It's 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. The sun crests over the horizon. The leaves in the woods are dull shades of orange and red. As the temperature dips to 36 degrees steam rises off the Des Plaines River. Ducks, not minding the cold, swim languidly by. An occasional deer rushes past and the trail ahead is mostly hidden by a layer of fresh fallen leaves.
This can only mean one thing. It's time to break out the mountain bikes and ride in Thatcher Woods along the Des Plaines River Trail.
Two week ago, eight mountain bikers left our normal starting point at Lake & Harlem. We road to one of the trailheads in River Forest to access the trails which run along the east side of the Des Plaines River between Madison Street and O'Hare Airport.
On this day, we road the trail from Madison to the Kennedy Expressway, a round-trip of about 24 miles.
The most technical and fun part of the trail is the stretch from Madison to Lake Street. The dirt single track is up, down and twisty. At top speed, this is as challenging as it gets without an hour car ride to the Forest Preserve trails in Palos.
In addition to woodland, we slip by tall marshy grasses eight feet tall and other native flora. Much of the trail is in a savannah which means that it can be muddy or flooded after a heavy rain.
We tend to stick to the trail closest to the River. At the northern edge of River Forest, the trail comes out of the woods on Thatcher, but we are not done riding yet.
We follow Thatcher north past Russell's Barbecue and enter the Forest Preserve picnic area to pick up the trail again. Here the trail is flatter and wider, part of a long-ago misguided effort by the Cook County Forest Preserve District to pave it. Luckily, the asphalt is now ground to gravel from age and frequent flooding.
There is more a technical single track along the way to the airport. We jump small creeks and race up and down hills. You know you are getting close to O'Hare when the silence of the woods is broken by the blast of a Boeing 737 at treetop level. You can almost wave to the passengers.
And then there is the talking bridge. That's right. Deep in the woods, the trail along the River just beyond North Avenue goes by a derelict bridge that the Forest Preserve District let go to seed long ago. Only our Forest Preserve District would think that a good way to keep people off a dangerous bridge is by hanging a motion detecting camera high in a tree.
If you stop to look, a recorded voice from high above sternly warns that this is a restricted area, your picture is being taken, police are on the way and you should leave immediately.
Like any self-respecting teenager, my fellow mountain bikers and I posed for a leisurely photo.
To make sure your photo is in the collection of the Forest Preserve Police, you need to get out now and ride that mountain bike in our autumnal woods before the snow flies.
Access points to the Des Plaines River Trail in River Forest from south to north: 1.) Madison Street just east of the Des Plaines River at the end of the bridge; 2.) Washington Boulevard between Thatcher and 1st Avenue just east of the bridge; 3.) at Thatcher on the south side of the METRA tracks (follow the gravel service road; the trail is on the left); 4.) the north side of Lake Street just east of the bridge; and 5.) Thatcher just south of North Avenue.