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April, 2009

Shannon Shores

by Valerie

As we were growing up, our family spent a lot of time outdoors. There were many places that we visited regularly, for hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, and mushroom hunting. One spot, though, was for the water sports. This was Shannon Shores.

Environmentalists will grimace when I describe this recreation area as I knew it back around 1970. It was a recently abandoned stripmine, in the heart of coal country in Illinois. No attempt was made to reclaim the land, either by replacing topsoil or planting native vegetation. The whole area had been denuded, and the clay-like soil had been piled into what passed for incredibly eroded mountains in our flat cornfield state. There were no trees and just a few weeds here and there. The lowest valleys had filled with water after mining activities ceased, and the resulting lakes, with gravelly land surrounding them, were turned into aquatic playgrounds for people with motorboats. Individual families rented plots and parked their travel trailers on the waterfront properties while they constructed docks to accommodate boats and swimming. I never could figure out how any size of trailer was negotiated over a rickety makeshift bridge that spanned one of the waterways, but somehow the vehicles made it across.

The dock at Shannon Shores, with John (Val's dad), Rich (Val's mother's brother) and Peg (Rich's sister)
Uncle Rich, Aunt Carol, and their son, Ricky, had a rental for several summers and we, along with other family members and friends, often joined them on weekends during that time.

This was a place to go to simply have fun. All day long, motorboats raced up and down the long lakes pulling behind them skiers, inner tubes, and sometimes just a person in the water. The banks of the lakes were incredibly steep, and the water was deep. I remember once, when a small dory sank just off our dock, we used a long rope with a pronged canoe anchor tied to the end to "fish" for the sunken craft. It was eventually pulled up, but only after nearly 50 feet of line had been played out, and this was just a few feet off the shoreline.

One of the more amusing incidents occurred with an ATV. Back then, the off-road vehicles were not as popular as today, but this was the perfect place for them, and a friend owned one. His boys, around 12 years old or so, rode it sometimes, and one of them had seen too many movies. He decided that he would drive it off the end of the pier, and it would land on the water, floating on the oversized tires. Well, he drove it off, and it did land on the water, but upside down. At least it didn't sink.

The water was always clear and gorgeous in the early morning, but within minutes of the boats starting up it would stir the fine gray silt and become murky, sort of like very diluted concrete. I would sometimes fall asleep at night still feeling the up and down swaying of the waves that the boats produced as they zipped past us while we floated on air mattresses and inner tubes.

Typical swimming session: the boys include somebody unidentified (far left), two friends who are brothers (middle) and Ricky (right), while the girls are Vicky (Val's sister) and Val

There was very limited aquatic life in the lakes, except for stocked game fish to keep the anglers happy. Of course, there was very little vegetation in the water as well, so the food chain must have been rather simple. We did catch frogs in the smaller ponds (to be grilled, along with anything else that remotely resembled food, for the evening meal) and there were sedges and a few other shore plants that probably started from wind-borne seeds. All I can recall of the plants actually in the water was a kind of sparse and stiff water weed that was not even attractive enough for us to collect for our aquariums. Most of what we caught in our little dip nets consisted of water bugs, tadpoles, and, well, that was about it. It was not a rich ecosystem.

One of my favorite non-water activities was fossil collecting. Because there were no plants, and erosion was rampant, it was a great place to hunt for fossils. The rocks containing these were dark reddish brown and usually had a rounded shape that formed around the bits that later fossilized (the name for these is concretions). We often found those that had already cracked open, and then it was fun to look for both halves, or we would sometimes split them ourselves. Inside we'd find treasures from the Paleozoic: ferns of all sorts and the occasional small arthropod, like shrimp or insects. I'd heard about the recently discovered Tully Monsters, an endemic soft-bodied predator found in these same formations, that would later be declared the Illinois state fossil. You can bet I was always on the lookout for THAT creature. The main hazard of hiking around Shannon Shores was that it was easy to step into mud that was at least knee-deep and almost always so fine and viscous that it pulled off shoes in one panicky second.

While natural attractions were somewhat lacking at Shannon Shores, from a kid's standpoint the entertainment never seemed to stop. Adults generally spent a goodly amount of time drinking beer, playing cards, driving the motorboat, drinking beer, sunbathing, joking, grilling meals, and drinking beer. There was the occasional trip out to the nearest tavern to buy more beer. Everyone always seemed to be laughing and having fun. For Independence Day one year, the owner of the place spilled a large drum of gasoline down the side of the hill across the lake from our plot and lit it with a match. This was when gasoline was far cheaper than fireworks. The resulting strip of fire was quite an impressive display, especially reflected in the water at dusk.

My family usually participated in low-impact and environmentally friendly activities such as canoeing or hiking. Our time at Shannon Shores was just the opposite, where there was no natural beauty and the trailer park atmosphere gave everything an air of irreverence. There were few rules and almost nothing could be damaged because the land was so barren. Wildlife was nearly nonexistent. It was a place to go a little crazy and have a blast. For a 12-year-old, there's nothing better.

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