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TODAY

Thursday, April 18

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Airbags

I can't confirm that this winter was any longer than past winters, but it sure seemed like it, and most everyone I know seems to agree. The late March snow was most disheartening, prompting us to take a stand. We cut out a paper snowflake and a big red x and taped it to the front window. It hasn't snowed since, and I'm leaving it right where it is to make sure it doesn't come back. That's right, Mother Nature, I'm talking to you. Towards the end there (and let's all agree that we have reached the end) on one of the semi-pleasant days between snowstorms, a friend and I dragged a bunch of kids out to the Harold "Hal" Tyrell Trailside Museum, tucked away in Thatcher Woods along the mighty Des Plaines, bordering tony River Forest.

The best thing to do in the face of late winter/early spring mental health issues is to team up, and pick a low-stress activity. Kids in the woods need very little parental interaction, and fresh air does everyone a bit of good. Given the freedom to roam, to pick up sticks and bash things with them, to scramble down muddy embankments, to locate all manner of wildlife from the lowliest slug to the regal goose, kids can expel months of pent-up energy and parents can take a breather. After visiting with the rescued wildlife (talking crow, grass snake, robin with a broken wing, owl) we hiked along the river a bit and found a sunny meadow next to the trail. We picked a central location to watch the kids from and turned them loose. After a good stretch of haphazard running amok, the kids divided into shifting teams and began building shelters with fallen branches. The girls built what appeared to be some sort of moon lodge, and the boys an encampment and weapons storehouse.

As my friend and I sat on our log, we lamented the approaching winter/spring storm; we could feel it moving in from the west. The afternoon was growing chilly, the blue sky slowly turning back to that particular shade of white; the color of late winter depression. Who knew when we'd be able to get out and play next? The forecast for the coming days was grim. We agreed that it was vitally important to our collective sanity, to take advantage of whatever semi-pleasant weather was afforded us. Thus, the Nature Hotline was established. Should one of us, peering out of our window, spot some blue sky, she would call the other, rally the children and we'd form our own little flash mob, a small group running outside to take advantage of whatever edge of the slowly approaching spring happened to be showing.

So, this week, when the sun beaming in through the bedroom windows woke us up, I expected to open the curtains to find a leafy green morning, and not just because my son greets every dawn with the words "it's summertime!" The birds were up — cardinals, robins, the flock of mourning doves... all had a lot to say about the sunny day, the pleasantness of the breeze. Of course, upon opening the curtains, all of the branches were still bare, and though the mountain of plowed snow over in the church parking lot was greatly diminished, there was still a little left. When I stepped out to get the paper it was pretty cold, but no matter, that's what jackets are for. It was a gorgeous, sunny day: it was time to call the Nature Hotline.

I would have been content to drag everyone up to the pond and poke around with sticks, but my friend, being more energetic and better at creative activity planning than I, had already formed a geocaching plan. She presented me, via email, several options, three of which were out in Schiller Woods. We would go to Schiller Woods then, out west on Irving Park Road past Cumberland, and we'd take the dog with us. She needed a day out sniffing around in the woods too, and one of the best reasons to have a 100lb. dog is so that you can go into the forest preserves feeling relatively safe.

As I've mentioned in the past, it is often difficult to get my youngest child to leave the house, since most of the time he has to go someplace, it means transporting his siblings from point A to point B, or picking up or dropping off a child that isn't his playmate, but rather some boring girl or older boy who can't be bothered with him. I can't blame the kid, I usually don't want to go either. On this morning, he was laying on the floor, neck deep in legos, wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of power ranger underpants. I said, "Hey, let's go treasure hunting!" He started to protest and put up the usual fight, but then the words "treasure hunt" sunk in and he asked what that meant. I told him we were going to go hunt around in the woods for some kind of hidden treasure. Magic words, apparently, we were dressed and out the door in five minutes. Within the hour we were deep into the woods.

I haven't participated much in the geocaching craze, which probably isn't really a craze unless you are nature-loving, puzzle-solving, adventurous techno nerds — which clearly describes not only my family, but many of the people we know. So it's a small craze. I've only had the opportunity to experience geocaching at a Girl Scout camp, when my troop hid a geocache on the property for other troops to discover. The concept, in case you don't know, is that all over the world there are people hiding things in secret spots, posting their coordinates on the internet, and then other people get their GPS devices strapped around their necks and march all over trying to track down the treasures, following the coordinates on the GPS device. Sometimes there is a theme, or a clue hidden in the name. Usually what you'll find is a buried or securely hidden, weatherproof container, often an ammo can. Inside you will generally find a notebook and pen or pencil, some small items for trading such as little toys or things relating to the theme. Some geocaches are "micro-caches," so small that they don't have actual items in them besides information about a web page to log onto to post your findings.

Geocaching is one of those great family activities, as it's a great way to explore some areas that you might not normally, and once you acquire the GPS, it's free. If you don't want to shell out for a GPS but are interested in this type of thing, Letterboxing may appeal to you. Letterboxing is the same basic idea, but more old school, as you are given map coordinates and text based clues. Letterboxers often have a personalized stamp made, both to share with those who find their letterboxes, and also to stamp the book stored inside the found letterbox with their symbol. People who hide a geocache (or letterbox) are responsible for the maintenance of the cache, periodically coming back to check on it, to make sure it's still weatherproof, and that all of the items in the cache are in good working order and supply. And not submerged beneath 8 feet of river water.

We followed the directions given to us by the GPS, and walked north, looking to find the path leading to the Des Plaines River and then south to find treasure. We had the woods to ourselves, there wasn't another soul around, aside from one man back in the woods, scavenging beer cans. (We did not have the parking lot to ourselves, just the woods. The forest preserves, particularly the secluded parking lots, are notorious spots for um... cruising. If you head out there, consider yourself warned. Those guys aren't interested in a van filled with women and children, though, so don't be scared to go for a hike.)

We counted 21 deer, many who seemed completely unpreturbed by our presence. We found the river and walked the trail alongside and above it, looking down at the water line, which had risen to half the height of many trees. It was difficult to tell exactly where the actual river banks once were; half of the forest appeared to be submerged. The river had flowed well past its western bank, where the first of the caches lay hidden. We quickly scratched that one off of our list and proceeded onward to search for the other two. According to Kim, who has spent many an hour hunting caches with her family, not just around Chicago but all around the country, her family had to learn a hard lesson — sometimes you don't find what you are looking for, so best not to make the outing all about finding the cache. A couple of adults can still enjoy the process of hunting, exploring new terrain, seeing some wildlife even if they don't end up finding anything. With children in tow, however, an unfound treasure can be a huge let-down. I was beginning to get an inkling of what might be in my very near future when, about 100 yards ahead of us on the path, we discovered that the Des Plaines had breeched the eastern bank as well, scratching cache #2 off of the list as well.

For curiosity's sake, we hiked to the very last possible speck of trail that we could before it became river. We all stood on our little peninsula, the kids tried to measure the depth of the water by hurling several logs and sticks into it. I kept the dog from going for a swim, and we turned back, heading for a path we had spied, heading east into the forest. We hoped to be able to travel far enough in to be able to head back south across dry land for one last effort to find a cache. It was looking good. Ahead of us, rising up out of the forest to the south was a grassy plain, it looked like a likely spot. The GPS directed us, unfortunately, 500 feet west. Our third and final hope for treasure was under water. Fortunately, by this time, the youngest in our group had entirely forgotten about finding anything, so busy was he jumping streams, dragging sticks and climbing over logs. We found a spot to rest and have a snack at the water's edge. A snail was found and admired. The dog finally got herself into the muddy water, under the not so very watchful eyes of the 12-year-olds. A decision about the acquisition of ice cream was reached, and we prepared to head back. We had hiked about a mile, which doesn't seem far unless you are faced with having to retrace your steps with a 4-year-old. Through the woods, which were just beginning to show the faintest signs of spring (if you don't count a swollen, overflowing river and 21 hungry deer) we saw the sun bouncing off of something shiny. It was big, and white, and just about the best thing you could hope to find when not finding treasure: the minivan, parked and waiting for us, not 50 yards away.

For all of the information you could ever want on geocaching, I recommend spending some time hunting around on Geocaching.com. There are caches hidden all around town. The descriptions alone are worth reading, and will give you some very different points of view from which to explore Chicago. Like this one.

Thanks to Kim for sharing all of her geocaching knowledge with me.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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