cellphones, laptops and video games.

We adults, of course, are not immune to this brand of electronic sensory overload, and this is where nature trails once again come into play. Trails give us the opportunity to dust off the senses that we haven't used for a long time -- like listening to the winter wind whistling through treetops, or watching a hawk plummet into a snow drift in pursuit of a meal. Some places promote the use of all five senses -- plus a few more.

In his classic book, "The Listening Point," the late Sigurd Olson wrote of sanctuaries in the wild where we can see with our souls and listen with our hearts. Footpaths, not highways, lead to these special places in forest preserves.

Foot trails afford tangible and practical benefits as well as nourishing the soul. Walking on unpaved paths is excellent low-impact exercise, using more muscle groups than pounding the city pavement, walking through the mall, or pumping the stair master at the gym. Walking on grass and leaves also enhances balance and depth perception.

People often ask the District to spread wood chips of footpaths -- after all, wood chips make a natural surface for walking. While wood chips initially serve this purpose, they are short-lived.

"Wood chips break down so quickly that the trails soon become bare dirt," said the district's operations supervisor John Goreth. "On side slopes and hilly trails they don't hold. With every rainstorm they're washed downhill."

Alternatively, the district establishes turf trails that resist erosion from rain and snowmelt.

Footpaths in forest preserves are not always mapped -- and many people like it this way.

"I get tired of my GPS talking at me," quipped Cary Amara, a frequent walker at Tekakwitha Woods in St. Charles. "Sometimes the paths kind of go nowhere in particular, and that's the beauty of it."

Jeannette Joy, another enthusiastic trail walker, added, "I always prefer hiking on trails where I can veer off to follow animals. I love seeing who has been there before. Sometimes I find tiny mouse tracks next to big deer tracks. It's cool to just watch wildlife without seeing the big footprint of humans."

During the holiday season when the footprint of humans is more evident than any other time of year, it's good to step softly into the woods somewhere. If you do, leave your to-do list at home.

And remember that getting from Point A to Point B is not always the point. On an untrammeled footpath your internal GPS will tell you, "You have arrived."

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. Email her at


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