You've seen the sign on Interstate 94 near Kenosha:
Bong Recreation Area.Maybe you've snickered. Maybe you've kept a poker face in an attempt to maintain parental authority as adolescent hilarity erupted from the back seat.
Wisconsin's Highest State Park" (not an official product of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources), and every time you see the sign you cue up the Doobie Brothers and count your blessings that you live near what surely must be the favorite state park of Cheech and Chong.
Welcome to At Play's stoner/slacker tour of nature, organized for no particular reason. Bong is the first stop, naturally, the illegal marijuana-growing operation having been removed from Crabtree Nature Center near Barrington Hills.
But let the toking tourist beware: The law enforcement cage at Bong has an extensive collection of confiscated bongs. It turns out that when Bong invites recreational use here, it doesn't mean that kind of recreational use.
"They actually think you can legally smoke here. And it's like, 'Well, no,'" said Beth Goeppinger, the park's naturalist.
Goeppinger has a sense of humor about it, though she noted that the state changed the site's name to the full "Richard Bong State Recreation Area" to sidestep the jokes. Drug paraphernalia slang notwithstanding, the park is named after Richard Bong, a Wisconsin-born World War II ace fighter pilot who died in 1945 testing a P-80 jet.
So what's to do at Bong, if you can't use a bong?
A lot, actually.
This is a recreation area, not a state park. The distinction is a result of historical happenstance. Because it was originally intended to be an air base for B-52 bombers, about 1,200 acres were drained and flattened to build runways. When the project was halted, what remained was a site where much of the land had been what Goeppinger described as "pretty severely altered."
But that made it perfect for recreation. Bong's 1,200-acre "special use zone" has seven miles of ATV and dirt bike trails; areas for training hunting and sled dogs; and space for horseback riding, rocket launching, model airplane flying, hot air ballooning, ultralight flying, hang gliding and, in season, hunting. There is also camping, hiking and fishing and swimming in 150-area Vern Wolf Lake.
There is plenty of nature, too. There are another 3,300-odd acres of rolling grassland, savanna and wetland and a few high-quality oak woodlands.
"We have some really good habitat for native species," Goeppinger said. "We have some remnant prairies, prairies that have ever been plowed or destroyed. ... and some really beautiful wetlands. We have about 254 documented species of birds on the property."
And don't dis the flattened special use zone either. Near the dog training area, a patch of water that looked like a cross between a wetland and a drainage ditch was ringed with leopard frogs.
A hike around Vern Wolf Lake took me through small hills and woods and then along the lake shore. Check out the indoor birding at the visitor center, viewed from a solarium with a soothing fountain. There were so many bright-yellow American goldfinches around the feeders that they looked like pet store parakeets. I sat and bird-watched; the fountain gurgled. Ahhh; Bong-induced euphoria.
But don't reach for the Hostess cupcakes just yet. Our last stop on the stoner/slacker tour (we're too mellow to manage more than two):
Wayne's Woods! Wayne's Woods! Party time! Excellent! (Manic guitar and lap-drumming here).
OK, it's Wayne Woods. Actually, it's Pratt's Wayne Woods, a double name that sounds as odd to me as Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. But the explanation is simple: The driving force behind the preserve's creation was George Pratt, a onetime DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioner, and the place is located near the town of Wayne.
It still sounds like "Wayne's World" to me. Every time I think of it I am mentally transported to that iconic basement in Aurora, where I am sure Wayne and Garth would be happy to talk about wildflowers instead of babes.