Polar Bears in Lake Michigan

It’s not unusual to see polar bears in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan every winter.  In fact, on January 28, 2017 they are taking the plunge at Oak Street Beach.  The Chicago Polar Bear Club has raised over $300,000 over the last 15 years for charity–helping families in need.  According to their website, “One hundred per cent of every dollar has gone directly to the families..”


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But before the club even existed, there were hearty swimmers who just enjoyed swimming in cold winter water.  The three earliest known winter swimmers were from Milwaukee:  Frank Sutter, Jim Brazell, and Gustav Marx pictured above. The photo is dated, December 31, 1916.  Their friends and the press began calling them polar bears.



This photo clipping from the Chicago Tribune, c. 1922, depicts a group of men and women resting between swimming sessions at the Edgewater Beach Hotel near the snowy, icy lake front.

If you would like to support this time honored tradition by donating, watching Polar Bears take the plunge, or by taking it yourself, contact the Chicago Polar Bear Club for details at http://www.chicagopolarbearclub.com .








Exploring Lockport: Big Run Wolf Ranch

If you live in Lockport and think you hear the howl of wolves late at night, you are not dreaming.  The rustic Big Run Wolf Ranch, at 14857 Farrell Road, is a place where you can experience North American wildlife–especially an assortment of 11 wolves.

We visited the ranch on November 28, 2015 for a family day open house event.  We parked on Farrell Road–about a block away–since the ranch has limited parking.  After paying our six dollar fee, we were free to roam about.  The docents and workers were friendly and inviting, willing to answer questions about their rescued animals. We found a Siberian tiger named Khan, Charlie the Cougar, a porcupine, a very wily Coyote, and even a horse.  Kuma, the Black Bear was in semi-hibernation–so sorry to have missed him!  Underfoot, there were peahens, and various water fowl lounging along the creek–they seemed to enchant the large group of children attending the event.

John Basile, the owner who had started the ranch thirty years ago as a not for profit refuge and wildlife educational center, gave a talk and presentation featuring Sitka, the youngest wolf on the ranch.   We could see the playful spirit of Sitka, who was playing ball with her handler–but had to keep in mind her wild nature.  There is a reason that the animals are securely kept in their compounds inside a rather large fence.

Basile told stories about the animals.  We especially liked the one about Kuma who was sold at a flea market for $300.  Eventually, the black bear  was confiscated by authorities (it is against the law for unlicensed citizens to possess wild animals) and brought to Big Run.

Santa was there too!  What a photo op!

The ranch is not open to the public but scheduled groups (school field trips, overnight camping, corporate events, birthday parties, etc.) can arrange to visit the facility.  We recommend that you take advantage of the next open house on January 30, 2016, which will feature a dog sledding demonstration. Contact http://www.bigrunwolfranch.org for more information.  Wear your boots and dress warmly to enjoy your adventure in the great outdoors.

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Santa…photo by K. Schonauer


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Sitka… photo by K. Schonauer

Exploring Chicago: Architectural and Historical Cruises

The best way to enjoy Chicago is to take a boat tour.  We’ve taken tours on Chicago Line Cruises (chicagoline.com)  over the past three years and find them a wonderful way to relax for two hours.  Embarking from  the historic North Pier Docks, the boat either travels on the Chicago River or onto Lake Michigan.  Either way, you can’t go wrong, especially if your tour guide is Pat Kelly.

On the Lakefront tour, Kelly tells the story of Chicago from the time of the Chicago Fire in 1871, in which one third of the population was left homeless, to modern day–all while discussing the buildings that pertain to the historical facts. The boat travels through the locks near Navy Pier to proceed onto the Lake.  It travels along the lakefront while Kelly recalls the Century of Progress Exposition–called the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34–which stretched from Navy Pier to past The Shedd Aquarium.  There’s plenty of time to take photos and ask questions, while sipping a complimentary beverage.

The Chicago River Tour is equally entrancing.  On the river, you may encounter water taxis, kayaks, and other boats traveling along the way.  The architecture is amazing.  You pass the Civic Opera Building, Trump Tower, The Wrigley Building and more.  Gothic design is contrasted with Post Modern buildings on which the images of the surrounding sites are cast in reflective light.  Chicago becomes magical when seen from this point of view.  But you will have to experience all this for yourself. As the official brochure says, “Chicago…will take your breath away on one of our guided Historical or Architectural Cruises”.

Chicago Skyline, photo by K. Schonauer
Chicago Skyline, photo by K. Schonauer
Tour Guide Pat Kelly
Tour Guide, Pat Kelly

Exploring Chicago: The Rookery Building

Having an early appointment in the Chicago Loop, we decided to take the Metra train from New Lennox. Our destination was the Jim Thompson Center at LaSalle and Randolph.  We arrived at the LaSalle Street station in little over an hour, finding that the train was the easiest way to make the journey with no downtown parking, no traffic to contend with, and plenty of time to relax and converse.

After leaving the station, we walked at a brisk pace north on LaSalle Street in unison with the other pedestrians who seemed to move with purpose and direction. It took us 12 minutes to reach the Center.  Whew! What a workout!  After our meeting with the manager of the Illinois Artisan Shop, we found that we had some free time.  Walking back to the station, we strolled leisurely, falling behind the fast paced foot traffic, looking up and around–drinking in the distinctive Chicago ambiance.

The first building which enticed us to explore it was The Rookery, at 209 South LaSalle Street, an historical landmark and the oldest standing early skyscraper in Chicago.  Built in 1885 by architects Burnham and Root, the red marble, terra cotta, and rusticated brick façade stood strong amidst the modern buildings which surrounded it in the center of Chicago’s Financial District.

The interior features a two story light court designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905.  It was restored to Wright’s original plans in 1989.  A magnificent symmetrical staircase invites one to enter and explore. Another spectacular semi-circular spiral staircase is found at the north end of the Lobby.

City Hall was located at this site until 1885.  Many crows and pigeons lived in the old structure back then.  Hence, the name The Rookery was born.  When the new building was created, the architects included crows in the terra cotta decorations that enhance The Rookery.  Many say that they are a metaphor for the “crowing” politicians who once inhabited the site.

If anyone wants to visit this iconic building, one may take a 30 minute inside tour on Mondays and Fridays at noon.

"Chicago Rookery Escalier Face" by Velvet, CC by SA 3.0
“Chicago Rookery Escalier Face” by Velvet, CC by SA 3.0