Ella Who Disappeared

What do you do when your companion – yes, a CAT – just goes off and disappears one day?

Yes, CATS. They are – you know – expendable.

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But I miss Ella.

She was our very first Critter at our country home. She just appeared one day in the barn, lonely, hungry, and very, very shy.

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I had to coach her out from some dark corner. Eventually we became friends. A trip to the vet confirmed that she was a spayed female. Could she have been released by someone who no longer wanted to care for her? Yes, people do that. We never did find out her origin but we did get to know all her peculiarities as cats are wont to have.

She never liked using the new kitty door.

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But the dog and the chickens thought it was swell.

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Ella – Ella Fitzgerald – preferred the barn but loved to just “hang out” with me whenever I meandered the premises, weeded, or tended. She had an unusually thick coat of hair, a very soft purr along with a sweet, shy nature.

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She would “meow” with no discernable sound.

Always predictable, whenever I walked out the back door, she would tag along with me as I did my chores. She never disappeared for days as Baseball, the male cat, sometime does.

Coyotes howl at night, fox prowl the fields, enormous farm implements crawl slowly over the crops.

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I miss my companion and just wish I knew . . .

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Weeding at Nachusa

Echinacea pallida

As if I didn’t have enough weeding to do, last week I volunteered at Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove, IL, owned by The Nature Conservancy. They emailed a request to volunteers that read in part:

“This week yellow sweet clover is blooming. We have lots of plantings that could use a person to sweep them for weeds BIRDS SINGING, FLOWERS BLOOMING. The joys of summer are yours. I can assign you a planting. Let me know. ”

Now . . . how can you refuse an offer like THAT?

I am quite enamored of this area, not only because of my interest in native plant communities but also because of the equestrian trails at nearby Franklin Creek.

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My riding buddies enjoy many hours here each summer. With 198 acres and 12 miles of trails (is that ALL?), we still manage to get lost.

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Nachusa Grasslands, just north of the equestrian area, consists of 3,100 acres of prairie remnants, restorations, and reconstructions and is home to over 700 native prairie plant species.

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I believe this is Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

I doubt if I have as much as 70 species in my own prairie garden.
And I thought I had a lot!

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The “enemy” – Yellow Sweet Clover.

The steward for this area had mowed the top of the knob to control seeding from this pest.

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Bill Kleiman provided me an amazing tool that I had seen touted – and sold – by Wild Ones. It is a adapted spade, very light in weight with the handle conveniently rotated – perfect for slicing tap rooted plants like Wild Parsnip, Burdock, Thistle or Queen Anne’s Lace.

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This is how it works: The sharp end slices through the soil at the base of the plant like butter. By slicing, not prying, below the plants crown, the “Parsnip Predator” effectively severs crown buds, resulting in root death and no soil disturbance.

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When the “carrot” is severed, the plant dies.

Wild Parsnip is a plant that has invaded my pastures and is common along the roadsides where I live, so I was much interested in how to best combat it.

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It’s a nasty thing. The juice of Wild Parsnip in contact with skin in the presence of sunlight can cause a rash and blistering that makes poison ivy look like a walk in the park. My friend Janet admits she still has visible scares from encounters from many years ago.

I swiped this photo from A Prairie Haven, a marvelous blog with wonderful butterfly and moth photos. “I wish they would eat it all”, they write. Check out their “parsnip pulling outfit” – LOL!

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Since I was not equipped with gloves, long sleeves, and a bag over my head, I concentrated on the Yellow Sweet Clover. Nachusa’s strategy was to go after 2-year plants that can reach 8 ft in height. I found smaller plants that had been bent but not cut in the mowed debris. Tedious to be sure!

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In my wanderings I came across deer beds, Leadplant, and graceful Panic Grass.

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and a few I managed to ID when I returned home:

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Dianthus armeria or Deptford Pink.

I much prefer the botanical name for this one.

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Growing on noon, I gathered the weed piles and returned to headquarters throwing my weed harvest on a burn pile along with all the others – a tiny contribution.

I now have been “promoted,” having the password to the tool shed I can come and go as I please. WOW! I thought of my many friends who love the birds and wild places just as I do.

Paw Paw Edith? Glen Ellyn Mary? Chicago Bob? Roberta? Karen? Misha?

Even though I continue my own battle of weeds at home, there is something about a morning at Nachusa that nourishes the soul.

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Controlled Chaos in the Prairie

Controlled chaos is what I call my native prairie – emphasis on chaos.

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Echinacea pallida (Pale Purple Coneflower) was drop dead gorgeous in it’s second season.

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The following winter I discovered voles or 13-lined ground squirrels, comfortably nested under the snow, having a banquet on the corms. Goodbye Flowers. After that, the weeds moved in – Bindweed, Quackgrass, Black Medic, Sow Thistle – I got ‘em all.

So I just began digging.

And digging . . .

And digging . . .

Then pitching the entire mess into the dumpster. Hey – would YOU want Bindweed in YOUR mulch pile?

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Support staff is “ready and able”.

When you have GIANT HOLES to fill, adversity can be an opportunity for improvement.

This season’s additions include Cacalia plantaginea (Prairie Indian Plantain), a sweet thing I first saw at Hitt’s Siding, a prairie remnant courtesy of the Burlington Northern RR (below):

Cacalia plantaginea -Prairie Plantain

Melanthium virginicum (Bunch Flower) is touted by Prairie Moon Nursery. When bare root plants were offered on sale this spring, I bit.

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Silene regia (Royal Catchfly) – can’t get enough of this exceptional plant. This is what it looked like last year, blooming concurrently with Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower). I have a sinking feeling this gorgeous specimen ended up in my dumpster.

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Anemone canadensis (Meadow Anemone) is known to grow in gravel along roadway edges. Might it keep the Chickweed and Clover at bay?

Don’t let me down, Meadow Anemone. Grow . . . please grow!

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Last year’s Anemone in the Ditch Garden:

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So, there’s hope. (I hope.)

Solidago graminifolia (Grass-leaved Goldenrod) is both rhizomatous, aggressive, and downright scary when let loose in the garden. I’ll include a picture from Wildflowers.org as mine are pretty darn puny.

Desperate conditions require desperate measures.

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Callirhoe involucrata (Wine Cups) — I really don’t understand why I keep killing this thing. It has this charming habit of threading itself amidst its companions with vivid cup shaped flowers reaching for sunlight. Lovely with Diervilla lonicera and, well, just about anything!

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Now to figure out how to mark these things so I do not destroy them with my pick and shovel next year in a weeding frenzy.

FORGET THAT THOUGHT!

There will be no more weeding my weeds!

EVER

!!!!!!!

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Peonies now spent, roses beginning to open and the prairie is filled with shapes and textures that are so lovely to look at.

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This time of year is so exciting to me, like the moment you feel at a horse race when the gate is about to open.

THEY’RE OFF!

Echinacea purpurea (Pale Purple Coneflower) below:

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Tradescantia ohiensis (Spiderwort)

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Baptisia leucantha (White Wild Indigo)

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In a few short weeks a cacophony of color will follow.

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Join me for a stroll?

This is My Pet Chicken

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She is currently living in my kitchen, where she has been defrosting.

It took about three days.

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I found her about a week ago keeled over in the snow when I accompanied my friend, Janet to a neighbors house to do chores while owners were out of town.

Initially I picked her up to dispose of the body, but . . . turns out

SHE WAS STILL BREATHING!

So, that’s how she ended up going home with me to defrost.

She and I have not left the kitchen since.  There is a nice tall electric heater in here that rotates, sunlight streams through the windows on the south, and I can always bake banana bread or muffins, then leave the oven on for the rest of the day.

You get the picture.

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She will sit on my lap as I browse the Internet. I learned that she is a Silkie, so named for fluffy plumage that feels like silk. They are a favorite of children and known for their broodiness. That means they like to sit on eggs, often stealing eggs from other chickens!

 This is what a Silkie looks like when it’s not defrosting:

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Ridiculous, no?

I learned that people either LOVE or HATE Silkies. One of my chat buddies from Backyardchicken.com calls them “Walking Asphyxiated Dust Bunnies.”

Then goes on to say:

I had one before and it was always vanishing for days.  I would find it trying to hatch cucumbers, rocks, acorns, squash or whatever it could sit on. The rooster was afraid of her and the hens pecked her so much I had to keep her in a separate cage. I even bought a silkie rooster for her because I had some compassion because she was alone. He was scared of her too.  She was too slow to escape a cat. Never laid one egg in two years. I secretly cheered for the cat.”

NOW, what to do???

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I can’t imagine returning her to her former digs which did not have heat, nor can I imagine adding her to my small flock in a cold and drafty barn.

My “brooder” outside is covered in a snow drift, also with no heat.

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Every day we face yet a new winter weather challenge.

Even when it doesn’t snow, my how it

B   L   O   W   S

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or . . .

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A tree I would pass daily when I commuted to St. Charles:

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How grateful I am I can remain safely at home.

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To commune with my chicken.

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Chicago’s most famous rooftop garden sits atop City Hall

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My first Monarch of the season was spotted on the roof of City Hall in Chicago.

That’s right – a prairie on top of a roof surrounded by a jungle of tall buildings and concrete. We were there courtesy of the Rock River chapter of Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization.

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Our guide Kevin Carroll explained that Mayer Daley first saw rooftop gardens in Hamburg, Germany during a visit in 1998. City Hall needed a new roof and a settlement from ComEd provided the funding. The garden was first constructed in 2000 then turned over to Chicago Department of Transportation in 2003.

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We entered the rooftop through what I can only describe as “the boiler room”.

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What is unique about the City Hall garden is the use of native plants. While most of the “green roofs” in Europe are comprised of low growing Sedums and similar drought tolerant plants, City Hall’s roof is planted with Midwestern natives, plants well noted for their ability to form deep tap roots that allow them to survive our harsh climate.

But . . . on a rooftop? On shallow soil?

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As new manager in 2003, Carroll put in a new irrigation system, killed weeds, reseeded bare areas and introduced a wider variety of prairie natives.

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The ability of the prairie species to thrive in the shallow soil – 1-1/2” to 6” deep – has been most astonishing.

They did not know what to expect.

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Many towered over our heads – just as they do in the prairie.

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By 2010 there were 220 species of plants in the garden. More than 100 species of birds have been observed on the roof during spring and fall migration, so exhausted by their flight they do not exhibit fear or fly away when approached.

So . . .

where would they go?

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“It’s really the Rolls-Royce of green roofs.” said Michael Berkshire who administers green projects for the city. Some areas of the roof have rolling terrain with an added 18-inch layer of soil to support one Prairie Crabapple and a mass of Junipers — welcome protection for the birds clustered by the dozens in their branches.

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The garden absorbs less heat from the sun than the old tar roof, keeping City Hall cooler in summer and requiring less energy for air conditioning. Chicago estimates that this green roof saves City Hall about $3,600 a year in heating and cooling savings.

The juxtaposition of prairie with urban was most startling, especially considering we were 12 stories off the ground.

I could happily wander around up there for hours!

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Kevin guided us through the garden as we recognized the prairie plants that we
were familiar with, along with a few that we were not.

Allium cernuum

Lobelia cardinalis

We were cautioned about getting too close to the edge.

It’s a

L O N G W A Y D O W N !

A long way down

The eastern half of the building belongs to the County with the typical roof of black tar. On a hot day, the surface temperature measured nearly 80 degrees hotter on
the black side (tar) than the green side (prairie).

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Chris maintains the garden daily, removing weeds – mostly black medic, yellow nut sedge and sweet clover – and deadheading plants that might be excessive seeders.

He sometimes forgets to take lunch.

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Kevin and Chris pointed out plants that have done exceptionally well (Prairie Dock, Penstemons, Lead Plant, Verbena, Purple Prairie Clover along with the grasses like Big Bluestem) and showed us the noticeable effect that nitrogen-fixing legumes like Amorpha and Baptisia had on their neighbors.

I snatched this picture from the web to show you Baptisia in bloom.

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The garden is not open to the public but can be seen from surrounding buildings and by appointment. Visitors from all over the world have come to see it.

Thank you, Jim, for putting up with my forays into the “wilds”. You are a good sport.

Eventually we took the elevator down to the “reality” of big city life meandering over to Millenium Park.

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And another rooftop garden . . . of sorts.

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EGG FIESTA

The road to Marans eggs has been a LONG ONE. Three years for crying out loud! 

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So how did I become so obsessed with raising Marans? Probably too much time sitting at the computer in the winter. 

Browsing, shopping. 

Shopping, browsing. 

Dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

 But much safer than looking at horses!

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Marans are a breed that originated in France and are noted for their extremely dark eggs. They are the preferred egg by many fine chefs including James Beard.

 Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond novels, made Marans eggs Agent 007′s favorite. 

I came back from my working weekend at The Chicago Botanic Garden to a whopping 22 eggs, five from my small flock of Marans – my very first!

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The Marans egg is on the left, Guinea on right and Americauna on top.

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I started with chickens about 3 years ago. You just sit at your computer and enter each chick into your shopping bag.

 

Wala! A few weeks later a chirping box arrives at the post office.

Easy, no?

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This causes much interest on the part of all members of the household.

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 The worst part is keeping them in the kitchen until they are old enough and the weather is warm enough. After that it’s waiting, waiting, waiting until they are mature enough to lay.

 I’ve used a horse trough and a dog crate to raise them. Trouble with the dog crate is the little devils manage to escape it now and then.

 Then they can’t get back in!

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My young friends Kayla, Sterling, Jaden and Josie, came over almost daily to cuddle and play with them.

 They also give them their names: Angel (Kayla’s favorite), Red, Popcorn, Bananas (the biggest), Stripe, Dusk, Smoke, Darth Vadar.

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My first Marans came from a breeder I found near Carbondale. Natalie accompanied me to their farm and sat with baby chicks on her lap all the way back home. Alas they did not make adulthood. My second attempt was an order of 10 chicks from a private breeder in Montana, however she would only ship straight run. Seven made it to adulthood at which time they all began to CROW.

 

So, they became coq a vin. Delish!

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Okay, so it’s NOT coq a vin, but it IS delish!

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Then the catalogs started coming and I discovered that Meyer Hatchery offered them — pullets, too! I now have 2 flocks of chickens. The older hens, an Araucana rooster and Guineas are inside the barn.

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I keep my new flock, Blue Copper Marans and Golden Buffs, outside in a small, very cute little coop I got from my chicken friend Kathy when her flock – in Naperville – outgrew it.

That’s Michael helping me set it up.

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It has all sorts of cubbies and hatches that allow you access for cleaning or gathering eggs.

Just cute, cute, cute!

It’s adjacent to a raspberry patch and a jumbled mess of vegetation that you might call a “garden”.

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Chickens JUST LOVE the garden! The eggplant has holes pecked in it and the only tomatoes that you can see are green ones. They do pick the seeds out of them though.

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Okay, scratch that, the eggplant is now GONE!

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Do Marans eggs really taste better? Not sure I have that refined palate to tell but, I am told, taste is mostly in what they are fed, greens producing a darker, richer yolk.

 

I cracked my first Marans egg – a double!

For comparison, a Guinea egg is on the right.

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My very protective rooster.

 

My entertainment — watching chickens. Better than tropical fish, TV or Netflix!

 

 

 

 

Wet Saddles and Teeny Tiny Ticks

Always looking for trail riding opportunities, horse pals Linda, Mary, Esther and Pat (that’s me) concocted a horse trip to the Shawnee in Southern Illinois. Alas, a trip to the hospital for Mary’s husband resulted in Linda and Mary staying behind. Despite several set backs – should we REALLY be doing this? – Esther and I decided nonetheless to set off for the Shawnee with trusty steeds Chappy and Olivia.

 

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Last minute confusion – and believe me it truly WAS confusing – resulted in us having LOTS of food and NOTHING to cook with. Jim lent a hand by preparing delicious sandwiches for travel and lending us a box of camping utensils. Riding pal Chicago Bob who was to meet us there, provided all the missing tools, grill and firewood.

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Chicago Bob, his neighbor Jenny and husband Mike met us as we pulled into the Double MM Campground. Esther and I unloaded our gear into a charming, rustic cabin. Horses got themselves acclimated in open stalls nearby. Is there time for an evening ride, asked Esther. Of course! says Bob. At dusk we were grilling steaks outside with a roaring campfire courtesy of Bob.

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The Shawnee National Forest contains 415 square miles of horseback riding heaven. Many riders come back with stories of getting lost so having a guide like Bob and Jenny to take us around eliminated the anxiety of getting ourselves back to our camp after a long day of riding. The trail system down there can be confusing with many camps, trail riders or groups lending their opinions and expertise over the years leading to a conglomeration of trails and designations.  In 2010 the Forest received nearly $4 million of stimulus funding for the purpose of rebuilding and reorganizing this vast network.

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We were fortunate that Bob and Jenny knew both trail systems plus all the short-cuts in between so we got to see the best that you could see by riding out of the Double MM.ImageImage

Bob’s trail savvy mare, Shawnee, endured the indignity of her adlib fly mask.Image

Bob, Jenny and Shawnee led us down secret trails, crossing cool waters, and into ravines with amazing rock features.

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You could feel the temperature drop as we descended into the “hollers”.

ImageNative ferns and Heuchera (Coral Bells) grew lushly from rock walls.

ImageJenny’s faithful dog, Willy, knew how to beat the heat.

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Always on the look out for interesting foliage, I had Esther stand next to a Paw Paw tree.

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One of the best parts of trail riding is coming back into camp and sitting around the campfire at night, chatting with old friends and new neighbors.

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As we shared camp and trail stories it didn’t take us long to learn that cabin neighbors Linda and Mike had been camped next to us last fall in Indiana.

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Each evening we shared stories and experiences around the fire. If I could remember the one Bob told about the circle flies I would tell it here!

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ImageAt a place called Dead Horse Canyon, Jenny watched our steeds while Bob took Esther and I climbing into the amazing rock formation above our heads.

ImageEsther never stopped telling us she was afraid of heights. Onward and upward, Esther!.

ImageIt’s called Dead Horse Canyon for a reason. Yep, you guessed it, the horse spooked while standing a bit too close to the edge above. The rider bailed and was uninjured. 

ImageThe horse remains.

ImageThat evening we came back to camp with ticks galore.

After showering I joined the others by the fire. “Found two more — one behind my knee”, I announced. Just as Esther and Bob were standing up pulling up their pant legs, Jenny and her husband show up laughing. “What is this, the tick dance?”

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We missed you, Mary!!!

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We missed you, Linda!!!

Here are some more pictures of the camp and the Shawnee so you can see all that we enjoyed. Can we all go this fall? Sure hope so!

ImageMy favorite of the many cabins, trailers or prefabs in the Double MM. They are all privately owned. Lessors pay $95 per month for a space to set up their camp for the season or permanently.

ImageThere are many overhanging cliffs or caves, some that you can ride into. This is one we saw last fall near Lusk Creek with Lorraine in the picture.

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ImageThe Stone House we rode to last fall out of the Double MM. 

It’s for sale!

ImageChicago Bob on Shawnee.

ImageView from Hurricane Bluff.

ImageThe copperhead snake that Bob killed — with a BIG stick!

ImageAlmost every day we rode, there was a chance of showers or thunderstorms. On the last day our luck did not hold out. We got caught about an hour out of camp and boy, did we get drenched!

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The trails turned into churning masses of mud and water including the spillway that separated our trailer from the cabin.

ImageThat meant packing up wet the following morning.

Uck.

I’m still drying out at home as I write this.

Driving through Marion, Esther and I stopped at a fabulous tack shop where we both garnered some bargains, me — a used Tucker breast collar, new reins and an extra halter.

ImageWe first unloaded at Esther’s house. Out came the wet saddle blankets, gear, food not consumed, suitcases. Oh yeah, Olivia, too! At Pat’s house I got to repeat the process. I seem to be missing my wet laundry bag, but I do have Esther’s wine coolers. Good deal!