February 20, 2007

Prairie Prospers at Indiana’s Kankakee Sands Preserve

By Mike Michaelson

When pioneers rolled their creaking covered wagons westward, land occupied by present-day Indiana was virgin prairie - more than 2 million acres of it, with stands of lush bluestem grass growing 10 feet tall.

It was an incredibly diverse ecosystem, teeming with birds and wildlife that included prairie chickens, bison and elk and humming with busy insects pollinating wildflowers that bloomed in bright and delicate shades of yellow, white, pink, blue and purple.

Over the years, much of this glorious prairie has yielded to the plow. More has been lost in the sprawl of urban and suburban development. Today, only about 1,000 fragmented acres of prairie remain.

A segment of prairie is being returned to the northwest corner of Indiana on a grand scale. At 7,600-acre Kankakee Sands Preserve (two miles north of Enos, Ind.), a prairie restoration project is providing a home to many rare and threatened species of plants and animals. These include the fame flower, plains pocket gopher, bobolink, regal fritillary and blue racer.

Visitors to the Nature Conservancy are invited to participate in hiking, bird watching, nature study and photography.

You might be surprised to find so many different flowering plants and grasses, some towering over your head as you travel across wide- open expanses of restored prairie, much of it without defined trails. Among the ecosystems you'll encounter are oak- covered savannas, low wetlands and sandy, desert-like areas.

Retreating Ice Age glaciers left a large lake, named Kankakee, that at one time covered an estimated 3,000 square miles and in places was more than 400 feet deep. By the time of European exploration, the lake (by then known as Beaver Lake) had shrunk to about 30,000 acres, surrounded by more than 500,000 acres of marsh and wetlands.

The Potawatomi tribe occupied the region until about 1838. It also was a prime hunting and fishing destination that attracted rich sportsmen from Europe. Later, it became a hideaway for river pirates, horse thieves and the counterfeiters who worked out of so- called "Bogus Island," one of close to 100 small islands in Beaver Lake at that time.

In the mid- to late 19th century, the lake and surrounding marsh was completely and irreversibly drained. In 1996, the Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural land and began large-scale prairie restoration.

Nature writer and photographer Bill Herbert calls it a "jewel in progress," noting that "Kankakee Sands is on track to becoming a bird and wildlife mecca."

Writing in the Nature Conservancy's "Guide to Indiana Preserves," he describes the preserve as "truly one of the premier places in the Midwest to view birds, wildflowers, plants, grasses and animals of the Central Tallgrass Prairie."

Herbert reports that during a day's bird watching at the preserve, he spent close to a half-hour observing a Northern harrier hawk gliding low in search of prey. He noted a red-tailed hawk carrying its catch to a tree and a quartet of wild turkeys crossing a small clearing bordering a stand of oak.

Also making his list of sightings that day were several songbirds, a small covey of quail, two pheasants and an owl. Sandpipers frequent the shallow marshes and sandhill cranes have started visiting during migration - among more than 200 species recorded on the property since 2001.

Loss of habitat is the main reason for declining species. This restoration is helping reverse that trend, attracting four of the 25 fastest-declining bird species in North America to breed in the prairie and wetlands of Kankakee Sands: Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, field sparrow and Northern bobwhite.

Visitors learn that starting a prairie fire can be a good thing - as long as it is carefully planned and controlled. Then, it is simply emulating nature's way of eliminating invasive plant species, making room for renewal of indigenous prairie grasses and flowers. "Prescribed burns" on different parts of Kankakee Sands result in dramatic eruptions of wildflowers and grasses during the following season.

After a 20-acre prescribed burn in autumn 2003 on adjacent Beaver Lake Prairie Chicken Refuge, the regenerating landscape exploded with a blanket of dense blazing star. Masses of purple blooms created an awesome sight (but one not uncommon at Kankakee Sands).

A nearby dining choice is the mega-dairy farm known as Fair Oaks (at I-65 and Indiana Route 14). Master cheesemaker Randy Krahenbuhl creates award-winning cheeses and a cafeteria-style eatery uses them to fashion memorable grilled cheese sandwiches. House-made ice cream is delectable.

En route home, make a short detour to Crown Point for dinner at Lucrezia Ristorante, owned by Michael and Nada Karas, well-regarded restaurateurs who operate another Lucrezia at Chesterton, Ind. They have transformed the interior of an 1897 Romanesque mansion into a sleek Italian restaurant with black marble tabletops, hardwood floors and arcs of polished steel. A secluded patio with umbrella tables is perfect for alfresco dining. Go for its sophisticated ambience, expertly made martinis and Italian classics such as mussels marinara, cannelloni, stuffed eggplant, chicken Vesuvio, veal limone and traditional osso buco (braised veal shanks).

- Mike Michaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."

If you go

Information: Kankakee Sands Project Office, (219) 285-2184, www.nature.org; Lake County Indiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 255-5253, www.lakecountycvb.com.

Mileage: Enos is about 70 miles south of Chicago.

(c) 2007 Daily Herald; Arlington Heights, Ill.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.