Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a hike at Argyle Lake State Park near Macomb. The walk was hosted by the resident state naturalist and was attended by a few other brave souls on a cold December morning.
This was the first time I had ever been to this state park. Despite being off the beaten path , the park entrance and visitors facilities are well maintained.
The naturalist began our walk just outside the visitors cabin area and we continued onto a hiking trail that skirts the lake. The topography is very rolling and steeply descends to the lake but our trail was constructed so that difficult climbing was avoided. We entered the tall canopy of the hardwood forest which, like most of the timber in Illinois, was once dominated by oak and hickory. Like other areas of Illinois, maples have become abundant as well. The naturalist discussed with us the identification of oaks, hickory and maple in winter. We learned about distinguishing features of the bark of these trees and growth habits and got to practice these pointers along the trail.
This park capitalizes on it's maple population by hosting a maple syrup festival each spring. This is one of the most attended events in the park. The local community gets involved and maple syrup is made from the sap of selected trees. It sounds delightful and I plan to return for the celebration!
As we continued deeper into the forest, I noticed the abundance of ferns on the hillsides . The naturalist pointed out two ferns that were present and still very green despite the cold. This area was reminiscent of the forests of the eastern US or perhaps the Drift-less Zone of Iowa or Wisconsin. It really did not look typical of Illinois. Along with the ferns there were lichens and mosses still very green and carpeting the forest floor. I found this particularly magical!
Further along the trail we discovered different under-story trees like sassafras. This little native is common to central Illinois and points south but I have also grown it with success in the Chicago region. It is one of my favorite trees with the 3 distinct leaf patterns on one tree and smelling of root beer when brushed against or it's bark crushed.
Back near the visitor's cabin and parking area we walked through the prairie plot and a small native plant-pollinator garden. There is also a small arboretum featuring trees that were used in the state fair displays in Springfield and now are growing to their full potential here. A very nice selection of more unusual trees.
Our naturalist talked briefly about the history of this area. In early settlement days, this area was known as Argyle Hollow but attained the local name of Ragtown. The folks who lived in the hills and valleys of this area supplemented their income by mining coal, limestone and clay from dugouts. Coal is still washing out of these hand dug areas and we picked up some pieces that were in the trail. Now with the state park formed and the acreage preserved around it for conservation the land is returning to what it once was.
Argyle Lake itself would be an excellent place to observe waterfowl and the occasional beaver and otter. It could offer many spectacular views in all seasons.
I know I will definitely return here to attend other events and maybe even get a chance at some point to volunteer as a master naturalist here. It would be wonderful to see it in other seasons and explore what fascinating experiences it has to offer.
Master Naturalist Intern