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  Last year more people used the County's forest preserves than visited Yellowstone National Park.

Forest preserves provide plenty of ways to shake winter cabin fever

Sunday, November 26, 2006
Daily Herald
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

When the prairies are covered in snow, the ponds are iced over, many birds have flown to Florida, and the toboggan slides still are broken, there's still lots to do at the county's forest preserves this winter.
"We don't see a lot of people out there picnicking," said Vito Benigno, the forest preserve district's superintendent for recreation. "But people are out there."
A number of activities are available for families throughout the winter, including Christmas festivals, nature walks and ice fishing.
All of the forest preserve's trails remain open year-round, many of them for skiing and snowmobiling. For the less hardy, there are indoor activities at the district's nature centers.
"A lot of what you'll see really depends on the weather," naturalist Karen Garrett said. "A lot of the times, you don't see the animal itself. But you'll see signs that it's here for the winter."
One of the district's most popular family activities, Benigno said, is cross-country skiing. The district offers a seminar at Camp Sagawau in Lemont.
"We teach safety first and what kind of equipment would be best, how to put it on, how to take it off -- from the basics up to the advanced stuff," Benigno said. "It's mostly families with their kids that come out."
Basic ski equipment can cost as little as $40, he said, and is available to rent at the district and at ski shops throughout the area.
For something a bit more challenging, you can try ice fishing. The district has 13 lakes open for ice fishing to anyone with a state fishing license.
"There's things you can do and equipment you can buy to make it easier," Benigno said. "But all you really need is something to cut through the ice and a line with a hook on it."
The district has designated sites for ice fishing, ice skating, sledding, skiing and snowmobiling, Benigno said, though all the activities are at your own risk. You shouldn't go on the ice until it's 4 inches thick, Benigno said.
"Of course, the only way to know that for sure is with an auger" that can bore through the ice, Benigno said. "I'm sure for a lot of people, it's like when I was a kid -- you just look at it, and if it looks safe, you went on it. But we don't recommend it."
The golf courses are open too.
"It's good to use colored balls, for obvious reasons," Benigno said.
The district's nature centers will hold events for families throughout December. One of the most popular is the Winter Bonfire at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Willow Springs.
"It's a celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year," district naturalist Deborah Ripper said. "You get a lot of regulars. We had someone who brought her 6-month-old, and, now, the girl is 9 years old and still coming."
Kids are encouraged to bring edible tree ornaments such as popcorn on a string to trim the tree. Then there's a short hike through the woods.
"We give talks about hibernation, and then I always say maybe Rudolph might be seen on the prairie," Ripper said. "We tell the kids that he'll show up if they sing it loud enough."
The night ends with hot chocolate and popcorn around a large bonfire. The district uses it as a chance to burn old wooden posts and rails. Registration opens Dec. 1 and often fills up quickly.
Benigno said he's seen many people drive into the preserves just to see the snow on the prairies. But there's still no doubt the summer picnic season remains the district's biggest draw.
"Jan. 2 is opening day for picnic permits for the year, 8 a.m.," Benigno said. "That's probably the biggest single day of activity in winter for the whole forest preserves."
Special events in December
Nordic Ski Seminar
10 a.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Camp Sagawau, Lemont. Indoor introduction to equipment and techniques of cross country skiing.
Holiday Crafts for Adults
1:30 p.m. Saturday at Sand Ridge Nature Center, South Holland. Build a rustic log centerpiece for your table. Materials provided, registration required, $5 per person.
Candle Lantern Hike
7 p.m. Dec. 8 at Sand Ridge Nature Center, South Holland A nighttime walk lit only by candles. Get a chance to see the stars and nocturnal wildlife. Registration required.
Winter Wonders Hike
1:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at Sand Ridge Nature Center, South Holland. A walk through the woods to learn how animals adapt to winter.
Christmas Past
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 10 at Sand Ridge Nature Center, South Holland. Bring the kids to see volunteers in period dress, make crafts, play with homemade toys and eat chestnuts roasted over the open fire. Includes the tradition of pounding a nail into a cabbage for good luck.
Winter Bonfire
6:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, Willow Springs. Trim the tree, take a short hike through the woods and sing songs around the bonfire. $2 per person over age 4; registration in person required.

For information about where you can ski, fish, sled, ice skate or snowmobile in the Cook County Forest Preserve District, visit or call the district's recreation department at (708) 771-1056.

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