Tag Archives: recreation

A Tallgrass Prairie in Fall –

The tallgrass prairies are all gone, cut up, as they were, by John Deere’s earth razor.

For good reason. The soil underneath, deposited by ancient glaciers, was rich and stretched for thousands of miles.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold

The land that built American was once a tallgrass prairie. At least some of it was. Some of it was shortgrass and some of it mixed. Much of it, from the rivers of the east to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is steppes, cold steppes.

There is not far from us a remnant, 19,000 acres, of tallgrass prairie. It’s called the Midewin, (pronounced mih-day-win) and you’d miss it were it not for a national designation and signs along Illinois 53.

We rode our bikes through parts of the Midewin, the parts along which the Iron Bridge Trail runs.

It’s a sandy trail, so heavy in spots that your bicycle tires will sink in an inch or two.

At other spots, it’s wind blown and bare and the dirt is packed and hard. And you fly along next to waving stalks of big bluestem, prairie drop seed and Canada wild rye.

In the fall, when the grasses have browned somewhat and the wildflowers like pasture rose, purple prairie clover and the coreopsis stop competing like colors on the rainbow, the effect is a mottled, earthy pallete of beige browns, damp greens, flaxen purples and harvest yellows.

The weather has just turned, as it is expected to do in early October. The air from the north is bitter and biting.

A small garter snake seeks whatever warmth the sandy trail soaked up in the daylight hours. I swerved to miss it.

My wife noticed a small raccoon sleeping in a girder on the iron bridge. I thought, that’s a smart little creature, hiding out from the wind like that.

The Iron Bridge Trail winds through rehabilitated prairie, claimed, as it were, from row cropping. The native grasses slowly choking out the invaders. But it’s difficult to completely buy the premise with the man-made lines just barely visible under the beginner prairie. 

Woodlands intersect the prairie in spots, providing windbreaks and a change of scenery and homes to a host of creatures.

The frog chorus is not as bright as it might have been in summer, the refrain a little more urgent with a hint of sadness, but it’s there as a backdrop nonetheless.

Crunching leaves is the dominant sound until a Swainson’s hawk lets loose a piercing shriek before diving off a tall branch above our heads and making for a better vantage point less crunchy and with fewer humans.

When the trees gave way to the prairie again, the wind was in our faces, and it burned us red like the sun is prone to do.

The cold gray ceiling of clouds was flat and featureless, casting irrelevant shadows around us. A northern harrier hawk winged over us looking for movement on the prairie floor.

The solitude felt good. There were cars at the trail head, but we never spotted another human along the path. We rode through about 6 miles of the prairie, before the cold wind bit down too hard and for too long.

Coming out of the eastern lands, the tallgrass prairie must have seemed somewhat insurmountable to the early pioneers, with grasses reaching over 9 feet in some cases, a good patch of prairie could be as rich in life and diversity as a tropical rainforest.

I can imagine the sighs of relief when the Midwestern tallgrass prairies finally gave way to the mixed and shortgrass prairies farther west.

And I’m glad they’ve set aside this small patch of prairie to enjoy. It being a work in progress, it’s not the beauty that draws me in, it’s the rough concept taking place in my head.

It’s the connection to another time.

“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” – Aldo Leopold

Alaska’s E-League Softball: A Metaphor and More

After a 4-run second inning where half of the opposing team walked, I yelled, “If E league has this many rules and this many people willing to walk rather than swing at a ball, show me the way to the F league.

I failed miserably at baseball. I played off and on through junior high and high school. The coach always had me bat first, because I had absolutely no strike zone. I was 5 feet, and when I hunched over at the plate, a starting pitcher would’ve had better luck with the stats girl.

The sign came from the 3rd base coach every time. Walk. Take the pitch. Four balls. Toss the bat, jog to first base.

I did this more times than I can count. Then I’d run from first to second. Occasionally, when the stars aligned, I’d steal third. But I’d always walk to first.

The last good memory I have from baseball is a game we played at the old Willamina ball fields in Oregon.

The guys had been ribbing me for a few weeks about taking a swing in spite of coach’s stern sign-giving from third base.

There was a girl I liked sitting in the bleachers on that warm Saturday. Everything smelled like baseball, which is to say it smelled like leather and baseball uniforms that hadn’t been washed all season. And it smelled a little of clean-cut green grass.

The sun fell on the field like a thick liquid. Dust and pollen particles hung suspended in the air, and I stared down the first base line instead of looking at coach on third. He didn’t care. He just made the sign and expected me to take four quick balls and get this game going.

I took one. The guys were yelling at me to swing away.

I took two.

The coach had his arms crossed and a stern look on his face.

“Do it for Jody!” one of the guys yelled from the dugout. And laughter ensued. I’m sure I turned red.

And then I watched the ball leave the pitcher’s hand. A fastball right down the middle. It seemed so slow as I used muscles I hadn’t used all season to pull the bat around.

And then crack! The bat connected with white leather and red string. I never even saw it, I just heard, “run, Akimoff, run.”

That’s the one and only memory I have of my baseball years.

A single to right field.

But I’ve been in love with baseball for as long as I can remember. I used to call into a talk radio station from my grandparents’ house in Pacifica, California to try and win Giants tickets when I was little.

Going to see the Giants and A’s play with my uncles aresome of my favorite memories. Watching a game on the couch on a lazy Saturday with a cold beer in hand, alone, is one of the true pleasures in life.

And then came softball.

At a time in my life when I desperately needed something to draw my attention away from the stress at work and the work at home after I got home from work, I decided to play Sunday Co-Rec D League softball in Missoula, Montana.

Our lead sports writer at the paper looked me up and down and agreed to take me on, since I had a wife who would play and thus provide the needed quota of females.

Co-rec softball in Missoula has replaced that memory of that single at the Willamina ball fields.

I caught pop flies, I hit doubles. I struck out more times than I can count. I caught a highlight-of-the-week play that bloodied both knees. We drank beer, on the field. We sat around and watched the next two games together. We played Polish horseshoes. Then we went out to eat nachos together after.

There were days when everything slowed down just enough to watch the particles hover in the still air at McCormick Park, and I lived my baseball dreams over all the other memories.

So it was natural to want to play softball in Alaska with the rock stars at Alaska’s News Source, Channel 2 KTUU.

We call ourselves Deuces Wild, and our morning anchor was our pitcher the first summer.

But therein lies the difference. Summer.

The existence of such a rare beast as summer has never been proven in this state. Softball happens just after the snow melts, and you have two good weeks of sunshine before the chill rain starts up and fishing begins in earnest.

I have never seen softballers wear as many layers as I have here in Alaska, in the E league.

That’s right. This is E league softball, baby, where there are more rules than you know what to do with and the refs never know them all.

This is the E league, baby, where players will take three balls for a walk rather than swing away for death or glory.

This is E league, where injured players fall after plays more often than teams playing the University of Oregon Duck football team do.

This is E league, where beer is only allowed in cans, off the field, and where games end on the hour regardless of how many times you got to bat.

If I wanted to go back to that moment in Willamina, I’d write a screen play and make a movie starring Kevin Costner. I just want to hit the ball, run around the bases, catch a few, run after a few, drink a few beers with friends and complain about the other team.

If I can’t have this in the E league, will someone please show me to the F league?