The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
When I was 15, my dad tried to introduce me to birdwatching at the Merwin Nature Preserve near Lexington, Ill. The hobby didn't take—I was too impatient to learn the nuances—but that location evolved into my original "home trail." From the time I could drive a car, I'd take almost any opportunity to make the trek out there and explore, alone or with friends.
Since then, I've moved around and found "home trails" elsewhere, and in the thousands of acres maintained by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, came to discover not only that original sense of discovery and contemplation, but so much more.
I first visited shortly after I moved to the western suburbs, riding my bike along the DuPage River through the Warrenville Grove preserve out to the McDowell Grove preserve and back. Shortly after, I wandered into Blackwell Forest Preserve, practically in my back yard. Since then, barely a week has gone by that I haven't logged at least 10 miles in the 1,366 acres that make up this beautifully maintained location, which features an archery range, campground, off-leash dog park and miles of trails through woodlands and wetlands.
In the mid-1900s, Forest Preserve District board members established a target ratio of 25 acres of preserve land for every 1,000 residents. Today, nearly 26,000 acres, or 13% of the county, are forest preserve prairies, woodlands and wetlands, surpassing the original goal. More than 4 million people visit the 60-plus preserves, 145 miles of trails and six education centers every year. There are programs to satisfy anyone, from guided walks to pop-up kayaking, from blacksmithing and sheep-shearing demonstrations to art programs and gardening workshops, from fishing and archery programs to camping and so much more.
Perhaps not every Chicago area resident understands how lucky we are that there were visionaries a century ago who understood the importance of preserving this land. Our forest preserves are the city's lungs, keeping our air cleaner than it would otherwise be. Our forest preserves act as filters and watersheds, protecting our water from pollution and our homes from flooding. And, our preserves provide an incredible range of activities.
I've found a community there on my home trail, starting up conversations with preserve employees, walkers, bikers, runners and more. I've discovered the beautiful diversity of our woodlands and wetlands. I've checked out the archery demonstrations. I've ridden many hundreds of miles on my bike and walked many more hundreds of miles in my trail shoes. In winter, there's cross-country skiing. And in the spring, I visit the Native Plant Sale at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook and bring a little of that wildness I love home to my own garden.
And, I've finally caught the birdwatching bug my dad tried to pass on so long ago, and learned that having a home trail can teach you more than you thought possible about the ever-changing yet always constant cycle of seasonal ebbs and flows of the local ecosystem. RM
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