dunes, lizards, cacti are we talking about Chicago
in the far north reaches of the Kankakee Sand Area of Illinois,
Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve offers a rare
glimpse at the remains of an ancient sand dune created 11,000
I-55 south to Rte. 129. Head south on Rte. 129 to
Rte. 113. Take Rte. 113 east. Turn right into preserve
the gray gravel preserve parking lot 60 miles southwest
of downtown Chicago a sign sits firmly planted in
the sand, covered by a wood-shingled triangular roof, at
the foreground of a breezy orange and yellow field of prairie
grass. A quick assessment of this 288-acre dedicated state
nature preserve comes in the form of cartographic scribblings
set behind a worn Plexiglas case.
to the posted map and legend, notable aspects of this preserve
include: roads, a parking lot, trails, wetlands, prairie,
and savanna. But what's most basic most primordial
about Braidwood Dunes and Savanna isn't indicated
on signs. It's underfoot. As a path winds its way east out
of the parking lot and into the black oak savanna, sandy
sections of trail give way to impressions of hiking along
the beach and trips to the wild west.
open areas exposed to sun and sky, clusters of cactus come
into view. Turning the corner, a quarter of the way through
a mile and a half loop, a lizard scurries off the trail
and sits still in the underbrush, displaced from his place
in the sun. The long dark stripes on its light brown back
come into focus and the camera clicks once, twice, three
times. The lizard finally shoots off into sand running
for cover among anemones and orange dandelions growing in
the shady sand savanna ahead.
"dunes" here are remnants of Lake Wauponsee, a
glacial lake created by the onrush of water from the last
Ice Age. But Lake Wauponsee doesn't exist anymore. In fact,
all that's left of the dunes is a gently sloping, sand-swept
topography. But with coal strip mines to the north, new
construction to the west, a cemetery to the east, a nuclear
power plant nearby, and plots of farmland with great mounds
of sand scattered about, the significance of this site
as a rare sand prairie and black oak sand savanna
to keep Braidwood Dunes and Savanna much like it used to
be are evident in vague traces of black around tree trunks.
The Forest Preserve District conducts prescribed burns here
every three years in an effort to restore natural processes
and natural health to this fire-dependent
ecosystem. Spring and summer volunteer work parties, organized
by a local volunteer group known as the Prairie People,
also assist in seed collection and planting.
trails get muddy when wet (some portions were underwater
when I visited in April), box turtles, three-way sedges,
six-line race runner lizards, prickly pear cacti, and tubercled
orchids are just a few of the plant and animal species that
can be found within the preserve.
a dedicated state nature preserve, neither picnicking, biking,
nor pets are allowed.
Christopher Percy Collier