My Experiences in the Wilds of Chicago?

1999 Mike MacDonald

Herons Paradise Evening falls upon the land. Overhead a great blue heron flies home to roost. A raccoon crosses the trail, calmly stops, looks at me, and nonchalantly goes about his business. Shapes of white-tailed deer silently fill the forest. Across the frozen slough comes the forlorn lament of a clandestine coyote. Appearing from behind the brush, he sees my human figure, then nervously vanishes into the thicket. These are a few of my experiences in the wilds of Chicago.

Chicago: "The Windy City," "Second City," "City of Big Shoulders," "That Toddlin' Town." Infamous for its gangster past, Chicago is home world's most beautiful metropolitan skyline and shoreline, and the world's best pizza. Chicago is also famous for its remarkable biodiversity.

Just three miles southwest of the Chicago city limits begins over 30 square miles of forest preserve and natural areas in Cook, DuPage, and Will counties.

My first experience of the forest preserves was as a child when my dad would take my brother and I to Little Red Schoolhouse in Palos Hills on Sunday mornings. We would feed lettuce to the big white goose. As a college student, I remember romantic picnics in the woods. In my late twenties, I would explore the trails on my mountain bike. Then, in my early thirties, I discovered nature photography.

Thrilled by the possibility of photographing the fleeting moment, the excitement of never getting a second chance, I was logically drawn into the ever-changing world of Mother Nature. The great outdoors became my studio, a place where one can only guess at what will happen next. It's a place of magic, wonder, spontaneity, inspiration, and peace. It's a place where patience and resourcefulness are rewarded. This is what keeps me coming back.

For the last six years, I've learned of many beautiful places. Some of them I return to over and over again. And when I do, it's never the same twice. It's so unpredictable. One day I'll visit and see no animals at all. The next day, it's like a Bambi movie, with creatures appearing from all around.

Swamp Rose Mallow Weather dramatically changes the landscape. After a hard rain, a once dried up wetland overflows with life. Violent windstorms blow the colored leaves of autumn onto the gray ground of winter. A heavy wet snowfall transforms a stand of brown, naked trees into a delicate glistening fairyland. Fog envelopes the land. Obscuring our vision and dramatically changing our view of the world, fog directs our attention inward, to what is closest to us.

Chicagoland consists of relatively flat terrain with natural areas spread out like a patchwork on the urban landscape. There are very few large continuous tracts of natural beauty here anymore. However, over 200,000 acres of natural area surround Chicago serving as home to thousands of plant and animal species.

To photograph Chicago's nature requires an appreciation of beauty on a much more intimate scale. Whereas, mountains, thundering above the land, demand and command our attention, the calls of red-winged blackbirds perched atop swaying cattails invite us into Chicago's wetlands. Prairie grasses, undulating in the warm summer breeze, wave us in.

There was one summer. I spent some time in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which included a six-day backcountry trip in the southern Tetons and Alaska Basin. I saw bison, mule deer, and a cow moose with her calf. At 10,800 feet, streams emerged from glaciers. In the canyons, aromatic fields of wildflowers were filled with the buzz of bees and hummingbirds. Never-ending vistas of perfection surrounded me at all times.

During the journey home from the splendor, majesty, and shear vastness of the mountains, I feared that I would no longer view the patchwork of Chicago's wild places with the same wonder as I did just two weeks earlier. I decided to put my feelings to the test with a trip to my beloved McGinnis Slough in nearby Palos Hills. For me, this wildlife refuge was much more than a great location to view and photograph animals. It had become a place of peace-a refuge for my soul. But, was I just being nave? How would I feel about this special little place, now that I've encountered such vast beauty? Will I now view all of my past experiences at McGinnis Slough as small and trivial by comparison?

The slough is just a 25-minute drive from my home. I usually take the scenic route, traversing roads that pass through DuPage County's Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve and the heart of Cook County's beautiful Palos & Sag Forest Preserve Districts.

No more than twelve minutes into the drive, there suddenly appeared a stunning display of wildflowers along the nearby shores of Long John and Crawdad Sloughs. Hundreds of pink, white, and fuchsia hibiscuses, each the size of my hand, colored the shorelines. I was awestruck by their beauty.

Egret's Flight This unexpected discovery was uplifting, but after so recently being seduced by great vistas of The West, I still wasn't completely convinced that I hadn't been jaded. During the remaining six miles to McGinnis Slough, I kept tabs on my emotions. As I neared the wetland, tall reeds and the dense foliage of shoreline trees obscured my view of the water. As my car sped past this camouflage of green, through the slits I could see flashes of light—flashes of white. My heart began to pound. Quickly, I parked at the first pull-off and quietly exited the vehicle. Bending low and crawling, I attempted to conceal my presence from what I had hoped to see. Now separated from the slough by only a slender line of reeds, I peered stealthily through the open spaces. It was between these lines that I found my answer. My heart welled with elation at the sight of over seventy-five great egrets, magnificent white birds, fishing in the low August waters—a grand discovery, in every way equal to splendor of The West.

Yes, the miracles of nature certainly abound, around our toddlin' town.

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