Tuesday, June 30, 2015

MO Refuges & a Secret Highway

I was born in Missouri, and went to college there too.  Growing up, we had countless family trips to the “Show Me” state to visit my grandparents.  So, I’ve always felt like I’ve had a pretty good familiarity with the state.  But there was still a large swath of northern Missouri I’d never explored, so I took the opportunity with my end of April trip to quickly do so.

St. Joseph and Missouri River P1030437

Passing through St. Joseph, MO with the highway towering over the Missouri river to the left and historic downtown to the right, I really wished I had allocated more time to explore this storied city, once the last bastion of civilization before pioneer wagon trains and Pony Express riders headed out into the great Wild West. 

But the focus of today’s trip was to check out 2 of Missouri’s National Wildlife Refuges – Squaw Creek and Swan Lake.  So, St. Joe had to settle for a few quick “windshield shots” and a promise that I’ll explore it more next time.

Squaw Creek NWR is a modest 7,400 acre refuge located about 30 minutes north of St. Joseph just off I-29.  It’s a major destination for migratory snow geese (and their bald eagle predators) every late Fall and early Spring. Snow Geese populations can top 1 million here at peak times.  Unfortunately, the end of April is not a peak time!

Squaw Creek Sign P1030641

But I still enjoyed a brief drive around the tour loop having the refuge almost entirely to myself.  The first wildlife to greet me was this Eastern Bluebird loudly singing from its perch a few hundred feet away.

Bluebird P1030461Bluebird P1030456

Familiar favorites were here too— a Blue-Winged Teal led this group of American Coots around one of the ponds.

Blue-Winged Teal and Coots P1030554

While other Teal couples hung together (likely not too far from their nests as this was prime nesting time for Teals).

Blue-winged Teal Couples P1030605

A Canada Goose couple protected their small island mound in the marsh--

Canada Geese P1030534

while this Yellow-headed Blackbird patrolled its perch in the reeds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird P1030526

One of my favorites from Bosque was here as well—the cute little Pied-billed Grebe (with its black-ringed bill).

Pied-billed Grebe P1030557

Squaw Creek has a few large ponds and marsh areas surrounded by the Loess Hills.

Squaw Creek P1030494

and a few woodland areas on either side of the marsh that provided nice shade for my Tracker--

Squaw Creek P1030594

and a good spotting perch for this Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk P1030596

After a quiet overnight stop at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Chillicothe, MO, I headed out the next morning to visit my second Missouri refuge—Swan Lake NWR near the tiny town of Sumner, MO, the self-proclaimed “Wild Goose Capital of the World.”  A pretty tall claim for such a tiny little town!

Swan Lake Sign P1030644

Apparently, back in the 1940’s a few hundred thousand Canada geese used to call this refuge home, but since then, the goose population has fallen significantly.  Sumner’s population has fallen too from its peak of nearly 500 at the start of 1900, to only 97 residents today.  No doubt, both have found greater riches in far-flung suburban areas than here in rural north-central Missouri.  Sumner might want to think up a new town slogan.

At Swan Creek, I did manage to see a good-sized flock of American White Pelicans though.

American White Pelicans P1030650

The refuge has a pretty little outdoor amphitheater that overlooks the main pond.

Swan Lake P1030655Swan Lake P1030662 
While it was nice to have this 10,000 acre refuge all to myself, most of the wildlife also seemed to be gone at this point of the season too.  Swan Lake attracts most of its wildlife in the Fall and Spring migrations of Northern Pintail ducks and other waterfowl.

On this day’s visit, other than the white pelicans--

American White Pelican P1030715American White Pelicans P1030665

the only other wildlife I spotted were more Blue-Winged Teals

Blue-winged Teal Pair P1030742Blue-winged Teals in Flight P1030745

and this lone male Northern Shoveler--

Northern Shoveler P1030778 
who apparently was trying to get a bit too cozy with Mrs. Teal, so Mr. Teal soon screamed at the Shoveler to head elsewhere!

Teal Chasing off a Shoveler P1030761

With my NWR visits now complete, it was time to head out on the highway and make some tracks to Chicago.  When I had been down in Quincy, IL on business a couple years ago, my client mentioned that Highway 36 had just been converted to a 4-lane “quasi-Interstate” highway all the way across Missouri from St. Joseph to Hannibal.

I finally decided to check out the new “secret” highway on this trip, and I’m here to report that the Missouri portion of the road is fantastic!

CKC unmarked Interstate P1030792

It’s officially called the CKC (Chicago-Kansas City) Expressway, a brainchild of some Illinois and Missouri politicians who thought if they built a modern Interstate-like highway through the rural, forgotten parts of their states, that people would come. 

The Missouri segment of the CKC makes great sense—it provides a rapid, uncrowded alterative to the congested I-80 across Iowa or I-70 across central Missouri.  But, the Illinois segment of the CKC (like so many politically-motivated endeavors in Illinois) seemed a complete boondoggle.

Google shows the fastest, most direct route between Chicago and Kansas City to link the CKC’s Highway 36 through Missouri to the existing Illinois interstates of I-72 to Springfield, and then I-55 to Chicago.  It calculates this (completely free) route as only 510 miles and 7 1/2 hours.

CKC Route Options

But using the existing free roads wasn’t good enough for our brilliant Illinois politicians!  They, instead, decided to convert the oddball, zig-zag Illinois Highway 110 to 4 lanes from Quincy through Galesburg up to the Quad Cities and then connect it to the lesser-used (and expensive) I-88 toll road to Chicago for the Illinois portion of the new CKC Expressway.

This results in a route that is longer (and more expensive) than any of the previous existing routes!  The official CKC is 539 miles and takes nearly 8 1/2 hours to drive according to Google!

CKC 539miles 8hr20min with tolls

I suppose if you now want to drive between Hannibal, MO and the Quad Cities, this new Illinois road is a wonderful thing.  But for most others, it’s a head-scratcher (especially for us Illinois taxpayers who paid for much of it!).

But for RVers and other travelers looking for a fast, easy way to head East-West through central Illinois and Missouri, the existing Interstate 72 through central Illinois ,combined with Hwy 36 across Missouri, is now a great way to avoid the congestion of I-80 or I-70.  Give it a try!


  1. I volunteered at Swan Lake one summer, and it was about as exciting as watching paint dry. It was the first year that they had RV sites. Hopefully they are now more experienced at having RV volunteers.

    1. The RV "village" was completely empty when I was there at the end of April. Maybe volunteers are only there in the summers??? But, I'd guess it's still a difficult proposition for them to attract volunteers-- the Verizon signal was still pretty minimal so with lack of wildlife, lack of cell, and lack of anything else to do, it wouldn't be my first choice for a NWR volunteer gig either!

  2. Hey Lynne. Great post - as usual.

  3. In 2008, I drove on Hwy 36, during the construction, on a road trip from CO. I am planning on taking that route when I leave the Chicago area to head back toward Texas.


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