The entrance to the prairie was less than auspicious. Less than promising, for that matter. We arrived at the tiny gravel parking lot at the end of a dead-end street to find the narrow gate on the tall, rusted chain link fence secured with a heavy chain and padlock.
We’d driven some 30 miles down to 159th Street in the southern suburb of Markham, Illinois, to hike around in “the largest remaining example of high-quality grassland in Illinois” only to find it seemingly closed. But looking closer, I realized that the chain had a lot of slack in it. I gave the gate a push, and it swung open enough for us to duck in under the chain. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to keep hikers out—just ATVs, dirt bikes and such.
The rest of the Indian Boundary Prairies [incorporating the Gensburg-Markham Prairie] are equally basic in terms of services. There is no visitor’s center, no gift shop—there are no restrooms. What there is, though, are more than 300 acres of prairie looking much as it did 8,000 years ago. Prairies or grasslands once covered the entire central part of the North American continent—more than 140 million acres. Less than one percent of that original prairie still survives.
Prairies don’t knock your socks off like mountain ranges. They don’t immediately inspire hushed awe like forests. When we stepped inside the chain link gate our first visit, I have to admit I was less than impressed. Off in the distance, semis rumbled along I-294, and utility poles strung with power lines cut right through the middle of the huge open space. [One set of power lines has already been buried, we since learned, and the Nature Conservancy, Northeastern Illinois University and the Natural Land Institute, who own and manage the site, are negotiating to have these lines buried too.]
As soon as we headed down one of the trails, though, and started taking in all the wonderful details around us, the beauty of the prairie became apparent. There was life everywhere. Wildflowers were scattered throughout the grasses. Butterflies, bumblebees and other insects flitted, buzzed and hopped around. And there were birds. Some only made their presence known with their songs, but others flew overhead or perched on fences, power lines or plant stalks. Hawks, redwing blackbirds, goldfinches. A pair of unfortunately named Dickcissels plotted our progress for a while, moving from plant to plant, announcing that this was their territory.
Suddenly, it was easy to imagine the prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction and to understand its quiet power. We spent a couple of hours hiking around, stopping often to just look and listen. [Okay, and freaking out over the ticks. When we realized we’d forgotten to bring insect repellant, I was thinking mosquitoes, not ticks. I was happy to learn that these are not the Lyme disease-carrying ticks, just the annoying ones. For our second visit, we used insect repellant—end of tick problem.]
As we were about to leave that first afternoon, another visitor appeared. We talked for a moment, and when our geeky enthusiasm for the place became apparent, he excitedly asked if we wanted to see some wild orchids. We of course did. Turns out the other “visitor” is Northeastern Illinois University biologist Ron Panzer. He’s spent some 25 years helping restore this patch of prairie, successfully reintroducing the Franklin’s ground squirrel, the Regal fritillary butterfly and a host of other creatures and plants.
We ended up spending an extra half an hour or so trying to keep up with Dr. Panzer as he bounded around, pointing out countless subtle things we’d missed and filling us up with more facts than we could possibly retain. It was great.
At his urging, we came back to Indian Boundary Prairies a few weeks later and found it completely different, as he said we would. Grasses taller, new plants in bloom, even more butterflies. And for me, at least, I found an even greater respect for the subtle beauty of the prairie.