A group of volunteer horse enthusiasts is helping to develop equestrian facilities at one of Illinois' most spectacular state parks.
Chalk up another one for volunteers.
Historically, they've been a vital component of Department of Conservation (now the Department of Natural Resources or DNR) operations. Their ever-widening range of services to the agency have earned them the description as "one of the keys to the survival of the Department during fiscally tight times." Without their assistance, many of the programs and services Illinoisans have come to expect of wouldn't exist.
Word from Matthiessen State Park in northern Illinois indicates these indomitable friends of the Department are still at it!
If you are into horseback riding, own your horse and believe the ultimate rush is a long canter or overnight camping trip on one of the state park equestrian trails, there's good news in store for you, according to a recent Matthiessen announcement. And you have volunteers to thank most for that news.
Due in large part to a group of horsemen and equestriennes who share your view of a good time, Matthiessen State Park, one of the state's most rugged and scenic parksites, now has a greatly improved horseback trail system and soon will have an equestrian campground. Work already has started on construction of service roads, and development of the camping area is expected to begin soon.
The new campground will be built on a seven- to eight-acre tract in the north central region of the park, just north of Matthiessen's famous Dells area. A primitive camping facility, offering only a gravel entrance road and a primitive water pump, currently occupies the site. Plans call for maintaining the property's present cover, a mixture of expansive grassy areas and thick woods.
Encompassing nearly 2,000 acres, the Matthiessen property adjoins Starved Rock State Park, three miles south of Utica and three miles east of Oglesby in LaSalle County. The two parks are administered as a single unit, the Starved Rock/Matthiessen Complex.
Matthiessen's new facilities will become part of the 700-mile network of equestrian trails which serve more than 40 state parks, conservation areas, state fish and wildlife areas and state forests. The park will be the 27th DNR site to have an equestrian campground. Heretofore, Matthiessen and Starved Rock riders shared the horse camping area at Starved Rock.
Cost of the additions will be "under $10,000," according to project coordinator Rick Vecchi of the Starved Rock staff. "It should not be overlooked," Vecchi points out, "that this project's price tag is substantially lower than would have been possible without volunteer participation."
Vecchi said the workers, who call themselves the Illinois Gaited Horsemans' Volunteer Group, include fifteen members of horseback riding clubs from Morris, Ottawa, LaSalle and communities as far away as Bloomington.
In a spirit of enlightened self-interest, they banded together late last spring to help improve the condition of Matthiessen's horse trails.
Their goals have been to assist the park staff in maintaining the existing equestrian trail system, rebuilding old
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trails, developing new ones, and, according to Group Leader Frank Metes, "promoting horseback riding in a way that is safe and in compliance with ecological standards set by the Department." Among their accomplishments this past year:
• Construction of guardrails where a portion of the horse trail crosses the park's Upper Dells area, between Deer Park Lake and the lip of Cascade Falls;
• Construction of a heavy timber bridge spanning an always-muddy seep area. The workers carried timbers and other materials into the construction zone from distant parking areas and assembled the structure—in a freezing mid-October downpour;
• Removal of brush and overhanging branches along the trail's nine-mile route;
• General trail maintenance and updating, including mowing, filling of holes, tree trimming, trail shaping, sign installation and repair and grading with rakes and shovels;
• Development of several miles of new trail, and
• Campground site preparation—including removal of brush and shrubs, and moving of grass and weeds— and development of plans for the facility.
Metes said Phase One of the campground project, slated for completion this summer, will involve the replacement of a hand-operated water pump with an electrically powered pumping system, installation of a drinking fountain for riders and watering trough for horses, construction of a winding gravel roadway through the camping area, and creation of a gravel parking area designed to accommodate 20-25 auto/horsetrailer units. All of this work will be handled by Department personnel.
Subsequent phases will include the construction of a corral and individual camping pads, establishment of electrical service and installation of tie-down facilities for horses.
"We hope to continue working in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources to improve Matthiessen's horse trails and equestrian campground," Metes said. "We feel this state park has the potential to be one of the best horseback riding parks in the state."
Though members of the Illinois Gaited Horsemans' Volunteer Group spent numerous weekends working on the
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trail and campsite during the spring, summer and fall of 1994, there was time also for trail rides and other fun, Metes reports. A social highlight was the group's "Chili Dump" potluck and trail ride. For the "Chili Dump," participants prepared their own chili recipes at home, then dumped them into a common pot
Terry Cross, operator of the Starved Rock Lodge, sees the Matthiessen work from both a philosophical and practical perspective.
The new facilities, he points out, are another, much-needed expansion of recreational opportunities in the state, and a broadening of the recreational menu.
"Illinois has so much more to offer in natural resources than we are utilizing. The more we can make available new opportunities or opportunities for new and different experiences, the more all of our citizens will benefit—businessmen, taxpayers and people who love the outdoors.
I grew up as a southern Illinois farmboy, was familiar with horses and rode a lot when I was a kid. Now I have my own horse stabled over near LaSalle and, naturally, I have a little more interest in seeing these additional facilities being developed here," he said.
Fred Tetreault, a staff writer for Outdoor Illinois, retired at the end of April after 25 years of service with the Department of Conservation.
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator