With summer still splendid, and all the more precious as it wanes, it's time for a big outing to a big wilderness. Things don't get much bigger than the 18,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, so my friend Joanna and I headed down to the former Joliet Arsenal-turned-nature-site, our bikes on the car rack and our curiosity primed.
Midewin public information officer Marta Witt provided the background, visiting suggestions and a map. First, the name: Midewin, pronounced mih-DAY-win, is the name of the sacred healing society of the Potawatomi and Chippewa Tribes in the Great Lakes area. The U.S. Forest Service, which took ownership of the site from the U.S. Army, thought its Indian provenance and healing message reflected the project beautifully, and sought and received written permission from the Potawatomi nation to use it.Midewin is the largest part of what has replaced the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Signed into existence by law in 1996, it is the nation's first national tallgrass prairie, the kind of habitat European settlers found more than 200 years ago.
Or at least it will be the first national tallgrass prairie. "We are a prairie under construction, and we will be for years to come," Witt said. It opened to the public in 2004, but the entire project is expected to take 50 to 100 years to complete.
The Army is finishing cleaning up contamination from the manufacture of TNT. The forest service is building the first permanent trail, expected to open in the spring. Invasive, non-native plants are being removed; the seeds of native wildflowers are being cultivated in seedbeds enclosed by fences to keep deer from treating them as salad bars.
So what is Midewin now? Some restored prairie. Birds. Butterflies. Coyotes. Wild turkeys. Silence. Solitude.
And mostly, open space. Lots of it. Some 7,200 acres accessible to the public, with 22 miles of temporary trails, most of it open for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing or horseback riding. Get out on a trail and do a 360-degree look-see: nothing but nature.
A happy visit to Midewin depends on understanding what it is, and what it is not.
It is not a conventional nature site. There are ammunition bunkers. There are cows.
Much of it is not ideal for hiking, particularly in the dead of summer. The trails are mostly exposed, and in hot weather Witt advises bicycling instead. Also, most of the trails are old dirt roads, flat, straight and somewhat boring on foot.
It is not a place for speedy biking. The trails are covered in rough gravel. You have to ride slowly and carefully, preferably on fat tires.
And it is not finished. There aren't enough trail signs, and some of the trails don't look usable.
As for what it is -- big, quiet and almost all yours. On a glorious summer Sunday, Joanna and I saw only one other cyclist (and a team of archeologists). The solitude is delightful, but frankly, I would have felt uncomfortable if I were there alone.
It turned out that it was a good thing there were two of us, because we needed two heads to puzzle over the trails. We originally hoped to ride our bikes east from the Iron Bridge Trailhead. The trailhead parking lot looked very official and the trail began promisingly, a curved, crushed limestone path through lovely grasses waving beneath trees. But the lack of signs sent us in the wrong direction. It turned out that we were on the new trail under construction, and it ended abruptly after a short distance. We had apparently passed the turn onto the right trail because it looked closed. It was behind a closed livestock gate and overgrown.
We drove north to the Hoff Road Trailhead instead, and found pay dirt.
The trail began on an old paved road, Chicago Road, where we could get our legs moving. We would have gone faster if I didn't keep stopping to look at birds, especially a particularly dramatic black and yellow orchard oriole swooping through the air.
We were surrounded by so many butterflies that one got stuck in the straps of my handle bar. I flicked it out and cycled on, with more butterflies tumbling around us like dolphins cavorting alongside a boat.
We turned onto the considerably rougher Twin Oaks Trail, passing one of Midewin's seedbeds, and left our bikes on the trail so we could walk the short loop around Turtle Pond. It is a sweet little pond fringed with grasses and the shivering leaves of cottonwood trees and alive with frilly dragonflies. A bench was perfectly placed for gazing onto the water and feeling extreme happiness.
But there were ammunition bunkers to be seen. Not a typical sight on a wilderness outing, they are an outstanding addition to this one. The bunkers are concrete chambers covered in mounds of earth. These bunkers, on the site's east side, were used to store shells and land mines. Now empty, they make amazing echo chambers. Walk inside and sing; the notes reverberate for so long you can harmonize with yourself.
Back on the trails, we got lost one more time, but we ran into archeologist Rhiannon Jones, who kindly directed us. Her Milwaukee-based archeology company is surveying the site for the forestry service; they have discovered stone chips from prehistoric tool making, and the remnants of old farms.
The archeologists went back to work and we went back to play in the great big outdoors. Midewin isn't polished or even finished, but it doesn't really need to be.
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IF YOU GO
Getting there: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is north of Wilmington, about 62 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. A visit is best started at the Welcome Center on Illinois Highway 53 north of New River Road.
Prairie walk: The prairie restored so far is the south Patrol Road Restoration area, reached at the River Road Trailhead off New River Road west of Illinois 53. There is no trail, but you are welcome to walk through the prairie, which is in full wildflower bloom.
Biking: If you want to bike through the site, park at the Hoff Road Trailhead on Hoff Road east of Illinois 53. There are maps available at the trailhead. The bunker field trail is also accessible from Hoff Road.
More info: Midewin offers guided tours by auto caravan, bicycle, foot and horseback, focusing on subjects like birds, butterflies, history or geology. For information, visit www.fs.fed.us/mntp/ or call 815-423-6370.