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9 Things We Love About Winter

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It may be cold outside, but our region’s best winter fun is just heating up. We dare you not to find somethign to celebrate this season, as Chris Linden shares some of our favorites.

Mark Wissing wth his Doc & Dopey snow sculpture in Geneva.

Mark Wissing wth his Doc & Dopey snow sculpture in Geneva.

It’s looking like a long, cold winter, but that’s no reason to shut yourself inside all season. Our region is surprisingly active this time of year. Scenic, snow-covered landscapes, feathered visitors, fun-filled holidays, snowy sports – just the tip of the iceberg for our winter fun. Winter gives us plenty of things to grumble about, but we dare you not to find something positive amidst our winter wonderland. Here are a few of our favorite things.

1. Birding on the Trails

Who-who-who will you find on the trails at our local forest preserves? Owls, for one, and many species can be spotted here during the winter.

Nineteen types are found throughout the U.S., and several are seen in our region. Year-round, you’re likely to spot the barred owl, so-called for the stripes on its body; the eastern screech owl, a reddish “eared” owl; and the great horned owl, a common predator of skunks (it has no sense of smell).

Several owls escape the north arctic cold by migrating to the Midwest for winter, namely the saw-whet, the long-eared, the snowy and the short-eared owl, which is an endangered species in Illinois.

Our forest preserves celebrate these winter visitors with several hikes throughout the season. The McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) hosts hikes for both kids and adults this January, with a birding hike and lessons on owl folklore.

Later in the month, MCCD hosts a winter birding event at Marengo Ridge, where you can learn how to identify birds.

The Lake County Forest Preserve hosts a late-afternoon hike on Jan. 25. Led by a naturalist at Van Patten Woods in Wadsworth, the hike offers a chance to see these nocturnal hunters in action. Bring your own binoculars.

2. Groundhog Day

Visit Woodstock on the first weekend in February, and you might think you’re in Punxsutawney, Pa. In 1992, the historic Woodstock Square became that famous city, when Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell were in town to film Groundhog Day.

Murray plays a frustrated TV meteorologist, sent to cover the city’s annual groundhog celebration. He finds himself in a time-warp, waking up each day to relive the holiday. Reportedly, director Harold Ramis chose Woodstock because of its charming square.

Each winter, Woodstock celebrates its Hollywood role with a weeklong celebration of the film and the furry rodent. This year’s festivities kick off Jan. 26, with a pancake breakfast at the Woodstock Moose Lodge, one of 14 locations where filming occurred. Festivities continue the following weekend, Jan. 30-Feb. 2. On Thursday, at 6 p.m., Woodstock Willie (Illinois’ Punxsutawney Phil) makes his first appearance at the Woodstock Opera House, the exterior of which served as the Pennsylvania Hotel in the film.

On Friday, the Moose Lodge hosts a buffet dinner and dance, and on Saturday, visitors at the Main Street PourHouse can take part in a symposium on facts, trivia and topics in the film.
On both Saturday and Sunday, the Woodstock Theatre reprises its role as the “Alpine Theater,” with three free showings of the film. Seating is first-come, first-served.

All weekend, the film’s admirers can take a free walking tour of local filming locations; maps are also available at the Chamber of Commerce year-round. Plaques are posted at each site, some of which include Ned’s Corner, Bill Murray’s puddle, the Old Man’s Alley and the Cherry Street Inn.

On Sunday, at 7:07 a.m., Woodstock Willie makes his official forecast on whether we’ll have six more weeks of winter, or if spring is on its way. It takes place at the gazebo in the square, re-creating the same ceremony Murray observed day after day in the movie.

For more information, visit the official groundhog committee’s website, woodstockgroundhog.org.

3. Valentine’s Day

The holiday season doesn’t stop on New Year’s Day; President’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day all give us reasons to celebrate during winter. This Valentine’s Day, make it a memorable occasion with your significant other.

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then gemstones and gold will make a remarkable gift for your valentine. Locally owned jewelry stores, such as M.J. Miller & Co. in Barrington, can help you to find or create the perfect piece. With a wide variety of fine jewelry, gemstones, diamonds, watches and giftware, M.J. Miller offers unique custom-made and brand-name pieces. Similarly, Studio 2015 in Woodstock offers a wide variety of unique jewelry, some of which is designed by owner Tom Dougherty.

A romantic night out begins with some casual or fine dining, and there are ample options in downtown St. Charles, where couples can choose from the bar scene at Alley 64, the relaxed atmosphere at McNally’s Traditional Irish Pub, or the upscale Italian cuisine at Salerno’s on the Fox or Franchesca’s by the River. Located just two blocks south of Route 64, Franchesca’s authentic cuisine features mouthwatering pastas and gluten-free dishes.

Finish up dinner with something sweet. Downriver in Geneva is Graham’s Fine Chocolates, where owner Robert Untiedt offers his homemade chocolate treats. Choose the traditional box of assorted chocolates, or try the sea salt caramels, truffles filled with French ganache, or Graham’s rich homemade hot cocoa.

Upriver, Morkes Chocolates, with locations in Algonquin and Palatine, offers Valentine’s specials that include the “anatomical heart” and chocolate-covered strawberries. Morkes’ regular lineup includes rich toffee, peanut brittle, mint silks and chocolate-covered goodies.

Wind up your night on the town with a special Valentine’s Day performance at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake. Williams Street Repertory presents the musical She Loves Me, a romantic comedy about two endlessly arguing coworkers who unwittingly fall in love with their anonymous pen pals – who just happen to be each other. (Think You’ve Got Mail, sans Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.)

4. Great Reading Material

In a time of instant entertainment, it’s easy to forget about the simple joy of getting lost in a book. You could certainly curl up with an e-book or digital reader, but we’re partial to that old-fashioned paper kind, with its crisp pages and pungent ink. Plenty of good reads are easy to find at our region’s locally owned bookstores.

Town House Books & Café in St. Charles has a wide selection of new books for adults and children. Its shelves hold everything from fiction and nonfiction to international and local authors, and if you can’t find it here, the staff offers to help you to locate a copy.

Town House periodically welcomes writers for book signings, and past events have included such names as Scott Turow, Julia Glass and Wendell Minor. The store also hosts a book group, which meets on the second Sunday of the month. January’s meeting covers “The Trial,” by Franz Kafka, a story about a man who’s arrested and tried, but isn’t told what crime he committed. Past book groups have discussed classics such as Moby Dick and The Good Earth, as well as contemporary best-sellers like The Art of Fielding.

With or without a book, you can warm up with a hot beverage at the adjacent café, which also serves homemade dishes for breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch.

Another locally owned shop, Read Between the Lynes, in Woodstock, offers a wide selection of books and educational toys, and hosts periodic author signings. On Jan. 25, the store welcomes Raymond Benson, author of the thriller series The Black Stiletto.

For gently used books and out-of-print titles, Twice Told Tales, in downtown Crystal Lake, offers a wide selection in a variety of genres.

And don’t forget about your local libraries, which are filled with titles new and old, in both print and digital versions. Many libraries host book discussion groups and book signings by local authors.

5. Quilting

Think warm this winter. Like, blankets-and-sweaters warm. Local quilting clubs are thinking even warmer, like wrap-yourself-in-a-quilt warm. Available around our area, quilting groups meet regularly to work on projects, swap ideas and hear from industry experts.

You’ll find quilting guilds scattered across our region, and although most clubs have membership dues, they typically welcome non-members.

One of the largest area clubs is the Northwest Suburban Quilters Guild (NSQW), which meets on the third Thursday of the month at 7:15 p.m. at Concorde Banquets, in Kildeer. Meetings typically include show-and-tell, but each month, the group hosts weekend workshops centered around guest speakers and intensive quilting. This January, workshoppers are encouraged to arrive with sewing machines in hand at the Rolling Meadows Library and the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, for two days of learning quilting techniques such as the “Around the Bend” and the “Two Block Two-Step.”

NSQW also hosts intensive sew-in getaways three times a year, where folks spend an entire weekend at a Buffalo Grove hotel to learn about sewing and to socialize with fellow quilters.

In St. Charles, the Prairie Star Quilters Guild has two chapters – daytime and evening groups – that meet on the fourth Monday of the month and the following Tuesday, respectively. The group welcomes quilters of all levels to its meetings at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Charles, and maintains a library of related books and online resources.

Some other quilt groups in our region: the Algonquin Quilters Guild; Scrappy Quilters in Crystal Lake; DeKalb County Quilters’ Guild in Sycamore; the NorthEast Illinois Modern Quilt Guild in Grayslake; the Gazebo Quilters’ Guild in Huntley; Country Quilters of McHenry; and Sarah’s Grove Quilters’ Circle of Schaumburg. Visit quiltguilds.com to find more.

6. Snow Sculptures in Geneva

It’s not winter in Geneva, or anywhere else, without a good snow sculpture. For the past decade or so, local artists Mark Wissing and Joe Gagnepain have decorated the town with their creative snow art. You may have spotted their work at places like Graham’s Fine Chocolates, Geneva Public Library and the Geneva Commons shopping center.

Wissing is a recently retired Geneva Highway commissioner, whose last sculpture appeared in 2009. Over the years, he’s created Doc and Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Buzz and Woody from Toy Story, and Rich Uncle Pennybags, the mascot from the Monopoly game.

A casual lifelong artist, Wissing is eager to resume his snow creations this year, and has already received feedback from excited locals.

“I love carving snow for many reasons,” he says. “One of them is the concentration required on the subject that I’m working on. It creates a mental diversion that allows me to escape from reality for a while.”

Gagnepain is a full-time artist who’s sculpted snow across the Chicago area and around the world. First introduced to the art by Wissing, he’s joined the “Starvin’ Carvists” sculptors at national competitions and helped them to take second place at a competition in Italy. Since 2008, his works have appeared locally on the front lawn at Graham’s and its sister 318 Coffeehouse, and have included an owl with lit-up eyes, a fairy-tale castle and even a leprechaun. This year’s first sculpture was an ice creation.

Both artists find inspiration in random places. “I try to make something that people will find fun,” says Wissing. “I like to put hats on things, because I think it adds interest.”

Wissing first began carving around 1999, at the invitation of a Sycamore-area artist. One of his first projects was a pair of 11-foot-high dancing pigs, which he carved on the Sycamore artist’s front lawn. Wissing also carved at the U.S. Snow Sculpting Competition in Lake Geneva, Wis., in 2004.

By the way, if you want to see world-class snow sculpting this season, visit Lake Geneva between Jan. 29 and Feb. 8, for the 2014 U.S. Snow Sculpting Competition. Teams must win a major competition to be invited. The Illinois qualifying competition is in Rockford on Jan. 15-18.

7. Fun on the Trails

What’s winter without a walk in the woods? Our region’s forest preserves offer a wealth of opportunities to break that cabin fever and enjoy the great outdoors.

The McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) provides more than 115 miles of trails, for cross-country skiing, winter hiking and snowshoeing. Most trails at its 33 sites are two miles or shorter, and accessible for beginners. An exception is the Prairie Trail, stretching 26 miles from the Wisconsin state line to Kane County along an old railroad line. This multi-use recreation trail passes through Richmond and Algonquin and is a popular destination for skiing and hiking. The North Branch, which runs toward Hebron, is open only for snowmobiling.

Experience the woods after dark, along MCCD’s solar-lighted trails at Pleasant Valley in Woodstock and Hickory Grove Highlands in Cary. From November through March, these trails are open until 9 p.m. Make it a late night at Marengo Ridge Conservation Area, where winter camping is allowed. Campers must register with MCCD at least 10 days in advance.

Inside the Waukegan Savanna of Lake County Forest Preserve District (LCFPD), nearly three miles of trail are set aside for horse-drawn sleighs, mushers and skijorers (skiers pulled over the snow, usually by a horse or dog). Special permits are required to take a privately owned horse-drawn cart or a dog team on the trail. During warmer weather, the trails permit adapted sled dog equipment.

Throughout the LCFPD system, nearly 24 miles of trails are open to snowmobilers, provided there’s at least four inches of snow on the ground. Parking lots and trails stay open until 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Nearly 124 miles of additional trails are open for skiers and hikers, especially inside the Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods and parts of the Des Plaines River Trail, which runs along the river from Wadsworth to Lincolnshire.

In Kane County, the Great Western recreation path is open for snowmobiling west of Wasco, from sunrise to 11 p.m. Additional trails are set aside inside the Campton and Hampshire forest preserves. Each of the county’s preserves is open for hiking through the season, and skiing when conditions permit.

8. Ice Fishing

The fish are biting year-round, and ice fishing is permitted at locations around our region. In general, fishing is discouraged unless there’s about 4 to 4.5 inches of clear ice. Forest preserve websites provide regular updates about ice conditions.

MCCD maintains six sites that are ideal for fishing, and three are open for ice fishing: 22-acre Lake Atwood and 12-acre West Lake at The Hollows in Cary, and Rush Creek Pond in Harvard. Each location offers a variety of fish that includes largemouth bass, rainbow trout, bluegill, channel catfish and crappie. All other District ponds are closed through winter, unless otherwise posted.

LCFPD’s Sterling Lake, inside Van Patten Woods, allows extended ice fishing hours on weekdays, from 6:30 a.m. to one hour after sunset. LCFPD also allows fishing at the south bay in Independence Grove in Libertyville, and Banana Lake at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Lakewood.
In Kane County, ice fishing is allowed at just three sites: Hampshire South in Hampshire, Lake Patterson at Oakhurst in Aurora, and two ponds at the Paul Wolff Campground in Elgin.

The Chain O’Lakes State Park is another popular ice fishing spot, where fishing is allowed only on the park’s 44-acre Turner Lake, a waterway that is not connected to the larger Chain.

9. Maple Syrup

It’s not called a “sugar maple” for nothing.

One of North America’s oldest native agricultural products, maple syrup/maple sugar has been flavoring Americans’ foods since American Indians first discovered the tree’s sweet sap.

While we first think of places like Vermont and Wisconsin for maple syrup, Illinois is among the 17 states that produce it, and in our region’s forest preserves, maple tapping is an annual cold-weather event. McHenry, Lake and DeKalb counties celebrate the occasion with festivals that include live demonstrations of the production process.

MCCD’s Festival of the Sugar Maples takes place March 8-9 and 15-16, at Coral Woods Conservation Area in Marengo. LCFPD hosts Maple Hikes on Saturday and Sunday, March 1-16, at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods. DeKalb County Forest Preserve District celebrates Maple Syrup Day on March 1, at Russell Woods Forest Preserve, just west of Genoa.

Maple syrup production begins in February or March, when temperatures fluctuate between 40-degree days and below-freezing nights. The thaw encourages trees to convert their stored-up sugar into sap, which is the basis for maple syrup.

Of the four most popular maples for tapping – sugar, black, silver and red – two in great abundance in our region are the sugar and black. Only maples at least 12 to 14 inches in diameter can be successfully tapped, and some can sustain production for 100 years or more. Larger trees, at about 20 inches, can handle up to three taps at a time.

A small hole is drilled into the tree, and a spile, or spigot, is placed in it, to drain the sap. Sap flows into a metal pail, which is eventually taken to a smokehouse. There, the sap is boiled to remove most of its water, leaving a thick, caramelized golden-brown liquid – syrup! According to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of maple syrup.

So, these are nine reasons we love winter in our region. How many are on your list?

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