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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: I love where I live

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For as long as I can remember it’s been chic to bash the place you live.

It’s a phenomenon I really don’t understand.

I grew up in a town of about 1,100 people. The common complaint, especially among my peers, was there was nothing to do.

Frankly, I didn’t see it. There was a sandlot game going on virtually every day. If there wasn’t baseball, it was simple to round up a half-dozen guys for a reasonable facsimile of baseball. And, if all else failed, there was a creek just a 10-minute bike-ride away.

You’d like to think people would grow out of that mindset, but hearing people rip on Southern Illinois is commonplace. Again, I don’t get it.

We just returned from a week’s vacation in Orlando, Fla. -- the gridlock capital of the world. Our temporary Orlando home was 12 miles from Sea World, which translates to an hour drive. And, nothing says vacation like waiting in line in traffic to visit a theme park to wait in line all day.

Granted, vacation wasn’t all bad. We toured Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Canaveral National Seashore and visited Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive – all things I’d recommend highly. But given Central Florida traffic – you can’t get to any of those places from here.

For a bit of perspective, I visited Mermet Lake a couple days after returning from Florida. Mermet is roughly 40 miles from my home, Apopka was about 30 miles from our lodging in Orlando. It took just a little over 45 minutes to drive to Mermet. Apopka was a 75-minute drive.

And, Mermet is just one of several outstanding wildlife attractions Southern Illinois has to offer. Garden of the Gods is less than 30 minutes from my front door, as is Bell Smith Springs. I can be at Giant City in less than an hour, at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in about 30 minutes and Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in about 45 minutes.

Those are actual “driving” times – meaning the car is moving.

There is something liberating about having all that nature so close, and, so accessible.

That trip to Mermet? It produced extraordinary wildlife viewing.

We saw a wood stork, a bird normally found in Florida. I saw and photographed literally thousands of birds in Florida – no wood stork. Mermet also produced a wealth of great egrets, great blue herons, little blue herons, an osprey or two and a bald eagle.

Throw in a couple of prothonotary warblers, a wild turkey and a yellow-crowned night heron, that’s an incredible day of wildlife viewing. And, that doesn’t take into account the loggerhead shrikes we saw on the way home.

What’s more, we saw all that wildlife without the stress of traffic jams. All told, my normal route to Mermet involves passing through just one traffic light – reason enough to live in Southern Illinois.

Yeah, I’m older, grayer and less mobile than in those baseball-playing days of my youth, but one thing has stayed the same – there is still plenty of entertainment at my disposal. And, it’s still not difficult to find.

I love where I grew up. I love this place.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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