“Where the snow lay dinted” …a post-Christmas Lament!

On January 20th 2019, the intrepid crew of Friends of the Hennepin set out on their normal Lock 3 to Lock 6 hike. It was a cold, sunny day (8 degree F), but there was no wind, so warmly dressed people could safely venture out. Lock 6, where we planned to end our hike, had not been plowed out. When my husband and I drove to Lock 6, we could not get to the parking lot. We reported this to Ed Hermann, our hike leader. He suggested, “Why don’t we hike to Lock 1!?” I was excited.

Lock 1 is not on the normal hike tour. I had heard of this mythical hike and had seen pictures of Lock 1, so I knew it existed out there somewhere among the mist of the Illinois River bottom. Often this lock is underwater completely, whenever the Illinois River floods. I also knew that people had reached Lock # 1 in the wintertime, when all the world is frozen. Hiking this stretch in the summer would be fraught with flood/mud/mosquitos/snakes and a ton of poison ivy! We all decided to start at Lock 3, follow along the path compressed by snow mobiles, until we reached Lock 2. The Snow mobiles compressed the 6 inch snow to a very hik-able pathway. At Lock 2, located in Bureau Junction, we ran out of path. There is no path of any kind, hiking, snowmobiling, horseback riding, nothing! Thick River bottom trees – large Cottonwoods, and many other kinds of underbrush filled the riverbank. Many trees were fallen beneath the 6 to 8 inches of snow.

The snow lay unbroken, undinted except for animal tracks including several deer tracks roaming along the creek-like canal. Small creatures leave interesting, flawless trails. The steep angle of the sun creating interesting shadows in the brown and white world. An Eagle flies up, startling Canada Geese in a nearby flatland. The earth is silent, except for our labored breathing. It was so cold it was hard to want to take of my gloves to take pictures. I wish I had brought my camera and not my phone, as the phone requires bare fingers to click. At 8 degrees, this was very, very cold, and not long sustainable. We make our way slowly through the deep snow, tentatively balancing on slippery, buried logs.

Step by careful step, we shuffled our way along the canal. Patches of vines that wrap around my feet, tripping me, causing me to lose my balance several times. Phil St. John handed me a large stick which helped with the balance problem, but was harder to pull out of the vines than my feet! I eventually abandoned the stick method.

The 5 men on the hike were all much taller than I, and had much longer stride than I, or could just walk faster. I slowly fell farther and farther behind the others. They paused often for me – waiting for me to catch up. The snow “lay dinted” as in the Good King Wenceslas song. But the dints were too far apart for me to step into – I could only step in every OTHER dint – forcing me to break my own trail every other step. This further wore at my leg muscles.
I am not sure it would have helped to wear taller boots – they would have kept my feet dry, but would have been even harder to lift out of the deep snow. It was like hiking along an endless football car-tire obstacle course!

We accidentally found 3 different coolers – one Styrofoam, two plastic, and one refrigerator door so slippery under the snow – I fell down again! I grabbed the handle, and pulled up, only to excavate a 3 by 3 foot Frigidaire door! All the garbage brought into the river basin by spring floodwaters, now lay just under the snow as booby-trap river litter!

I tried hard not to complain while hiking. I didn’t want the guys to call me a Sheila! My clothing was working to keep me warm, but my boots were designed for hiking a flat, compacted snow trail, not trail blazing in 6 to 8 inches of snow. My boots soon filled with snow around my freezing ankles.

Not thinking we would EVER get there, I sat down, took out my phone and looked up out location on Google Maps. According to the map, we were 1000 feet from the lock. I still could not see it! I did not expect to even see the Google maps this far off the beaten track, but it worked perfectly! Wayne was so far ahead of us, he must have seen the lock and gone on to the Illinois River. Mailmen are in such good hiking shape!

We finally made it to Lock # 1. The lock had two concrete walls on either side of the 8 foot wide canal. There were no lock doors, they had been removed by the Corps of Engineers when the canal was converted to a park, I guess. There was no waterfall to sound the warning of canal drop, no change in water elevation. The three lock-guide poles are still sticking up before the lock. The Roman numerals for VII and VIII feet are still visibly built into the concrete wall. Railroad tracks still appear alongside the last lock to be built. The tracks that brought supplies to the lock to build it, were never taken off the top of the last lock. The train track used during construction of the locks was moved from lock to lock as the canal was built. They did not bother to remove the last railroad tracks. The railroad track bed became the walking/bike path, not a tow path for donkeys. The canal was built during the day of the steam engine…and then gasoline motors…it was not created when donkeys were used to pull barges along.

I was relieved that my phone still had connectivity. Just after turning back to Lock 2, I called my husband Steve, and asked him to meet us with the warm van at Lock 2. He willingly complied. The walk back seemed to go faster – maybe because we knew how far back it was to where we started. As the sun sank lower and lower, my legs really began to tire. It felt as though I had hiked two and a half hours through an endless car tire obstacle that football teams use, only covered in snow and ice. Once back to the van, we drove the hikers that were done to Lock 3 to pick up their cars and trucks and go back after the other two hikers. With boots off and socks drying under the blast of the car’s heater, I fell asleep as soon as my feet got warm. I slept the rest of the way home. What an adventure!