Bluff Spring Fen was on my list for years.
Time and again, when I asked fellow nature lovers to suggest a truly special experience in the Chicago area's wilderness, they sang the praises of Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve.
A rare ecosystem, a landscape of hills and streams restored to wildflower-rich beauty, a home to rare and endangered plant and animal species — it was not to be missed.
But Bluff Spring Fen is in Elgin, 40 miles from downtown Chicago. Somehow, I kept missing it.
Until now. I walked through waist-high grasses and sedges — grasslike plants with a sharp, triangular shape — and across a wooden bridge, looked out over hills covered with wildflowers below tumbling butterflies and damselflies and kicked myself for waiting so long.
Doug Taron grinned. "By the end of summer, these will be over your head," he said, nodding at the sedges.
Taron, president and co-steward of Friends of Bluff Spring Fen, has been captivated by this site, next to a cemetery in the outermost reaches of Cook County, since he first visited in 1982. He loves it so much that he moved to Elgin, giving himself a 75-mile round-trip commute to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where he is curator of biology and vice president of conservation and research.
Once used for mining and as a spot to dump abandoned cars and drive off-road vehicles, it has been restored into a mosaic of several distinct habitats, in a space so compact you can walk from hill prairie to savanna to woodland in minutes.
The treasures are its fens. A fen is a wetland fed by the constant flow of water bubbling up from underground. You can see it here, clear water seeping upward in a patch of what looks like a clear, shallow puddle.
The water emerges at a steady 53 degrees year-round. In winter, it coats the nearby vegetation with ice crystals and, crucially, is alkaline.
It picks up calcium and other minerals from the limestone that surrounds it underground. When it comes to the surface, it creates an alkaline environment that most plants find hostile. Only species that have adapted can survive. And because fens are so rare, so are those plants.
There are fewer than 250 acres of fen wetlands in Illinois. And the spots where you can see the alkaline water bubbling up to the surface, known as calcareous seep fens, are especially prized. There are only 14.5 acres of calcareous fen remaining in the entire state — a half-acre at Bluff Spring Fen.
"They are rare beyond any measure," said Steven Byers, field representative at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, who has been doing restoration work there since 1980.
Bluff Spring Fen is home to eight species of orchids, including the rare small white lady's slipper orchid. Taron, director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network and the butterfly monitor at Bluff Spring Fen since 1987, has counted 63 species of butterflies here, including the imperiled Baltimore checkerspot.
He hopes to reintroduce the swamp metalmark, which hasn't been seen here since 1939 and disappeared from Illinois in the mid-1980s. Scientists from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum have been breeding the swamp metalmark in the museum's lab, and this summer plan to release adult butterflies at the fen.
Beyond its scientific value, Bluff Spring Fen is, to put it unscientifically but truthfully, beautiful.
The trail rises and dips through hills — they are kames, gravel piles left behind by a glacier — and passes beneath towering trees and through sunny meadows waving with multicolored wildflowers.
Clear streams snake through the sedges as ebony jewelwing damselflies, their wings velvet black and their bodies slashes of iridescent turquoise, flit nearby. In the low-lying wetlands, rare wicket sedges arch over, rooted at both ends, looking like their namesake.
The natural beauty has required substantial help. When the first restoration workday was held in 1980, recalls Byers, a hill now covered with coneflowers was buried under 28 loads of shingle and landscape debris.
Friends of Bluff Spring Fen formed later that year to manage the fen, then owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Under the guidance of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and The Nature Conservancy of Illinois — and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County after it bought the fen in 2006 — the group has restored the various ecosystems, including helping transplant to the site an entire remnant hill prairie that was going to be mined for gravel.
Nearby industry has joined in the efforts. In a collaborative effort among the fen's stakeholders, Bluff City Materials and Vulcan Materials Co. have nearly completed a restoration project to protect the groundwater on which the rarest fen plants depend.
The work includes recontouring the land, filling in pits from earlier mining and creating a piping system that reroutes surface-water runoff around the fen. The companies are spending $2 million, of which $300,000 will be repaid by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
"It's a great resource," said Bluff City Vice President Matt Vondra. "Everybody has approached this from a point of pride."
Now is a fine time to find out why this spot has inspired so many superlatives. There are more wildflowers blooming this year than Taron has ever seen.
Don't wait years to go.
IF YOU GO
Bluff Spring Fen is reached through historic Bluff City Cemetery, 945 Bluff City Blvd., Elgin. Follow the main cemetery road, ignoring all turns, until you come to a parking lot along a split rail fence and the trail head. There no facilities, but you can use those at the cemetery office on weekdays..
Watch your step in the wetland. The sedges are thick, making it hard to see the wood bridges over the streams. Wear long pants to ward off ticks.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking for more suggestions for enjoying nature? Kayaking, biking, birding, hiking — my outdoors columns on these and more are at chicagotribune.com/outdoors.