Monthly Archives: February 2014

Starved Rock Ice Climbing

Here are some pictures from our day of ice climbing in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. This continues to be an amazing winter for outdoor recreation. Despite the lengthening days, the frigid temperatures aren't rising. I know I'm weird for saying this, but I hope to get another month of this weather before the great thaw begins.

Picture of Gokul climbing.

Five of us from the Hoofer Mountaineering Club made the journey to Starved Rock State Park, Illinois for some ice climbing.

Picture of ice.

The ice was colorful; the day was bright.

Picture of Gokul.

Gokul got us started, soloing Lasalle Canyon.

Picture of Doug.

Doug was the only person in our group who had been to the park before. Fifty years ago.

Picture of Gokul climbing.

After our warmup, we moved to Tonti, a sixty-foot frozen waterfall.

Picture of Martin climbing.

Martin enjoyed climbing the lines at the sides of the column.

Picture of Martin climbing.

Teresa showed us her preying mantis moves.

Picture of Dan climbing.

My axes slid into the buttery ice.

Picture of Doug climbing.

It's the best ice the region has had for years.

Picture of Doug climbing.

Definitely worth the two-and-a-half hour drive from Madison.

More Starved Rock photos

External Websites:
Hoofer Mountaineering Club's Website
A Starved Rock Website

The Abandoned School

I recently visited an abandoned school in New Orleans. Walking through the pitch-dark building was creepy – I thought someone was lurking around every corner, waiting to attack. New Orleans is slowly being rebuilt after Katrina's destruction, but many buildings like this remain. The city is a fascinating place to visit, with constant reminders of what happened, and lots of optimism for the future.

Picture of school.

This New Orleans school was abandoned in the days before Hurricane Katrina struck. It never reopened.

Picture of room.

The rooms that survived the storm's surge have since been vandalized.

Picture of desks.

Desks are still stacked in the classrooms.

Picture of graffiti.

Graffiti explains New Orleans' state in succinct detail.

Picture of window.

Barking dogs and a distant train whistle can be heard through an unboarded window.

Picture of tricycle.

A creepy tricycle occupies the attic.

Picture of apparition.

Apparitions from better times haunt the doorways.

Picture of lockers.

Almost a decade later, no schoolwork remains.

Picture of newspaper.

A newspaper sits frozen in time on an administrator's desk, predicting a reality far different from the one New Orleans got.

Tree Huggers Killers

Picture of tree killer.

When in doubt, cut it out!

Chuck, my host in New Orleans, has been volunteering at a local organization called Common Ground for the last few years. Following Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground dedicated itself to rebuilding homes in New Orleans. They still do some construction work, but lately they've shifted their efforts more toward restoring the local wetlands and building community gardens. They constantly seem to be coming up with new ideas to help New Orleans and the region.

On the day I visited Common Ground, their mission was to kill an invasive species of tree called Chinese tallow. The seeds of many native trees die when submerged in water, but tallow seeds float due to their waxy coatings. Tallows also mature quickly, producing upwards of 100,000 seeds per tree after only three years. Worse, cutting down a tallow tree doesn't kill it – it will grow back. Katrina destroyed a lot of native wetland vegetation, but it was the perfect storm for the tallow, enabling the trees to overrun the region in less than a decade. The Chinese tallow is the Terminator of trees.

The most efficient way to kill a Chinese tallow is to cut out a ring of bark and spray the trunk with a herbicide such as garlon. If you can manage to spray the tree within thirty seconds of stripping its bark, there's a seventy percent chance it will die. There's no way you'll clear the whole forest of tallow in a single try, but with persistent effort over many years, it's possible to cut back on the numbers.

We took a hack at tallow-killing in a wetland just outside of the city. Over 300 volunteers showed up for the event, mainly corporate employees from around the country who were in town for conferences. Chuck led our team, arming us with garlon, machetes and loppers. We gave ourselves two nicknames – Team Chuck and The Judy Garlons – and went to work.

After twenty minutes of hacking and spraying the trees, we seemed to be making good progress. Then the leader of the volunteer effort came up to us, frantically waved her arms and yelled, “Everybody stop!” I had a flashback of an experience I had a year ago in a state park in Wisconsin, when I filled a garbage bag with what I thought was garlic mustard, an invasive species, but was actually violet, the state flower. This time, I thought we had accidentally wiped out the only remaining native trees, clearing room for even more Chinese tallow. It turned out we actually were killing the right trees; we were just supposed to be working in a different area. I breathed a big sigh of relief and walked with the rest of our group to the correct part of the forest.

Team Chuck continued its efforts, lopping, chopping and spraying garlon, or “spritzer,” as it quickly became known. Before long, we had carved an entire blue-banded forest. We celebrated our tree-killing efforts with a military Rockettes dance. Time will tell if the Judy Garlons were successful in killing the Terminator trees, restoring a small section of Louisiana wetland.

External Website:
Common Ground's Website
More info on Chinese tallow

An Impromptu Trip To New Orleans

Picture of Chuck.

Chuck on his pedicab.

Recently I visited New Orleans for the first time. I couch-surfed with Chuck, whom I had met a few weeks prior during his visit to Wisconsin. Chuck lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The levee that runs near his house broke in the hurricane, flooding the entire neighborhood and killing hundreds. To add insult to injury, a 200-foot barge busted through the hole in the levee and flattened several houses.

Eight and a half years after “the storm,” as Katrina is colloquially referred, the Lower Ninth still bears its scars of destruction. Every house that survived the storm has since been abandoned, torn down or gutted and remodeled. Many lots remain empty. The rebuilt levee reminds residents and visitors alike of what happened, and what might happen again.

The neighborhood does appear to be coming back, albeit slowly. Make It Right, founded by Brad Pitt, has been building new, energy-efficient homes for people who lived in the Lower Ninth before the storm. Young people from around the country have chosen to move to the neighborhood, attracted by low property values and the opportunity to rebuild the community. It's one of those places that will look completely different in ten years, hopefully for the better.

My visit was an interesting one from the moment I arrived. First, Chuck took me to the “red house,” where there is a tree house held together by ropes and chains. An old antenna serves as an initial ladder and eventually leads to a gondola hanging like a bird cage. The tree house is constantly getting new additions, one of the latest of which is a series of cables suspended high above the ground, connecting it to a second tree. The structure feels a bit like the City Museum in St. Louis, but on a smaller scale and far more dangerous. If this tree house were built in just about any other American city, it would be shut down immediately. But in New Orleans, it's all part of the fun.

Chuck also took me for a tour of the French Quarter on his pedicab (bicycle taxi). He's a local hero, having pulled a guy out of a burning car on New Year's Eve. He's also quite the story teller, and his job is constantly giving him new material. This city, with its grittiness and laissez-faire attitude, seems perfect for him.

I didn't spend much time in New Orleans' touristy areas such as Bourbon Street, and I only went to one museum. But New Orleans was a nonstop ride from the moment Chuck picked me up at the airport until I almost missed my bus out of town because of a bridge under construction and a train crawling through the heart of the city. I came away with only a tiny understanding of New Orleans, but I was happy to have gotten a glimpse at such a fascinating place.

More photos from New Orleans

External Websites:
An article showing the barge that broke through the levee
Make It Right's website
City Museum's website