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Horse Sense

by Fred Tetreault

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

Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995

One form of outdoor recreation gaining in popularity in Illinois is horseback riding, and a group of LaSalle County volunteers are working to ensure the proper amenities are available at Matthiessen State Park.

Matthiessen State Park

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

46 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995

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.

State Park Usage Up in 1994

More than 39.5 million people visited Illinois state parks in 1994.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, attendance figures increased 9 percent from the previous year, when flood waters kept attendance down at some sites.

Records show annual park attendance during the last several years averaged more than 36 million, with a high of 39.7 million visitors to Department sites in 1990.

Illinois Beach State Park in Zion had the highest attendance in 1994 with 2.5 million visitors. It was followed by Fort Massac State Park in Metropolis (1.9 million); Chain O' Lakes State Park in Spring Grove and Starved Rock State Park in Utica (each with 1.7 million); Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton (1.3 million); and Giant City State Park near Makanda and Kankakee River State Park near Bourbonnais (each with 1.2 million).

Electronic counting devices at park entrances determine the number of vehicles entering 130 of the Department's 270 state sites. A formula is used to calculate the number of individuals in each vehicle to figure site attendance.

Illinois Parks & Recreation • July/August 1995 • 47

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