My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

In my quest to visit 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year, I could almost make the case for adding a whole bunch more to my list from having spent this past weekend at a single site: Printers Row Lit Fest.

A first-time book author, this was my first time as a participant in Lit Fest — “the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest.” Through the grapevine I’d learned about Windy City Historians and was delighted to be invited to share their tent.

My fellow writers offered books on a wide range of subjects — from historic bridges to presidential biographies, from Maxwell Street to labor history. My good friend Rich Cahan and his CityFiles Press publishing partner, Michael Williams, were there with their wealth of photography-based titles, including the heartbreakingly beautiful and timely, Un-American — The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

Also there was Mike MacDonald, whose exquisitely handsome My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago bears a direct connection to my book, Force of Nature. George Fell spent his life protecting the natural area remnants of Illinois (and beyond.) Mike MacDonald has devoted himself to photographing and writing about a lot of those very same natural lands that George protected.

Mike features 28 nature preserves in his book, from Chiwaukee Prairie in southeast Wisconsin to Cowles Bog in northwest Indiana. In between, in northeast Illinois, Mike celebrates a number of sites, including at least 16 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves.

Among them is one of my favorites–Bluff Spring Fen. Over the course of the past three decades — due largely to countless hours of sweat equity by a dedicated corps of volunteers — this Forest Preserve District of Cook County site has been transformed from an abandoned mine/dumping ground/off-road vehicle course into one of the state’s premier Nature Preserves.

Bluff Spring Fen

For such a small site — the dedicated Nature Preserve comprises about 2/3 of its 160 acres  — it boasts an exceptional diversity of habitat types: dry gravel prairie, mesic black soil prairie, bur oak savanna, sedge meadow, marsh, and its namesake feature, fen. Fens are exceptionally rare, occurring only in the northern third of Illinois. Calcerous fens are the rarest, with only 14.5 acres remaining in the entire state.

Bluff Spring Fen is home to an astonishing richness of plant and animal species, including at least 39 different kinds of butterflies (according to the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.) Doug Taron, a long-time site steward and Chief Curator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, is trying to add one more–the swamp metalmark. This small, orange and richly-patterned butterfly was last recorded at Bluff Spring Fen around 1940, and last seen anywhere in Illinois in the 1980s. Taron and his team have been raising swamp metalmarks at the Peggy Noteabaert Museum and releasing them at Bluff Spring Fen, which is one of the few places that contains its favorite food plant: purple-flowered swamp thistle.

Bluff Spring Fen is a living laboratory for restoration and butterfly reintroductions. But as one Chicago Tribune writer observed, “Beyond its scientific value, Bluff Spring Fen is, to put it unscientifically but truthfully, beautiful.”

So are Mike MacDonald’s photographs. So beautiful, in fact, that looking at them is almost as good as being there.

There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place.

But as I’m sure Mike, Doug and many others would agree, don’t cheat yourself. Head out to Elgin. Meander through Bluff City Cemetery. Park your car and wander into a richness and diversity of beauty that rivals any museum, anywhere.

And then keep going. Check out all the preserves featured in Mike’s book. And then keep going some more, and visit all 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, each of them waiting just for you.


Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve

On the way to celebrating a nephew’s birthday in Oak Brook, Susan and I stopped by Salt Creek Woods–number five toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year. In case you’re wondering, Salt Creek–which runs through Salt Creek Woods and a chain of Forest Preserves of Cook County sites–isn’t salty at all. “A tale in an old history…says the stream got its name when high waters in 1838 washed away a wagon load of salt belonging to John Reid, a teamster.”

A few years before the eponymous salt incident, General Winfield Scott and his troops were quarantined by cholera on their way to chase Chief Blackhawk and the last of all native tribes out of Illinois for good.

Girl Scouts wading in Salt Creek, circa 2921

Salt Creek Woods, located in the Bemis Woods unit, must have been among the earliest lands acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, established in 1909. For, in 1921, the District built the Girl Scouts a log cabin, and also dammed up the creek to provide better swimming opportunities.

Today, the cabin and dam are long gone. What remains is perhaps the richest birding sites in all of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

At the recent Wild Things conference–this year’s biennial gathering attracted 1,700 professional and volunteer nature stewards, with 300 on the waiting list–Doug Stotz provided the bird data. Doug is Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum and one of the region’s premier birders.  He shared the results of the 2016 Bird the Preserves, a “big year” competition to see which FPCC site boasted the best bird life.

Confessing (with a wink and a nod) that he is not at all competitive when it comes to birding, Stotz revealed that his site–Salt Creek/Bemis Woods–came in at #1 in the competition. He cited several impressive stats, including the fact that of the four sites he birded within the preserve, the one with the highest total bird count was Salt Creek–a 245-acre tract dedicated as the 8th Illinois Nature Preserve in 1965.


Stotz observed that among the reason for the impressive bird count at Salt Creek was the quality restoration and stewardship. As George Fell well knew, the greatest threat to our remaining natural areas is the lack of maintenance. Absent the natural forces that used to maintain our diverse habitats, our prairies, wetlands and woodlands can quickly become overrun with invasive species, both native and non-native.

Even woodlands need some level of controlled burns to remain healthy habitat for plants, mammals, bugs and birds, alike. Some of our preserves have become so overgrown that they require heavy duty, manual removal of woody shrubs and even mature trees. While cutting down trees can be controversial, doing so according to sound, science-based management plans is essential. Overgrown woodlands might appear green and healthy, but as every birder knows they are all but devoid of bird life.

Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve

I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. But this year, to celebrate the publication of the George Fell biography in April, I resolve to visit at least 50 Illinois Nature Preserves in 2017.

Today, on the first day of the new year, Susan and I take a mid-winter walk at Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve. A lot of folks think that nature is something far away. But Thornton-Lansing is only 15 minutes from where we live on the south side of Chicago. Way back in 1965, two years after George Fell successfully advocated for the passage of the Illinois Nature Preserves Act, it was the 12th area to be dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Today there are nearly 400 Illinois Nature Preserves, each of which has virtually iron-clad permanent protection thanks to George Fell.

Even longer ago, between 11,000 and 13,000 years, Thornton-Lansing and much of the south suburban region was under the waters of Lake Chicago, the glacial-era ancestor of Lake Michigan. As the ancient lake waters receded, they left in their wake a flat lake bed with a succession of beach ridges, sand dunes, spits and bluffs. By the time people started settling the area in earnest, the site boasted prairies, fens and marshes, alternating with scrub-oak forests on sandy ridges.

Most of this kind of habitat was filled, timbered, plowed or paved over in the steady march of the Chicago region growing into the third largest metropolitan region in the United States. However, soon after its establishment in 1914, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County began buying land along Thorn Creek, a 21-mile Tributary of the Little Calumet River. Eventually, Thorn Creek Forest Preserve–comprised of several different units–grew to nearly 6,000 acres, of which 440 acres was dedicated as the Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve.

Some may think that winter is a bleak time to visit nature preserves, but not so, as George Fell well knew: “Everywhere we look in the natural world we perceive beauty in form and color, whether in magnificent scenery or in the subtle patterns formed by bare branches against the winter sky…”

Bare branches afford other delights as well, such as this bird’s nest–a kind of solitary ornament atop a spindly, Charlie Brown Christmas tree of a sapling.

The absence of leaves makes it much easier to spy winter birds, such as blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers. But they remained too high up in the branches to get a good picture.

On the ground, however, the lack of greenery reveals the burn scars on trees–evidence of the stewardship necessary to maintain the health of this rare sand savanna ecosystem, a fire-dependent natural community that requires periodic burning.

Some of the trees also bear numbers, spray painted in bright orange, evidence of the effort underway to open up the tree canopy to help encourage healthy populations of rare woodland flowers. In fact, so important is Thornton-Lansing Nature Preserve that the Forest Preserve District has identified it as its #2 priority restoration site. 

Next time out, we’ll be sure to visit Jurgensen Woods North Nature Preserve, a 120-acre sister site, located just across the road within the same forest preserve. But, for now, both Susan and I are perfectly content to soak up the last rays of the late afternoon sun before heading home to a New Year’s Day Dinner of Hoppin’ John.