At a Glance

The Scene

Woodland, sedge meadow, and prairie mingle with large man-made
lagoons

Highlights

A 400 year-old bur oak in Erickson Woods; abundant migratory birds and waterfowl

Stats

540 acres; 6 miles of bike and walking trails

Behind the Scenes

Volunteers are stabilizing stream banks to improve habitat for shore and water birds

Getting There

East of I-94 between Willow Rd on the south and Dundee Rd on the north. Parking lots are off Forest Way Rd, and at Erickson Woods, off Willow Rd

Into The Wild

Skokie Lagoons

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Cook County, IL
Skokie Lagoons

Skokie Lagoons

Photo: Donald Bolak

The Skokie Lagoons preserve in northern Cook County is an all-purpose water attraction for outdoor types: the novice or experienced canoer or kayaker, the angler out after a bass, or the picnicker who wants to relax and catch rays on a lazy summer day.

But the area once looked quite different. The Potawatomi called it the Chewab Skokie, or “big wet prairie.” The site was a vast, rich, and peaty marsh that filled a former bay of glacial Lake Chicago, chock full of slough grass, wild rice, waterfowl, and fish.

In the past, though, some nearby residents were not so impressed by the area’s biodiversity, according to writer Libby Hill. Seasonal flooding, smoky peat fires, and mosquitoes conflicted with neighborhood plans and ultimately led to the marsh’s demise.

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County bought up much of the property by 1933 for flood control and recreation. Over nearly a decade, hundreds of members of the Civilian Conservation Corps excavated 4 million cubic yards of earth in what is considered the nation’s largest CCC project. When work finished in 1942, seven connected lagoons and waterways stretched seven miles, north to south.

Gray fox

Gray fox

Photo: Joe Nowak

Today, a principal draw to this 540-acre stretch of nature along the North Shore communities of Northfield, Winnetka, and Glencoe is wildlife observation. The open water and woodlands of bur and white oaks attract the prothonotary warbler, warbling vireo, American kestrel, cormorant, common loon, black-crowned night-heron, green heron, and a dozen species of migrating ducks, according to volunteer steward Jerry Garden. An osprey has recently surprised birders and non-birders alike. Red and gray fox, coyote, and mink are also known to reside here.

“Because the lagoons aren’t just water but woodland, savanna, and some prairie,” Garden said, “there are lots of types of plants and animals here if you take the time to find them.”

Over the past decade, volunteers have begun clearing buckthorn and other invasive species and bolstering shorelines, which have degraded over time due to snowmelt and heavy rains. Garden hopes that this restoration — although a unique challenge due to the drastic hydrological alterations made in the past — will attract more wildlife. Restoration sites can be easily viewed along Tower Road between the river bridge and Forest Way Road, and near the picnic grove on Forest Way.

The Skokie Lagoons can be enjoyed by water or land; boaters can access the waterway from a boat launch south of Tower Road. The site is a prime fishing area, stocked with bass, walleye, and pike, that can be angled from a fishing wall near the boat launch. A bridge near the Erickson Woods parking lot accesses the North Branch Trail, which takes bikers and hikers 3.6 miles north to the Chicago Botanic Garden or south toward Chicago along the Chicago River.

Restoration efforts are ongoing. Call (847) 675-6628 to volunteer.

— Deborah Kadin