A Father’s Day nod to the past: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
On Father’s Day, instead of waffles and eggs, we opted for a hike through the tallgrass prairie preserve in Tom’s native Illinois, one of his longtime dreams.
Before settlers arrived in the early 1800s, Illinois was covered with more than 21 million acres of tallgrass prairies, alive with bison, elk, wolves, black bears, and hundreds of bird species. Tallgrass prairie covered the land from Canada to Texas and from Nebraska to the Great Lakes. In some areas, the grasses grew as high as a horse and rider. Today, less than 0.01 percent of the Illinois tallgrass prairie remains, lost in just 50 years to agriculture and urbanization.
But in northeastern Illinois, at the confluence of the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers that form the Illinois River, a bit of the past is being rebuilt in the 40,000-acre Prairie Parklands Macrosite that includes the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Here, native plants are being cultivated for seed to recreate the diversity that once grew here. It will take years.
We parked The Epic Van at the trailhead for the Henslow Trail and headed out under the blazing sun. At the beginning of the trail, dragonflies darted over a slow moving stream shaded by overarching tree branches. Very quickly, the grasses were chest high, wildly diverse, with strikingly different heads. Wildflowers in whites, pinks, purples and yellows were generously sprinkled everywhere. We ate berries off the bush, black and red, ripe and sweet.
Birds perched on bobbing grasses and scolded us from high tree branches, and nearly every one we saw had an unfortunate dragonfly in its beak. We spotted a deer bounding up and down through the grass, coming straight toward us, then, spying us, making a U-turn and showing us its white tail.
Midewin, a Potowatomi word that refers to the tribe’s healers, was established by federal law in 1996 and contains dolomite prairies, one of the rarest natural communities in North America. It includes more than 18,000 acres mostly of former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, which first had to be cleaned of contaminants from decades of munitions manufacture.
It is the first federally designated tallgrass prairie preserve and the only one east of the Mississippi River, and has 33 miles of trails.
The wild grasses are Big and Little Bluestem, Indian, Switch, Prairie Cord, Canada Wild Rye, Porcupine, Side Oats Gama, Prairie Dropseed, and Tufted Hair. The wildflowers have romantic names like Prairie Blazing Star, Blue-eyed Grass, Purple Coneflower, Obedient Plant, Turk’s Cap Lily, Partridge Pea and Prairie Sundrops.
The preserve provides space for species of nearly 350 native plants, 108 birds, 23 reptiles and amphibians, 25 insects, 27 mammals and 40 aquatic species. Sixteen endangered and threatened species live here, including the loggerhead shrike and upland sandpipers. In October, a herd of 27 bison were reintroduced.
After a couple of hours, we headed back to the van, semi-dehydrated, but filled with visions of Illinois in our father’s father’s father’s time.