Openlands’ new paddling website, Paddle Illinois Water Trails, is a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking in the Chicago region. Covering over 500 miles of Water Trails across 10 of northeastern Illinois’ waterways, this new guide provides rich information about paddling, including step-by-step trips along each trail. The site contains trips and resources for everyone, from first-time paddlers to seasoned boaters.
The guide provides in-depth information on each waterway, including important notes about water safety, interactive maps, and multiple, in-depth trip descriptions. Each trip description includes information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations if available. Interactive maps display launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty level along the trail. Paddlers can also leave comments and share their paddling tips on individual trail pages.
Just under an hour and a half from the Chicago Loop lies Glacial Park, encompassing 3,400 acres of restored open space including prairie, wetlands, oak savanna, and delta kames. Over 400 of these acres are dedicated nature preserve and home to 40 state-endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Additionally, Glacial Park is ranked as one of the top five locations in the region to view migratory birds.
The Nippersink Creek also runs through Glacial Park, providing excellent opportunities for both fishing and paddling. As McHenry County Conservation District’s most popular land holding, Glacial Park attracts over 64,000 annual visitors. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities from horseback riding to outdoor concerts near the visitor center.
Currently, Glacial Park is the best way to experience Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Hackmatack was designated as a refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 and will span over 11,200 acres once complete. Hackmatack will be built around existing conservation lands such as Glacial Park. This park is a prime example of the habitat and wildlife Hackmatack aims to protect.
Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.
Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.
One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.
In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.
NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.
Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)
The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago
One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago. This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru. First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.
Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933. During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois. Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.
After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair. In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands
Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.
Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation. Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.
It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.
Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.
Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.
Enshrining our national heritage
National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.
The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.
Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.
On November 5, Openlands Greenways Director Ders Anderson joined local community leaders, and guided a tour of potential public access and ecological restoration sites along the shores of Lake Calumet. Easily accessible to the neighborhoods of Pullman and Roseland, Lake Calumet is the largest body of water in the city of Chicago; however, the shoreline has sat vacant, cut off from public access for decades.
As part of the Lake Calumet Vision Committee, Openlands has been working in partnership with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Friends of the Parks to develop new parkland and recreation opportunities for local communities at this site. Representatives from Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s office (IL-2nd), Congressman Michael Quigley’s office (IL-5th) and the Chicago Park District joined the Lake Calumet Vision Committee along with leaders from the Active Transport Alliance, Friends of Big Marsh, the Metropolitan Planning Council and REI’s Outdoor Programs for a tour of the underutilized sites.
“When Lake Calumet came under management of the Illinois International Port District decades ago, the surrounding neighborhoods were cut off from their 100-year access to this water resource, and the shore has remained undeveloped since,” explains Anderson. The committee envisions future recreation opportunities for biking, jogging, paddling and sailing, as well as a new trail linking the Pullman National Monument to the new urban mountain bike Park at Big Marsh. The committee has engaged local residents both for their input and reaction to the proposal and found overwhelming support for access to the lake. When completed, the proposed park and recreation sites would restore public access to this neglected natural treasure.
The creation of new parkland at this site would further connect the growing network of green spaces in south Chicagoland maintained by the Chicago Park District. Nearby Big Marsh is home to the recently opened 278-acre bike park, Chicago’s first eco-recreation destination, with Heron Pond, Indian Ridge, Deadstick Pond and Hegewisch Marsh located at the southern end of the lake.
But Lake Calumet is valuable for many more reasons than just the recreation opportunities. In 1980, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources listed Lake Calumet on its Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, which listed habitats within the state in vital need of conservation and which has served as a guide to land preservation to this day. However, despite the need for preservation of this aquatic ecosystem, little action has been taken to protect Lake Calumet.
At the north end of the lake sits the 140-acre Square Marsh, which the committee hopes to see restored as a hemi-marsh. A hemi-marsh is an aquatic ecosystem, 50% of which is open water necessary for birds to identify the site as habitat, and the other 50% comprised of aquatic plants to provide wildlife with food and shelter. Along with the recently restored hemi-marsh at Big Marsh, the restoration efforts at Lake Calumet would provide a dramatic increase in habitat.
Conditions for restoration are ripe: water levels in Lake Calumet are ideal for wetlands restoration, the lake provides a variety of habitats to support an array of wildlife, and the water quality in the lake is believed to be improving thanks to local efforts to curb runoff from industrial sites. All totaled, the restoration site could support more than 500 acres of new habitat.
With everything moving in the right direction for a positive redevelopment of the shores of Lake Calumet, Openlands hopes to build on existing local support for the plan and realize this important project. “There is very strong local support for this project, it is consistent with the land use plan adopted by the City of Chicago, and Lake Calumet has long been identified as a site with major conservation potential,” explains Anderson, “What we need now is financial support and the will of our elected leaders to see it through, but I am confident they will do the right thing for the community.”
Just north of the City of Chicago sits a mile of lakefront beach and a series of unique ecosystems, which are home to a rich array of plants and wildlife. After 10 years of restoration work, the site has become a natural treasure, earning distinctions as a registered Illinois Nature Preserve and an International Dark-sky Preserve. This is the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.
During the fall, this preserve is a beauty to behold. The changing leaves paint the bluffs and ravines in deep reds and vibrant yellows, accompanied by the more muted yellows, whites, and purples of goldenrods and asters. Birds hop around the trails and land in the trees, taking a break from their long fall migration. Small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks are also particularly active, gathering up nuts and seeds as they prepare for winter.
In spring and summer you can walk the beach, bring your binoculars to glimpse some rare birds, or take time to explore the rare ravines. The steep ravines were formed by erratic lake levels and glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age about 10,000 to 15,000 years ago! Even in winter the Lakeshore Preserve offers some unique perspectives to appreciate nature.
Then, of course, there is the lake. Visible from all points along the various trails, Lake Michigan provides a gorgeous backdrop for all of this land-based activity. You can walk along the shore, or you can walk the trails on top of the bluffs, almost 70 feet in the air.
Openlands’ Explore Your Lakes and Rivers series began on Mother’s Day at Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown. This series of 11 paddling events is designed to introduce new paddlers from surrounding communities to the Chicago and Calumet waterways. The events also engage people with nature on the rivers in a way that is relevant and fun.
Openlands partnered with Wilderness Inquiry and the Ping Tom Advisory Council for this event. Wilderness Inquiry provided staff and voyager canoes through their Canoemobile program, allowing more people an opportunity to participate. While the Ping Tom Advisory Council helped to promote the event, arranged for Cantonese translation, and provided bathroom access to participants.
For the Ping Tom Park event, the community had the chance to enjoy paddling on the Chicago River, and to discover the wildlife of the park. The canoes were wheelchair accessible, providing increased access. Approximately 200 people from across the city and as far away as Wisconsin attended.
The canoeing adventures started right away on the beautiful spring morning. With a mix of ages and experience levels, groups of eight set out on the water for 30 minutes at a time to explore and have fun. They canoed past birds that flew across and floated on the river. They had the chance to capture spectacular views of the park and the city’s buildings and bridges. All the new paddlers learned quickly and some even signed up for a second trip! By the end of the event, as many as 25 canoes travelled the river.
In the courtyards of Ping Tom Park, visitors enjoyed guided bird walks led by experienced Birds In My Neighborhood (BIMN) volunteers. BIMN is an Openlands program that trains volunteers to engage Chicago Public School students in bird watching in their neighborhoods. Each group had a checklist of birds often found in the area. They searched along the paths and between the varieties of trees in the park. In just half an hour, the five tours found most of the birds on their list, such as the American Robin, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Black-capped Chickadee. They learned how to identify a few different bird songs and discovered other wildlife in the park as well.
Many visitors were in awe of how exciting it was to explore the river and the wildlife of the park. One mother even expressed how this was the best Mother’s Day she ever had!
Openlands has free and fun Explore Your Lakes and Rivers events through September! Join us and explore the hidden wildlife and natural treasures that are just waiting to be discovered in your own backyard!
Spend an afternoon exploring the countryside of McHenry County, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, and soon you will find yourself crossing one of the features that make this part of our region special: a lazy Midwestern stream. Dozens of these little waterways wind through the farm fields and sleepy villages that characterize the county’s quiet rural areas. These streams feed larger creeks such as the Nippersink and Piscasaw, which then flow into our region’s big rivers such as the Fox and Kishwaukee. Eventually, the tiny McHenry County stream you cross will reach the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.
In January of 2016, Openlands closed on the purchase of a 27-acre property in rural Woodstock that contains one of these important waterways. Known as the Perricone property, the site features part of a major branch of the high-quality Nippersink Creek along with remnant sedge meadow communities. Nearly a mile of the creek meanders through the property, offering critical habitat for native fish and mussels. In addition, nearby upland areas present excellent opportunities to restore native prairie habitat, support grassland and migratory birds, and create a buffer area along the creek to improve soil health and water quality.
The Perricone property is an important land protection project for several reasons. Chief among these is the property’s location within the boundaries of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. When Hackmatack was established by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012, the refuge’s footprint was carefully outlined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to include streams and creeks within the Nippersink Creek watershed. In addition to protecting part of this high-quality hydrological complex – home to several state endangered and threatened species – the Perricone property lays within a designated “core area” of Hackmatack. This is truly a strategic land protection accomplishment for the refuge.
With generous funding from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a critical match grant from the Full Circle Foundation, and help from our partner, the Nippersink Creek Watershed Association, Openlands purchased the Perricone property and will begin restoration work on the site later this year. In the near future, Openlands plans to transfer the property into the permanent ownership of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where it will officially become part of the federal landholdings that comprise Hackmatack.
A few miles downstream from the Perricone property, this particular branch of the Nippersink Creek flows through another important Hackmatack project located in the same “core area” of Hackmatack: the Twin Creeks project. With the help of conservation partners including the McHenry County Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited, Openlands purchased about 100 acres of this platted, yet undeveloped subdivision – transforming the land into a beautiful complex of oak woodland, common areas featuring native wildflowers, protected creek corridor, and individual home sites. Federal grant funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act is being leveraged to complete restoration work along the creek.
The Perricone property and the Twin Creeks project are great examples of powerful partnerships coming together to create a large-scale project like Hackmatack. Openlands is one of ten organizations that have signed on to a partnership agreement guiding the selection and implementation of land protection projects for Hackmatack. As of January 2018, the partners have protected nearly 1,000 acres in the refuge boundaries. These successes have been accomplished by using innovative approaches that leverage limited partner resources, working with willing sellers, and helping conservation-minded landowners protect their properties with conservation easements.
We at Openlands love that so many of you are getting outside to #DiscoverYourPlace. The social media campaign puts a spotlight on special outdoor and natural areas in northeastern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northwestern Indiana.
Many of you have gotten out to explore natural areas you didn’t know existed, while others are highlighting species and habitat that make our region special! These include many of the places Openlands helps to protect, restore, and create for people to connect to. So far, there have been over 300 photos of unique landscapes, vast open space, and special green areas in the Chicago region!
As the weather warms, we’d love to know, “Where are you enjoying the outdoors and discovering new and restored natural areas nearby?” Get involved by tagging your photos of parks, gardens, trails, preserves, native species, restored landscapes and more with #DiscoverYourPlace! Share your photos on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Check out this interactive map of some of our favorite #DiscoverYourPlace photos on Instagram so far! Do you see a place you haven’t heard of? How many of these places have you been to? Or maybe you’d like to highlight one of your favorite natural areas not represented below! Join us!
Connecting young people to nature where they live is vital to creating our planet’s future stewards. This year, Openlands offered three very different opportunities for kids and young adults to get outside in the Calumet region, a unique, bi-state ecosystem in the Lake Michigan basin composed of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna.
Rich habitat for all kinds of species characterized the Calumet before the region was settled and industrialized. Openlands worked with Valparaiso University students from 2013-2015 to see what kinds of aquatic life and stream habitat are present in the headwaters of several Calumet region streams that drain into Lake Michigan. We found some surprises, including rare native lamprey and tiny young-of-the-year coho salmon. The stream habitats were beautiful and unusually high-quality because we focused the work in natural areas managed by conservation oriented organizations. In addition to interesting fish and reptiles we also found some very distinctive aquatic insect larva. These including caddisfly larva that use pieces of stick to make cases in which they live, making them look like tiny sticks that walk. The health of headwater areas, or the area where streams begin, is very important to the health of the entire stream system and the water bodies into which the streams drain. In addition to seeing what life the headwaters support, we noted any conditions that could be addressed to make the headwaters healthier, for example, areas where road salt might be degrading water quality or areas where habitat for aquatic species is partially cut off from the rest of the stream by barriers like culverts that fish may have difficultly swimming through.
Since 2014, Openlands has also been connecting Calumet residents to nature in their communities through birding trips. In 2014, Ms. Mack’s 4th grade class from Lavizzo Elementary participated in Birds In My Neighborhood®, and was among a select group to visit Lake Calumet for a birding adventure highlighted by the appearance of two bald eagles.
In 2015, in addition to a return to Lake Calumet, her class took a field trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the northeast edge of the Calumet region – only a 40 minute drive from the school. Birds In My Neighborhoodvolunteers escorted students and their families on a day trip to West Beach and the Douglas Environmental Education Center at Indiana Dunes. For all but one father, this was the first time any of the students or family members had visited the Dunes. The students were excited throughout the day as they played games and practiced using binoculars to find birds. By visiting a new place to practice birding with parents, grandparents, and cousins, the students had a positive and memorable experience in nature. In 2016, Openlands hopes to create similar opportunities for weekend bird walks for Birds in My Neighborhood families. We hope to make what one young lady referred to as “the best field trip ever” a recurring event.
Openlands has also been partnering to offer explorations of calumet waterways via canoe and kayak since 2014. On June 13, we partnered with the Forest Preserves of Cook County to offer paddling at Fishin’ Buddies’ Beaubien Woods Celebration. About 250 mostly local Calumet residents paddled, many for the first time, and explored Beaubien Woods’ Flatfoot Lake from canoes, looking for evidence of beaver presence on the lake, including searching for lodges and gnawed trees and learning a little bit about the history of the landscape. It was a beautiful day and Flatfoot lake was literally sparking. One of the participants said that the paddling was the “jewel of the festival.”
These recent Openlands efforts are part of our robust history of connecting the people of the Calumet Region to nature by increasing public access to open space, empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources, and promoting a regional culture of conservation by developing an interconnected network of protected and productive green ways, water trails and open spaces.
A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.
Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.
Managing stormwater to help our rivers
One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.
MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through theSpace to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.
The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.
The work continues
This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.
We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.
Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.
Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.