sitting by a large tropical ocean. Marine invertebrates swim through
coral reefs, warm breezes caress you, and the pungent smell of salt
fills your nostrils. Welcome to northern Illinois, 400 million years
ago. What is now Illinois was once 20 degrees south of the equator. The
limestone (dolomite) bedrock underlying most of northeastern Illinois
contains the remains of extinct trilobites and squid-like animals. One
can still find fossils in these rocks throughout the corridor.
Fossils are also common
near Morris; in fact this is one of the most famous fossil localities in
the world. 300,000 million years ago, large, swampy forests harbored a
variety of life here. The Mazon Creek fossil beds contain the remains of
sharks, ferns, cockroaches, dragonflies, and spiders. Also found here is
Illinois's state fossil, the bizarre Tully Monster, a worm-like creature
which has never been found anywhere else.
More recently, about 2
million years ago, a series of glaciers, moving down from the north,
ushered in the Ice Age. Despite the harsh conditions, many huge animals
lived here. Giant beavers, some weighing as much as 300 pounds, cavorted
near rivers, and mastodons and mammoths roamed the plains and forests.
Although they are all now extinct, their bones can still be found. The
last of the glaciers retreated about 12,000 years ago, a mere blink of
an eye to geologists. Lake Michigan, the prairies, our rivers, all were
created by the movement of these glaciers.
The Illinois River
Valley, which makes up much of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor,
has long been a haven for wildlife. The valley is also an important
flyway for many species of birds. Many species have disappeared from the
region, including bison, bears, and elk, but one can still find an
abundance of wildlife, from the state-endangered black-crowned
night-herons to bald eagles and coyotes.
The prairies that once
covered almost half of Illinois are largely gone, but you can explore
remnants of the original prairie landscape at several places in the
Canal Corridor. The Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in Morris, the
Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, and the Santa Fe Prairie in Hodgkins
are just three of the places to see these magnificent tall grass
Just as significant are
the many wetlands that dot the area. Many have been drained for
agriculture and other development, but the few that remain provide
spectacular glimpses of wildlife. Lake Renwick in Plainfield, once a
quarry, is home to huge colonies of black-crowned night-herons,
cormorants, and other large water birds. The Heidecke State Fish and
Wildlife Area near Morris attracts fishermen and other nature lovers
from all over the state.
One of the more
spectacular efforts in prairie restoration is taking place right now in
Joliet. During World War II, the Joliet Army Arsenal manufactured 5.5-
million tons of TNT each week, making it the largest TNT plant in the
world. Today, the site, named Midewin, is being transformed into a
spectacular 19,000- acre preserve. Midewin comes from the Algonquian
Indian word "Midewiwin"which refers to a Grand Medicine Lodge or healing
society. Indian burial mounds on the site indicate that the area has
been used by man for thousands of years. At least sixteen
state-endangered animals and plants are found here, making it an
important natural refuge in an increasingly crowded metropolitan area.
There are plans to reintroduce bison (buffalo), the symbol of the
prairie. Just an hour from downtown Chicago, Midewin will attract
visitors from all over the world.
The many state parks in
the corridor afford ample opportunities to see forests, prairies,
wetlands, and other habitats. Starved Rock State Park is perhaps the
best known park in Illinois. Each year millions of people climb the
stairs to the top of Le Rocher, as the French called Starved Rock. For
many, this site connects us to our Native American past as no other
place can. The canyons, forests, and trails are beautiful year-round,
and fishermen can try their luck in the Illinois River. Just opposite
the park is the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, a terrific place to
watch modern boats going through a lock.
The canal corridor has
a number of trails for hiking, biking, or strolling. The longest is the
I&M Canal State Trail, which runs 61.5 miles from Rockdale to La Salle.
There are also the 2.25 mile Gaylord Donnelley trail in Lockport, the 4
mile Lemont Canal Trail and the 11 mile I&M Canal Bicycle Trail loop in