Tom Kacich | April shivers into record books

Tom Kacich | April shivers into record books

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It was a long, chilly winter that overstayed itself well into what we know as spring. And when April arrived — usually that most welcome of months — 4 inches of snow fell on the second day. That unfolded into what has been the coldest April in local weather history, with temperatures 10 degrees below normal and more snowfall than in January.

If you feel like you've been waiting longer than normal for the real spring to arrive — not just the calendar spring — you're right. So has nature.

"I think last year everything was so early that it seems like things are really, really late this year. I don't know that anyone's kept track of dates but it feels late," said Pam Leiter, assistant director of the museum and education department at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, who works at the Homer Lake Interpretive Center. "I've been watching the plants in my yard and the ones outside of the center here, waiting and waiting for them to finally start blooming.

"Then the snow came, and they looked really wilty and yet popped up again, and then the snow came again. It has felt really, really slow this year."

The Virginia bluebells that dot natural areas of Champaign County have been waiting, too, but finally they're waking, ready to add splashes of blue and purple to the deep greens in our too-rare forested areas.

Take an easy hike this week through any of the floodplain woodlands in East Central Illinois, and you'll see a hint of the splendor that is just days away. Busey Woods in Urbana and Homer Lake, Lake of the Woods Park and the Middle Fork River forest preserves all have stands of bluebells deep in the woods that are just about ready to show.

But the best, the real star of this display, is the Bluebell Trail, less than a mile long, that winds along the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River at the Hidden Acres area in eastern Champaign County. It's a relatively new public area, acquired by the forest preserve district in 2015, and known for a while simply as The 28 Acres. A year later, it was named Hidden Acres in honor of the Hidden Acres nursery that was once nearby.

It's an appropriate name because in a county known for its flatness — they don't call it Champaign (level, open country) for nothing — this space a couple miles west of Homer Lake is a densely forested expanse of ravines, river bottom, wildflowers and songbirds.

There also are piles of concrete, brick and other deposits of civilization that detract from the natural beauty, but on the south side of Hidden Acres is a more pristine, 7-acre section known as Sylvester Woods. It's there, at the far end of the loop trail, that you get your reward: A 360-degree view of thousands of bluebells and other wildflowers and native plants. You will not be disappointed.

But the bell- or trumpet-shaped flowers don't last long, maybe three weeks, and then they're gone.

Leiter says there are other wildflowers ready to burst forth — wild ginger, spring beauties, celandine poppies and dutchman's breeches — in the next few weeks.

But now is the time to visit. The ground at Hidden Acres is dry and easily navigable. The weather forecast for the weekend is outstanding: sunny and mild.

There's no mention of snow. Who knows how long that will last?

Hidden Acres is on County Road 2400 East, about 2 miles south of County Highway 14 (the Homer Lake Road). The entrance, on the east side of 2400, is marked with a very small sign and is easy to miss. There's a small parking lot at the end of the lane.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

Sections (5):News, Local, Columns, Weather, Opinion
Topics (1):Environment