First, let's make sure we're all speaking Illinoisan: it's pronounced "embrah." You're welcome.
The Embarras Ridges rise out of the Embarras River flood plain just south of Charleston, and according to my Garmin keep rising up to 200' high. They're amazing, the handiwork of gushing torrents of glacial melt at the end of the last ice age. In many places, hiking up is an all-fours scramble (if ascent is possible); descending can be like jumping out a window.
Welcome to the job site for Illinois Trail Corps 2017.
The Grand Prairie Friends Land Trust began acquiring the property, over 400 acres now, a couple years ago to preserve this river & ridges landscape for its natural history but also—and this is new and interesting to us—to open up a new outdoor recreation opportunity for Coles County. Land trusts preserve and maintain almost 48,000 acres in Illinois across nearly 300 sites statewide. But this is the first group we're aware of whose attitude towards inviting hikers and trail runners has been, "How soon?"
The answer is "by mid-summer." We're partnering again with Americorps NCCC, who has consistently sent us teams of amazing young adults ready to work like machines. While our team last fall was pulled to help families recover in flooded Baton Rouge, and competition for teams from NCCC gets higher every year in the Midwest, as an experienced NCCC team sponsor, we're expecting to be assigned a team from the beginning of May to the end of June.
They will have their work flagged out for them, but will have to cut it themselves. Steve French (a 3-year vet leading Illinois Trail Corps teams) and I have made three weekend trips since last August to Charleston to find and flag a 4+ mile rolling contour trail up and over these towering ridges that will bring hikers and runners the best views, compelling routes and all the challenge they're looking for without creating a disaster for future maintenance and the adjacent ecology. Our most recent trip was just this past weekend to begin pin flagging a centerline for construction, and I'm exhausted plus my calves are killing me. Trekking up, down, and across 30% slopes is outside my day-to-day.
We have built new trail segments on past trail hitches, but always as part of realigning an old trail. Embarras Ridges is the first time we've established virgin trail, creating an opportunity for people to get outside, under their own power where previously it didn't exist. This is an amazing opportunity for Trails for Illinois and Illinois Trail Corps.
We think it's an opportunity that grows. We believe that the long-term stewardship of the landscapes that groups like land trusts restore and protect requires finding ways for people to integrate them into their lives. Trails are that integration—trails are where conservation and human wellbeing meet. The research is clear: support for conserving the natural environment rises with the time people spend out in it. Grand Prairie Friends has begun thinking this way, and we think other land trusts and conservation groups will follow.
If you can't volunteer, support Trails for Illinois by becoming a member, or sponsor Illinois Trail Corps. We do awesome work for Illinois trails that no one else is doing—see our current program summary (PDF).
Thanks for reading, and may your home be your trailhead.