First Day Hiking in Indiana

The start of a “First Day Hike” at Spring Mill State Park.

Mitchell, IN–While late night revelers from New Year’s celebrations were sleeping in, many early risers headed to Indiana State Parks on January 1, 2017 to participate in an annual “First Day Hike.” Across the state, parks welcomed visitors to a guided hike, led by a park naturalist. At Spring Mill State Park, wildlife naturalist Wyatt Williams led a group of adults, children, and one small leashed dog on a challenging 2.5-mile hike through the park’s major highlights.

Evidence of a beaver gnawing on a tree

The hike began at 10 a.m. with an easy trek along Spring Mill Lake, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. Williams stopped to point out evidence of beavers, which had gnawed a sizable portion of a big tree, and lopped off many smaller saplings. Williams said there were also a noticeable number of river otters in the park, a result of a reintroduction program begun in 1995 after the otters were wiped out by 1942.

First we stopped at a worn monument to Alexander Wilson. Wilson, called “Father of American Ornithology” by George Ord, preceded John Audubon in cataloging American birds. The monument was carved 150 years ago by George Donaldson, who owned the property of Spring Mill State Park, and unfortuantely very little remains of the likeness carved in the stone. A short walk past the monument, Williams stood in a small area of the creek marked by small stone rectangles.

Remains of Carl Eigenmann’s fish ponds

These were fish ponds created by Carl Eigenmann, an Indiana University ichthyologist from the late 1800s and early 1900s who explored Donaldson Cave and studied the blind fish there.

As a karst landscape, the park features caves and eroded limestone topography. Our trek led us right to one of the more well-known features, Donaldson Cave. It was too wet and we did not have time to explore the interior, but it is open to visitors at various times in the year. Instead, we headed up a cough-inducing set of stairs towards Hamer Cemetery. The trail followed a ridge that led to former quick lime kilns and an overlook of the 1800s Pioneer Village, before heading down past the village and up another hill to complete the loop to the Nature Center. The last owner of the village–Jonathan Turley–acquired it in the late 1880s from the Hamers. On our hike, we were stopped by a couple who wanted to know what our group was. They were relatives of the Turleys, on an annual genealogy hike.

Past the village, Williams pointed out black walnut, persimmon, and sycamore trees along the route, which could be identified by their distinctive bark (for example, the persimmon bark is very “pebble-y” and seeds were scattered around it.)

Hot chocolate and coffee supplied by the Spring Mill Inn greeted the returning hikers. Even better than the champaign toast for a happy, healthy new year.

View of a ridge at Spring Mill State Park.



Eagle Watching at Lake Monroe

Boat ramp at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Bloomington, IN–The ice over Lake Monroe at Allens Creek shimmered in the late afternoon sun. A female belted kingfisher chirped nearby, clearly annoyed at the visitors to her fishing spot. Soon, she ignored them and returned to diving in a small break in the ice, seeking dinner.

Spotting a belted kingfisher at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Most visitors to the 10,750-acre Lake Monroe usually come in summer for boating or relaxing on the beaches. The lake is actually a reservoir, created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1965 for flood control and is now a water and recreation source for the city of Bloomington, Indiana.

In winter, though, the lake’s few visitors find peace, calm, and sometimes bald eagles and golden eagles. A “Citizen Scientist” program sponsored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recruits local volunteers to look for eagles along the lake and record activities. In the first 20 days of official spotting in 2016, volunteers recorded 62 sightings.

While Paynetown SRA off SR 446 is the biggest summer recreation spot on Lake Monroe, it is not the spot with the highest eagle sightings. Aptly named Eagle Pointe on the lake’s south end near The Fourwinds Inn yielded the most spottings—9 eagles—in December. Two volunteers reported on December 9: “Two adults in nest. One, presumably the female, arranging large sticks. At one point both birds gave us the direct eagle eye visible through the spotting scope! One adult flew to our side of the bay and perched in tree about 200 yards away.”

While four sightings of eagles had also been made at the Allens Creek boat ramp early in December, the clear day later in the month yielded just the kingfisher and a heron wading at a far edge. After an hour in the warm setting sun, we loaded up our car and started to head out when a big bird flew low over the water, seeking prey. It looked a lot like an eagle, but was more likely an osprey, and positive identification wasn’t possible at such a quick glance.

Birders can spy eagles on the lake at any time, but the easiest winter sightings have been February through March. Binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary for getting a good look.

Interested in help finding eagles at Lake Monroe? January 27-29, 2017 is the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe weekend at The Fairwinds Inn. For just $10, you can take eagle hikes, hear from raptor experts—and for an additional fee—have lunch with eagles, which is sponsored by the resort and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Beginning birders and families are welcome to the weekend event, and experts will be posted with spotting scopes along trails to help identify birds.

Frozen marsh at Saltwater Creek observation area, Lake Monroe

Visiting van Gogh’s Bedrooms

Chicago, IL–Vincent van Gogh loved his yellow house in Arles though he lived there only a few months in 1888. He created three paintings of his tiny bedroom there, one while he lived in the house and two after he was institutionalized for mental health issues. Until May 10, 2016, all three versions are on exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago, in a compelling show that helps inform visitors of his complicated life and fascination with Arles.

The final painting of The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

The final painting of The Bedroom by Vincent Van Gogh

Through letters to his brother Theo, side-by-side detailed video comparisons of the three paintings, a digitally enhanced replica of the bedroom and the entire layout of the small house, as well as many van Gogh masterpieces, the exhibit gives an in-depth study of these famous paintings as well as the troubled life of the painter who killed himself at age 37 in  July 1890.

The original bedroom painting belongs to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the second bedroom painting is on permanent display at The Art Institute of Chicago, and the smallest painting, which he created for his mother, is on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. While lines are inevitably long and time slots limited, the opportunity to see all the paintings in one place side by side, is worth the wait.

And if you’re so enamored with the bedrooms that you want to spend the night, check out Vincent’s bedroom on for just $10 a night. Yes, you can really stay there.

The second painting of The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh

The second painting of The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh


Land of Lincoln: Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln museum

Lincoln and his cabinet discuss timing of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library

Springfield, IL–Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US President, was born in 1809 in Kentucky and spent his childhood in Indiana, but his adult life centered around Springfield, Illinois. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library, now in its tenth year, is still drawing big crowds to the small town that is also home to the Illinois legislature where Lincoln once served.

Through November 15, a special exhibit focuses on Lincoln and his relationship with Jews, including many original documents, artifacts, photographs, and Lincoln’s letters, on loan from various institutions.  Unusual for his era, Lincoln had close friends and associates who were Jewish, such as Springfield’s Abraham Jonas and Chicago’s Abraham Kohn.  For more on this fascinating history and review of many of the documents on display, see Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell (2015, St. Martin’s Press)

Permanent exhibits  take visitors through an hands-on, immersive experience of replicas and scenes from his early life living in a log cabin, to his job as a store owner, a lawyer, legislator, presidential candidate and president, ending with his assassination in Ford’s Theatre at the age of 56 in 1865, just six days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to General Grant.

Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield

Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield

The National Park Service runs the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, with tours of the house, as well as other period homes around the block of 8th and Jackson. As was the custom of the time, Lincoln did not travel to campaign for the presidency, but remained at home while others “stumped” on his behalf. He received the news of his election while at his Springfield home. The Visitor’s Center offers an overview of his life, and the home itself features many original furnishings, including a small writing desk Lincoln used, and a hat rack for his signature stovepipe hat.Lincoln Desk

When Lincoln died, a funeral train brought his body from Washington, D.C. back home to Springfield to rest. The Lincoln Tomb and War Memorials Site, run by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is in Oak Ridge Cemetery at 1500 Monument Ave. in Springfield. Lincoln, his 3-year-old son Edward, who died in Springfield, his son 12-year-old son William, who lived in Springfield and died in Washington, and his wife Mary Todd, are all interred in a burial chamber that the public can visit under the 117-foot-tall monument.tomb

Because Springfield is still a relatively small town, it’s easy to imagine Lincoln living and working here.  The old state capitol building with its red roof, and the new one dating from 1868 with a silvery zinc dome, are both open for tours as well.




Laurie’s Six Best Bakeries in Chicagoland

cannoliChicago, IL—It is pretty audacious for anyone to define the best six bakeries in a metro area this size. But after sampling so many bakeries, I’ve come back to a select few over and over. From south to north, each of these have specialties you won’t want to miss.

Apple croissant1. Medici, 1327 E. 57th, Hyde Park. A 50-year-old institution in the University of Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, Medici is known for its restaurant’s pizza and for its famous guests, the Obama family. But come to the bakery and order the buttery, flaky apple croissants that come loaded with thick slices of real apples, and are not too sweet or gooey. Just croissant, generous pieces of apples, and lightly sweet taste.

biscotti2. Scafuri Bakery, 1337 West Taylor, Little Italy. Taylor Street has loads of great Italian restaurants, and good bakeries, too. But Scafuri has the best biscotti of them all. The biscotti de notte, stuffed with hazelnuts and just the right crunch for dipping into your latte, is breakfast perfection. The plain almond biscotti are also top notch, made by baking just once, not twice.

3. Roeser’s Bakery, 3216 W. North, Humbolt Park. Originally a German neighborhood, Humbolt Park is now home to Puerto Rican families, but Rosiers stays true to its German roots. Great linzer tortes at Christmas, pączkis on Fat Thursday, and cakes of all sorts all year round. German chocolate cake, anyone?

4. Kaufman’s Bakery and Delicatessen, 4905 Dempster, Skokie. All sorts of rugulah cookies, cinnamon bobke, and other treats, including some amazing lox. Just don’t walk out without getting a walnut-raisin pumpernickle bread. No need for butter, it’s so sweet and tasty.

bagel and roll5. Once Upon A Bagel, 1888 First, Highland Park. The assortment of skinny bagels will astound you. Yes, get your everything bagel fix here at half the calories. And the challah rolls are perfect for a small Shabbat dinner for two. Once Upon A Bagel has other locations, and delicious meals, but that’s another story.


wedding cookies6. Tina’s Italian Cafe and Bake Shop, 1501 Washington, Gurnee. The crowds often flow out the door here, and for good reason. This is the genuine article. Italian wedding cookies, tiramisu, and delicious homemade breads compete with homemade Italian meals for space in your tummy. Save room for the cannoli, though.





Touring Burgundy’s Wine Country in a Day

Zooming into BurgundyDijon, France–Really, you’ve come all the way to France and you’re only going to spend 4 hours touring the wine route in Burgundy? Well, if that’s all you have, it’s possible to do it and do it well through Alter & Go. What turned out to be the highlight of our trip to France was a four-hour trip into the terrior and back roads outside Dijon to sample local cheese, wine, and to see vineyards and historical sites.

DSC00167Our guide, Damien, first stopped at a bakery and bread oven built in medieval days that is still used once a year. We drove a short way to a church in Fixin built in in the 10th and 12th centuries and still used today. “If you see a church with two roofs, you know it is Gothic,” he said.Fixey church




Ancient washing wellWe drove by a round washing well, unusual in that most were square shaped. It looked like a lovely fountain. The sky, dotted with clouds, is quite typical of the area, according to Damien. “We have a mystical atmosphere. The sun changes, the clouds change the colors of the vineyards,” he said. What a wonderful way to embrace a rolling cloud day!

After a short drive, we stop at the Gaugry cheese factory to sample various local cheeses. Sometimes cheese production is underway, but today there are just a few workers handling the cheeses. Apparently a slight patting by hand is necessary to make the cheese taste just so, as well as a bit of alcohol in some. The samples, along with a small glass of wine, create a perfect moment of pleasure. There is also time to buy local mustard and cheeses, and a bit of gingerbread, flavored with blackberry.

After the cheese factory, we drive up to view more vinewards. “If someone says they know of Burgundy, they would be lying. We say it would take two or three lifetimes (to sample all the wines)” he says.

Wine tasting at Phillipe LeClercSoon we are heading into a village where Phillipe LeClerc’s winery is located. We tour the cellars, see a bit of his extensive collection of wine and farming equipment, and then settle in for a wine tasting. We try several levels, from village to cru to grand cru burgundys. Each has a distinctive scent and flavor of course, and we rate our favorites. There is time to buy a bottle of wine for the trip home, and then back to Dijon.

Tours with Alter & go can be booked directly through the Dijon Tourism Office.



Mon Dieu! Gargoyles Galore in Dijon, France

Gargoyle on Phillipe Le Bon Tower DijonDijon, France–Maybe it was Paris’ hunchback of Notre Dame that got people thinking about the gargoyles. Whatever the reason, it’s not enough to just look at sights in France at street level anymore. This is especially true in Dijon, a medieval city that is the start of burgundy wine country. Look up at the Notre Dame Church for its rows of gargoyles. A couple of amazing fellows jut out of the top of the Palace of the Dukes, on Phillipe the Good’s Tower. And of course, in addition to the gargoyles, there are those magnificent burgundy roofs.

Roof in DijonGargoyle on Notre Dame, Dijon

Gargoyle on Notre Dame, Dijon

Gargoyle on Notre Dame, Dijon

Chicago Lakeshore Biking Southside Style


View north from the green roof of the parking structure at 31st Street Beach on Chicago’s south side


Chicago, IL–On a beautiful sunny Chicago weekend, lots of people bike parts of the 18.5 mile Chicago Lakefront Trail. If you want to avoid the crowds that jam the north end of the trail, head south from Museum Campus. The trail winds through trees and prairie to the South Shore Cultural Center at Jackson Park. You can extend your ride along a bike path almost to the squarelsouthpathIndiana border. At the Adler Planetarium, a gorgeous skyline view awaits–the spot that most of the TV stations broadcast the weather. Just south of the planetarium, the 12th Street Beach offers warm sand, gentle water, restrooms and an inexpensive taco stand where you can fuel up for the ride.

If the 12th Street Beach is crowded, a bigger and newer sandy beach awaits at 31st St. Beach and harbor. There, a green roof atop the parking garage offers picnic tables and sunscreens that look like sails, with an ample view to Navy Pier’s fireworks. Further south, the trail cuts through Burnham Centennial Prairie, a birding nature preserve shaded by trees and chirring red-winged blackbirds that will make you feel you’re off in a rural area.

Keep pedaling on to 57th Street Beach, and veer off to visit Hyde Park and the stately elegance of the University of Chicago’s buildings, or continue on to the historic South Shore Cultural Center, built in 1905 for the South Shore Country Club and designated a Chicago landmark in 2004.

If you’re really ambitious, the road continues on US41 South/Lake Shore Drive through the former grounds of  U.S. Steel’s South Works, 470 acres of property that has yet to be developed, though the old steel mill is gone. When the road ends at US 12/20, turn left and tiny Calumet Fisheries at 3259 E. 95th is on your right just at the bridge. Family owned and operated since 1948, Calumet Fisheries offers real oak-smoked salmon, trout, eel, sable, catfish, sturgeon, and whitefish, as well as fried shrimp, fish, crab cakes, and other goodies–enough to earn this simple stand with only a couple of outdoor picnic tables a James Beard Foundation “American Classic” award in 2010. Mmmm. Now that’s a perfect end to a beautiful ride



Having a Chicago Field (Museum) Day

The great hall of the Field Museum

The Stanley Field Hall of the Field Museum

Chicago, IL–The wealth of museums in Chicago make it difficult to decide which to explore first. One of the original city museums, the Field Museum of Natural History, founded right after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in one of the fair buildings. It was later moved to its current site at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. The Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world, making it a multi-day destination.

20140419_112411Most visitors are attracted in the main hall to Sue, at 42-feet-long and 13 feet high, the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. It’s only 67 million years old!

Be sure to check out Sue’s enormous actual fossil head upstairs in a glass case, which couldn’t be put on the model downstairs due to its 600-pound weight.

Dioramas in the Hall of Mammals feature taxidermied animals in their natural habitat. The Field’s first taxidermist, Carl Akeley, revolutionized the art of preserving animals in natural poses. The elephants in the main hall are his work, as well as the famed man-eating lions of Tsavo, a pride of lions that ate 35 people in Kenya, stopping construction in 1898 of a railroad project over the Tsavo River. Chicago’s WGN TV featured the dioramas and their continued effect on education this video.

Lovers of gems and minerals will want to check out the Grainger Hall of Gems, highlighted by a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window. The hall was renovated in 2009 and features 600 gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals and others from around the world, as well as 150 pieces of jewelry.

Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Field Museum’s basic admission is $18 for adults, $13 for children ages 3-11.

Of course, for Chicagoans, the Field is a source of pride, especially during playoff season. In late April and early May, a dinosaur displays his Blackhawks pride. 20140419_120238