The view of the bluffs overlooking the beach wasn’t quite something out of this world, but it was certainly like something out of Illinois. Walking along, I half-expected One-Eyed Willy’s ship, The Inferno to sail into view.
Comparing anywhere in Illinois to Oregon’s western coast is a stretch, but all it takes to indulge in this fantasy is an hour on the Union Pacific North. Take the trip and you’ll find yourself in Highland Park, home to Fort Sheridan and a natural system unlike any other in the region.
Formerly a full time military base and somewhat private police force for the 19th century’s elite, Fort Sheridan was closed in 1993 and the land it sat on was divided up. Today, it remains an Army Reserve Base and housing for military. Of the natural areas owned by the base, 260 acres went to Lake County Forest Preserve. Today, it remains an Army Reserve Base and housing for military. Their Fort Sheridan Preserve is easily accessible as well, but the focus of this article is Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Openlands was founded in 1963 with the goal to conserve the natural areas of the Chicago region and involve people as well. They see interaction with nature as a vital method to balance life. After all, we are of nature. Their stated goal of “Connecting the people of the Chicago region to the nature where they live” is something that resonates with me personally.
Like Northerly Island, Lakeshore has been open to the public for less than a decade. The 77 acres was acquired back in 2010. Unlike Northerly Island, these systems have been in existence for thousands of years. As many may know, our area was carved out by the action of glaciers during the last Ice Age. The region may seem flat, but at a larger scale there are uplands and valleys formed based on the speed of the glacial recession. All this action formed these natural areas. Wetlands, prairies, uplands, rivers, streams, creeks. The movement of the glaciers paved the way for all of it. Highland Park is unique in that in lies in what is considered the Lake Border Upland natural division. That division is known for bluffs and ravines unlike any other division in the region.
Part of what makes this region unique is that with this topography comes the creation of microclimates. Even the climate is altered to such an extent that it mirrors the conditions of areas further north. As a result, plant species more typical of northern climates can be found in the ravines. Pines and junipers grow naturally rather than solely a planted variety. I found Canadian Buffaloberry along beach as well. It’s a rarer shrub, as it is adapted for the bluff ravine system.
A commonality that this site shares with Northerly Island and likely every park shared from here on out is that there is an ongoing effort to sustain and restore the habitats to what science and experience says is their makeup from a pre-settlement era. Restoration Ecology is relatively recent, as it represents a defensive approach to conservation and more of an offensive approach. We’ve only begun, as the idea to restore areas started to pick up steam in the 60’s and 70’s. Rather than simply preserving what is left, actions are being taken to restore degraded areas, which are all over. To give you an idea, here’s a very general rule. If you see one species dominating an area, it’s likely an invasive species. The cattail marsh you pass by on 294? Degraded wetland. Again, it’s a general rule.
When you arrive at Lakeshore, I recommend walking down Bartlett Ravine. Unlike other inaccessible ravines, there is a large walking path popular for joggers and cyclists alike. As I walked down, I thought to myself that it would make a great hill workout if I still did hill workouts, and if I still worked out.
Here you’ll find native rose in spots lining the road. Thimbleweed is still flowering in spots, but it has largely finished its pollination and is beginning to produce seed. The petals have fallen, leaving “thimble” like seed heads behind, hence the name. The Golden Alexanders are nearing the end as well. Already, most flowers have closed to begin seed production. Thimbleweed, White Avens, and Fleabane were seen most frequently. Dogwood trees, Sumac trees, and the herbaceous Dogbane are flowering now. As the summer rolls on, we’ll see a changing of the guard as it comes to flowers. What is blooming now won’t be in a few weeks, so on and so forth. From Bartlett Ravine, I followed the road straight to the beach and walked along the beachside path. Sumacs and Dogwoods dominated, but it was here I found the Buffaloberry as well as some Creeping Juniper.
A staircase will take you to the bluff savanna up top, where Butterfly Milkweed was putting on a show. Yellow coneflower may be flowering as this article posts. A staple of restoration sites, Black-eyed Susan has sprung up as well.
If you’re looking for some local wildlife, it is in this savanna area that you’ll find Song Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds, and perhaps a Northern Flicker as well. On my outing I spotted some orioles, a hawk, and even some warblers.
The most striking feature of any lakeside preserve will simply be the massive lake. Lake Michigan was formed by, you guessed it, glacial activity as the last Ice Age ended. When I walked this site, it was a Sunday. It was 90 degrees with a heat index even higher, and I have to say, the beach was quiet. Twenty people in total may have taken up space along the beach. It’s a far cry from the city beaches, packed with people, and as such may be enticing for a quiet day on the shore. The lighting, the bluffs, the vegetation, it looked like anywhere but Illinois. If you’re seeking topography, you just need to know where to look.
People all over the region are hard at work to fight invasive species and assist in establishing native plant populations. Some are federal or state employees, some are contractors, but many are volunteers. The volunteer networks across the state comprise people driven by a passion and appreciation for our parks. Their only payment is the satisfaction of flourishing native plants. I encourage you to attend a Stewardship Day at a site near you and see what gems that park down the road may hide. This week’s volunteering link is for volunteering for one of the Lake County Forest Preserve’s workdays, and links to a schedule of all workdays for the county’s forest preserve sites as well as having instructions to sign up and become a part of the efforts: