Experience the Great Outdoors (sans bears) with REI!

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Yo, did you notice the leaves are changing color and the Chi temp is dropping?  Yup, Fall is falling on us.  Relaaaaaax….you don’t have to hibernate just yet.  Fall is an awesome time to get in touch with your naturalist side (and not your running naked down the street naturalistic side, mmk).  It’s not sweatingly hot and Mr. Misquito is making his retreat which makes this season a lot more pleasant for outdoor adventures.

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Two weeks ago, we got the opportunity to take a lil’ hiking roadtrip, aptly titled Hikes and Hops, to Matthieson State Park and Starved Rock Lodge with the Chicago REI Outdoor School.  For those of you who don’t catch fish with your bare hands, REI is a leading seller of outdoor goods but also does outreach to help us city dwellers up our survival skills.

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First, all class members got treated to the eye opening induction of Starbucks coffee and snacks as we got organized outside the Lincoln Park REI store.  The class maxed out at 10 people which was an intimate way to get to know other group members.  Our REI guides, Marisa and Chuck, were friendly fitness enthusiasts.  Both teach stand up paddleboarding in the summer and Marisa also leads SUP yoga.  As we took the relaxing 1.5 hour ride in a comfy blue 12 passenger van towards Ottawa, IL, Chuck and Marisa told us fun facts about the area and shared wildlife books to prepare us for the resident park creatures.  Luckily gators aren’t native Central Illinois-ans.

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Once we got to Mathissen State Park, we made formal intros and did a circle share of what we wanted from the day.  Most group members echoed wishes for beautiful weather and animal sightings.  We were treated to both!  During our 70 degree day, we meandered past waterfalls and sandstone cliffs.  We saw frogs and toads (Marisa’s toad sighting wish was granted) while in the company of a diverse bunch of travellers, including a college professor/amateur astronomer, book reviewer/yoga teacher and systems manager/geologist.  Needless to say, we had really stimulating conversation, some which centered around how to manage a zombie apocolypse as we trekked through the quiet woods.

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Mid day we ended up at the bottom of the lower vale and explored some hidden cove type areas.  Our guides then busted out a machete (or maybe it was just a kitchen knife) and skillfully ninja-ed up a watermelon and fancy cheddar cheese for us to munch on.

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On the last leg of the day, the scenary changed and we entered a lulling prairie with yellow butterflies and waving native grasses.  We embraced the quiet moments of the trip as well as our surroundings lended themselves to reflection and private thoughts.

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At the end of our hike, we were treated to entrees and drinks at the Starved Rock Lodge, hence the Hops came into play.  We split a tasty helping of  panko breaded avocado fries with a spicy red chimi sauce before our main meal.  Monica picked a light and fluffy mushroom polenta while Kate ate a BBQ pulled pork with crispy waffle cut sweet potato fries.  Even with all that hiking, we were so full we had to skip out on the homemade ice cream and possibility of flourless chocolate cake.

So we can tell you are feeling slightly jealous of our beautiful day.  Why not have your own?  REI school has upcoming Hike and Hop classes as well as Urban Kayaking.  If you are new to nature, you can do basic bike riding classes, survival skills (for those “walker” attacks!) or even map reading.  We are especially partial to the Bike and Beans class.  Get caffienated while toodling on a bike at various Chicago micro-roasters?  Yes sir!  Sign up for an REI class ASAP! Your life may depend on it ;).

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