Snowfall in an Urban Woodland

Last week we finally made the transition from autumn to winter, after weeks of unseasonable warmth that gave us a brown holiday season and made small children throughout the Chicago region wonder if it would ever snow again.

A "crick" that feeds into Hickory Creek; Pilcher Park, Joliet IL (M. Bryson)

When last week’s storm blew in, I was lucky enough to be deep in a wooded wilderness — rather than stuck in snarled traffic or confined to a windowless office, where we think of snow as irritating or irrelevant, rather than the miracle it is. But I wasn’t on a fancy ski trip at a remote Colorado resort, or  snowshoeing in the northern woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; I was right here in Joliet, Illinois, in the middle of a perfectly ordinary weekday.

As I dropped my younger daughter off for pre-school at the Nature Center in Joliet’s Pilcher Park last Thursday morning, the snow began to fall, gently and steadily. The children gathered to start their day in the woods, all bundled up with thick mittens and noisy snow-pants and stout boots, their sense of joy infectious. Instead of lining up quietly as usual, they whooped and ran, skidded and flopped, embracing the snow with the full passion of childhood.

I was inspired, both by the kids’ delightful gamboling and the utter beauty of the woodland scene before me. Normally I leave the park and work dutifully answering email and meeting writing deadlines at the nearby downtown library or Jitters Coffee House before returning to retrieve my four-year-old naturalist. But that day I ignored my to-do list and took a winter ramble in the park as the wet snow coated my glasses and clung to my beard.

I am particularly fond of the Outer Loop trail, which winds through the northernmost and most remote section of Pilcher Park, a hill-and-valley landscape of towering trees and meandering creeks. Though beautiful in any season, the forest now displayed stunning visual complexity: every branch, twig, seed pod, dried stem, and piece of leaf litter was coated with snow; every textured surface outlined in delicate white.

Soon I came to my favorite spot in the park, an overlook marked by a low stone wall. Here one has a commanding view of a broad wooded valley from a sixty-foot-high bluff. The only sounds were the ticking of snow upon my coat, the cheep of a lone sparrow, and the distant whistle of the Rock Island train.

Looping my way back, I meandered along Hickory Creek, which defines the park’s southern border. Few things beguile more than a flowing stream in a snowy woodland, its rippling music foretelling of colder days ahead — when the restless water turns to ice, and the river sleeps with the woods.

Winter in Pilcher Park: Hickory Creek, 19 Jan 2012 (M. Bryson)

In such places, liberated from human noise and litter by the gathering snowfall, one may comprehend the value and special magic of urban wilderness — the wild close at hand, even here in our cities and suburbs.

Yes, winter is here again, with its short days, slower rhythms, cold nights . . . and, at long last, snow. It’s good to see it back.

A version of this essay was published as “Winter Is Back, and It’s Good To See” in my monthly op-ed column for the Joliet Herald-News on 19 January 2012. Download a pdf of Pilcher Park’s Trails to see the park’s extensive trail network for hiking and nature exploration. See more photos of Hickory Creek and Pilcher Park here.

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