Brian DeNeal: An unpredictable Audubon outing
If someone had told me a month ago I would be standing in the rain in the woods at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday leading a group of Chicago area birders to their birds, I would not have believed them.
But there we stood in the wet parking lot of Garden of the Gods introducing ourselves. I was tapped to lead a field trip Sunday morning as part of the Illinois Audubon Society's Spring Gathering, hosted for the first time in a decade by the local Shawnee Audubon Society.
The attendees were mainly from Chicago and the suburbs, though one couple had come all the way from New Zealand.
Knowing these were people who cherished their "life lists" and for whom binoculars were body extensions, I was a bit intimidated. I knew among them were college professors and lecturers on the avian, botanical and, as it turned out, microbiological schools of learning looking to me for guidance. And I only learned what a spring beauty looked like last week from a 13-year-old girl.
I anticipated many questions I would be unable to answer with authority.
There were a few options. One was to admit my ignorance, answering, "You know, I've always wondered what that was myself." But that leaves an audience unsatisfied and a guide feeling ineffectual.
My ordinary response to questions on wildlife or plant identification is to make an answer up and hope there is no one in the group more knowledgeable than I. Some of my friends still refer to a certain kind of fungus as the black death vomit, thanks to my off-the-cuff identification. Such behavior would surely be recognized by the Audubon crew, though, and they would quickly pan me as a disreputable fraud.
These were no amateurs, so I knew the outing required big guns. I invited my chief consultant on financial matters, mystery novel recommendations and bird and plant taxonomy.
"Tell Mom I'm doing this hike on Sunday with the Audubon people and they're going to be asking me about birds and I won't know what to tell them," I told my father.
To my relief, my parents agreed to join us on the hike. I could defer all identification questions to Mom and still retain my dignity.
I was also grateful my girlfriend, Vicky, agreed to accompany us. She possesses a warm, trustworthy and welcoming personality that puts strangers at ease. That's a quality I've been trying to work on in my trail guiding, but am prone to forgetting I am leading a group unfamiliar with the terrain. Too often I find myself doing my own thing, bumbling along and only after hearing the shouts behind me remember I'm supposed to be leading a group. Vicky keeps a close eye on everyone's welfare and keeps morale up when I have to admit I've missed a turn and we must backtrack.
Her 8-year-old son, David, completed our team. David's curious mind, fearless attitude and diminutive stature charms most strangers in ways I cannot.
Armed with Mom's encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, Dad's encyclopedic knowledge of local history, Vicky's hospitality and David's charisma, I was pretty sure I could serve as a symbolic ringmaster, a sort of figurehead absolved of most all responsibilities of leadership.
As I had hoped, the Audubon hikers stopped a few yards into the hike to examine some plants. Mom rose to the occasion and left the trail to point out the different varieties of some plant whose name I did not catch.
Some members of the group stopped while others walked on. Figuring the plant enthusiasts were in good hands I tried to catch up to the hikers, but they had already split up. Some members went left and others were on a side trail to the right.
I took the side trail and became nervous as David scurried up a slick rock to an overlook and encouraged an elderly woman to follow him up to see the view of Camel Rock.
I had already warned the group that -- though I did not anticipate many daredevils among them -- the sandstone is slick when wet and it was in these conditions that people from Indiana slide off the bluffs. Earlier I had asked everyone in the group to state his and her name and town of original specifically to determine if I could get away with making fun of Indiana people. It turned out -- to my joy -- I could.
The woman and other members of the crew followed David up the rock while I winced.
"We are not all as monkey-like as David," I said, hoping to discourage the climbing.
They ignored me.
I spotted another elderly woman had climbed up to another prominent overlook and I changed course to ensure her safety. She was fine and waved away my attempt to help her down.
So I continued on where a man by himself was examining the purple flowers of a spiderwort. He asked me if there were different species of spiderwort, one a paler shade of purple than the others. Mom was not around to consult. I resisted telling him this paler purple flower was actually no spiderwort, but it was a horny-toadwort.
"I don't know," I admitted.
"But there are some real pretty ones over there."
"I saw those," he said, and walked on, leaving me to wallow in my shameful lack of knowledge of the local flora.
So this man was charging ahead, part of the group was teetering around at the edge of the bluff following the 8-year-old's lead, other members were engrossed in Mom's plant interpretations. I, the leader, was suddenly alone.
The hike that had begun so orderly had devolved into anarchy. It was an every-man-for-himself affair, and I did not know which subgroup to attend to next.
Then Georgia, our handler from the Shawnee Audubon Society with the clipboard and watch, began gently reminding me we had to go to Rim Rock next, the group had to be in Vienna by noon and the sun was rising ever higher in the east.
I tried to rally the various groups to press on so there would be plenty of time for Rim Rock, but could not compete with the conversations over smilax and serviceberry and coral bells and red pine versus white pine and Lyme disease and Roger Tory Peterson encounters and the various oak species.
Georgia nudged me that maybe it would be better to skip Rim Rock to make sure there was plenty of time. I looked at the time and told her not to worry, no one would be late for lunch.
But then no one would initially hike with me when we reached the Rim Rock parking lot. I had already told Vicky that I planned to quickly move down the trail and everybody could listen to birds once we got to the overlook platform. The crew, as they had on the Garden of the Gods hike, were unreasonable. A couple came with me down the trail while the others held their binoculars to the heads in the parking lot and talked.
I had hoped to show the group the magnificent Ox Lot Cave below Rim Rock, but only one man, Wayne Svoboda, president of the Illinois Audubon Society Ft. Dearborn Chapter in Evanston, immediately followed. The long flight of stairs through the tight crack in the rock intimidated some members, already strained from climbing after David at Garden of the Gods.
Svoboda had already told me he regretted that we were not doing the loop trail back to the parking lot. I had told him there was not time if the group was to be at Vienna by noon.
Svoboda, Vicky, David and I climbed down and slopped through the crannies in the stone. We chose our steps carefully down the steps and marveled at the cave.
The beach trees grow enormous in Pounds Hollow. Pounds Creek was full and burbling.
Svoboda said he was not planning to take the noon lunch and was breaking away from the group to do the loop hike solo.
Many trees were snapped from the weight of January ice on their branches. Birds called. There was a wood thrush somewhere.
David hit his stick against a tree. Vicky sat with a book on the mossy bank.
"I love this spot," she said.
Fish swam in the pool. Svoboda moved around the bluff and out of sight.
We talked about staying for the afternoon. The woods were alive and shiny with the cool morning rain.
There were no deadlines to meet and there were no immediate needs at all to be met. There was only peace on a Sunday morning and I was grateful to be out participating in it rather than snoring as is my usual Sunday routine.
Then there came a yell from the top of the bluff.
"What was that?" I said.
"BRIAN!" Georgia called again.
Oh, yeah. I was supposed to be leading the Audubon group out of there.
Back up top Georgia asked if anyone else was with us down below.
"Only Wayne, but we lost him," I said.
Georgia's eyes widened.
"He wanted to do the loop and he's not going to Vienna," I said.
My family stuck around in the parking lot for about an hour after the rest of the group left and Svoboda never did make it back to his car. I hoped he was watching all kinds of fascinating birds and had not taken a wrong turn, which would be hard to do.
I did not take away much more knowledge about our flora and fauna in the Shawnee National Forest after the outing, being more caught up keeping track of my people. But I did learn something new.
The serviceberry is the first flowering tree in the spring and takes its name because of it.
In the olden days the winter ground was too frozen to dig with a shovel and so those who died over winter were left frozen in the barn until the spring thaw. Once the ground was soft enough the winter dead were buried.
The only blooming flowers during the year's first funeral services were the little white ones on these trees, so they came to be known as serviceberries.
That tidbit came from a lady named Marianne, a lecturer on Lyme disease who was very excited to find a lonestar tick on her clothing.
Brian DeNeal is a staff writer for the Daily Register in Harrisburg, Ill., and Daily Journal in Eldorado, Ill. He receives e-mail at email@example.com.