How do we reconnect with where we live? How do we stop and “smell the roses” in a place we have seen over and over again? How do we learn to appreciate our surroundings we likely take for granted each day?

Searching for the answer, I began to explore the world around me. I stood on the banks of the Mississippi River and there was a brief pause where my mind went blank and I was just “being.” Instead of emails, phone calls, or my to-do list, I begin to think about all the ships that have sank, the love stories that have ended and how the history of this water is beyond my imagination.

Photo credit: Hansueli Krapf

Living in the Alton area for most of my life, I have never really paused to take in the beauty this area has to offer. We have bald eagles that photographers from ALL OVER THE WORLD come to capture a glimpse of. We have beautiful cliffs, abundant wildlife, trees change colors to rich oranges, reds, and yellows in the fall and other views straight off of a postcard.

pere marquette fall colors
Then I spoke with Mrs. Virginia Woulfe-Beile and she, along with the also amazing Christine Favilla, are the Project Coordinators for Piasa Palisades Sierra Club (PPSC). In 2012, while looking for a project to mark PPSC’s 40th anniversary, the ladies began thinking of a way to help local folks connect with nature and wildlife. As I hung up the phone with this really amazing woman, I thought of how cool it is to find other people who really care about what some of us might see as menial or not important. They awaken the human spirit of selflessness in ourselves and help us make a unique connection to the world around us. When we start to open our eyes to the landscapes we drive by on our way to work or maybe not even visit at all, we begin to notice things we have never thought of before.

Virginia and Christine, the all-star staff at Piasa Palisades Sierra Club

Virginia and Christine, the all-star staff at Piasa Palisades Sierra Club

closed for safetyNear Alton, situated at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, is Pere Marquette State Park. The park is well known as a spectacular place to see fall colors and the annual fall migration, with birds flying in tight “v” shapes to increase efficiency through aerodynamics.

Within the park, high up in the bluffs, there are three group camps: the Piasa, Ouatoga and Ptowattomi. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization formed due to the high unemployment rate during the Great Depression, these camps have been enjoyed by scouts, churches, families and individuals since the 1930’s.

Sadly, some of these cabins fell into disrepair and were closed. Nature started to reclaim the cedar shake roofs and the future of my family or my son’s family getting to experience this beautiful area straight out of an oil painting was starting to fade. But not if PPSC’s Virginia has anything to say about it!

Since the PPSC group used these upper camps for years for their annual “Weekend in the Woods,” folks started to notice these camps were much too relaxing, peaceful and historically significant to let go and some “vigilante construction” might be needed.

“It took a while to get the blessing of the park and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to do it. They had reservations with safety issues and what the renovations might take to complete,” said Virginia. Luckily, a few “no’s” didn’t detour Virginia’s inspiring spirit. She along with volunteers and members of “The Lost Weekend” group presented a restoration proposal for Cabin 4 in Camp Ouatoga, did a little fundraising and got the “yes” she was looking for. With a lot of guidance from the Illinois Historic Preservation Society, Virginia and volunteers got to work.

Cabin 4

Cabin 4 – (directly behind is an amazing view of the River)

Cabin 4 sits on an upland prairie restoration area. Connection with nature and its creatures is hard to ignore. “Looking outside your cabin in the morning and seeing a deer peak right back at you is not uncommon in these woods and is truly amazing.” says Virginia. “We’ve had great experiences with owl calls and flyovers. Eagles come down in the fall and you can watch all kinds of migratory birds.” With its views of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, wetlands and hiking areas, what is not to love?

Volunteers even help fix when another has a screw loose!

Volunteers even help fix when another has a screw loose!

Virginia and PPSC’s efforts have inspired locals, the State of Illinois, and Illinois Department of Natural Resources to become aware of the maintenance and repair of the upper camps at Pere Marquette State Park and what it can continue to offer to future generations. Volunteers have come together to work on the cabins and while they are faithful and skilled, they are looking for more help for the final push to finish Unit 2 this October. Help and guidance with roofing, stonework and flashing is especially needed.

The even better news is that the success of the project and its volunteers has gotten some state funding starting in 2015. Ever wonder where your extra $2 for your Illinois license plate sticker goes? It’s helping out awesome projects like this! Over a three year period the State of Illinois will allocate funds to systematically approach the repair and maintenance of the upper camps. Generations to come will get to learn about nature and wildlife in these cabins and surrounding areas thanks to Virginia, PPSC and its amazing volunteers.

Volunteer River Citizens with River in the background

Volunteer River Citizens with River in the background

In fact, the volunteers who have worked on the Cabin Restoration Project were just honored by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as Outstanding Volunteers of the Year.

There is still some work left to do, however. “We are at a point of culmination with the project. We’re working with the our volunteers and Americorp’s Youth Build group and looking for contractors, building suppliers and trade unions to become involved. We still have two sleeping cabins and the unit lodge left and the lodge is a little more complex,” says Virginia.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to see what I can do to help this project out. I invite you to come with me. Skill levels of all areas are appreciated and there is something for everyone. Come be a part of the restoration weekend happening October 24-26th.

Volunteers enjoying the view of the River from behind Cabin 4.

Volunteers enjoying the view of the River from behind Cabin 4.

You can also send a tax deductible donation of any amount to:

The Sierra Club
Cabin Restoration Project
200 W. Third St. Suite 101
Alton, Illinois 62002

Give my friend, Virginia, a call at 618-462-6802 for questions or for lots of great pictures find them on Facebook!

Visit IDNR’s Website if you are wondering how to reserve this camp or others like it for your family, church or group. 

Plan a little getaway and reconnect with nature! I know I am going to!




Your fellow River Citizen,

Dani   Dani Robinette

1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant