I continue my quest to hike the entire Des Plaines River Trail through Lake County, Illinois. I began this 31 mile trail at Lake-Cook Road in September of last year. Along the way, I met hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. I saw the seasons change and learned much about the area's wildlife and prairie history.
Each time I drive past the Des Plaines River near my home since that first Des Plaines River Trail hike, I feel a connection to this wonderful trail that has introduced me to Lake County's suburban wilderness.
Restored prairies and woodlands have been cared for by professionals and watched over by volunteers. The settlement history of the Illinois prairie has stamped itself along the trail, giving us the legacy that is present today.
It was with much excitement that I rolled out of bed early on a mid May Saturday morning and headed north to Wadsworth Savanna Forest Preserve. I had last hiked the Des Plaines River Trail in early February when the trail was covered in ice and snow.
The prairie veiw that met me at sunrise was spectacular. The sun was just coming up and I was greeted by a restored wetlands pond. A slight breeze brushed past me as I proceded onward. Ducks, geese, and redwing blackbirds were all around.
Redwing blackbirds called out to me and flashed their brilliant red shoulders in my direction. They were quite close to the trail. I paused and watched one balance on a single cattail stem. Suspended on the cattail's stem, the bird did not rest, but chattered at me until I ambled away.
The Des Plaines River Trail winds through this restored wetland area. This preserve site also serves as an an outdoor wetland laboratory (more on that later).
Soon after, I found the trail and headed north and crossed Wadsworth Road. A shallow pond to my left caught the reflection of a solitary Canadian goose paddling in the water. Its graceful motions in the water reminded me of a small boat floating along the surface.
I passed a cattail marsh to my left and glimpsed the Des Plaines River to my right. The sun glittered through the trees along the river's banks. Just to the east, I heard the rumble of a cargo train. Trains have been passing by this prairie site for over 140 years! The wildlife animals must be used to the noise by now.
Today, the main color of the prairie wetland site was multiple shades of green. The morning sun's rays created highlights and shadows along the trail. A fresh clean scent was in the air.
Ahead, the trail made a gentle climb. In the distance, I saw an oak savanna. I remembered last July going on a night time bat hike on this trail. That night time hike was with the Lake County Forest Preserve. It was in this savanna that we encountered several bat species.
Bats have a huge appetite for wetland and woodland insects. At night, they will fly out from the tree tops and swoop over the grassy wetlands for a meal.
I had not been back to this location since that time, and I enjoyed seeing the day time version of this forest preserve trail. Today, the bats were safely tucked away, somewhere in the forest trees above me and waiting for their wake up call tonite.
The prairie fields on the left and my right had many spring flowers blooming, including several patches of white and pink colored shooting stars.
This restored prairie and wetland site contributes to the overall health and diversity of plants and animal in this preserve's location. As I left the shade of the oak savanna, I surprised a deer grazing in a clearing to my right, near the Des Plaines River. It did not appreciate my presence, and with a wave of its white undertail, leaped into the nearby woodlands.
Further on the trail were many more wetland and prairie land flowers. I also observed a patch of common milkweed plants. Their leaves were rolled up as they pushed up from the earth. Within a few days, the leaves would be fully opened and in operation.
The trail continued along a wetland portion of the preserve. A great grey heron flew above me, following the savanna north. Their majestic flight is always a treat to see up close.
A killdeer was bopping and sprinting on the trail ahead of me. It stayed just in front of me as I would get closer to it. The bird then ducked into some grassy brush and hid from me.
I spied a clump of yellow flowers. The petals were arranged in a spiral. When viewed from above, they looked like a pinwheel. This was a patch of Canadian lousewort, also known as a beefsteak plant, wood betony, or (I like this name) snaffles.
I was happy to identify it and check out its unique floral pattern. The leaves have a fern like pattern to them. Native Americans ate this plant much like we eat spinach today.
This preserve's wetlands have been organized by several local, state, and federal programs. The benefits of wetland restoration have allowed Wadsworth Savanna Forest Preserve to be a living laboratory. Field studies are actively conducted. Plant and animal diversity observations are showing that the restoration process is proceeding quite well in this area.
Wetland benefits to the river basin include water table storage, cleansing of non-point source pollution, and flood control.
Historically, the Wadsworth area was not amenable to easy agricultural conversion. The soil is a mixture of clay, mud, and "muck" which was not easy to farm. Meadow potholes, effects from retreating glacial activity 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, further inhibited initial settlement of this area.
The completion of a railroad line from Chicago to Milwaukee along the Des Plaines River in 1873 brought increased settlement oportunities to this site.
In 1874, a local farmer, John Lux, platted a village as a stop along the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, in an effort to increase the land's value. This village stop became present day Wadsworth, Illinois. It was named for one of the major stockholders of the railroad line.
This village continues to take pride in its rural flavor, using the motto: "the village of country living".
As I hiked further on, I continued to observe large numbers of birds in the wetland and praire portions of the preserve. Red winged black birds were most numerous and vocal, but robins, warblers, and Canadian geese were also plentiful.
After reaching this hike's endpoint at West Kelly Road and Skokie Highway (Route 41), I stopped and took in the surroundings. A convenient restroom facility was handy, as was parking for the next visit. I reversed my steps, happy with the day's adventure. I saw milemarker 4 on today's hike, and know that the Wisconsin border is getting very close.
It will be bittersweet to complete the Des Plaines River Trail over the next few hikes. I have enjoyed the journey and what it has taught me about the prairie.
Until next time. And remember to stay on the trail.
"I always wanted to grow up on a lake and be in nature."
-Reed McCool, outdoor enthusiast and recreational fisherman.
Many outdoor enthusiasts and professional wildlife experts began their outdoor adventures at a young age. These individuals were often mentored and encouraged by others to appreciate wildlife and the outdoors. As they spend more time outside in the woods, a lifelong passion for the outdoors develops.
Often, such individuals continue their interest in the outdoors, eventually working as environmental advocates or pursuing wildlife related careers.
With these thoughts in mind, I asked my nephew, Reed, for a "Wildlife Expert Interview". He has developed a strong interest in the outdoors, and as you will see in the article, he is truly worthy of the title "wildlife expert".
Reed is just short of his 16th birthday. He is an avid outdoor enthusiast and a self-taught recreational fisherman. He was kind enough to talk to me about his experiences in the outdoors and to teach me a few things he has learned along the way.
How did you get started in fishing and the outdoors?
"I was pretty young...my Dad and I (first) went fishing when I was 3 or 4 years old", he answered. "I also visited my Grandpa Larry in Kentucky and fished from the dock and his boat at around the same time."
"My other Grandpa, John, lived next to a forest preserve (in Illinois), and I would walk the forest" with him. "I would watch everything."
Reed remembers at age 6 or 7, he began to wade in the river and fish with his Grandpa John. He spent more time exploring the outdoors and fishing with his friends and his Dad (my brother Mike).
Now I can remember my brother Mike telling me that Reed spent hours studying the water from the shore to catch fish. Reed would figure out, on his own, how to catch bigger fish.
Mike told me that Reed consistently brought home bigger bass and catfish. These fish would put what Mike and I caught as kids to shame. Where Mike and I would seek bragging rights by the ounce from our childhood catches, Reed was talking pounds! (Reed shares some of his secrets below.)
Reed told me he spent a lot of his time outdoors fishing and camping. He would sleep outdoors in the backyard in a sleeping bag with his friends or his Dad. He would use no tent, so as to sleep under the stars. His interest in the outdoors and fishing continued to grow.
What do you like best about fishing?
"When I fish, I prefer being by myself or with my best friend", he answered. "I like to fish and explore and to catch what (fish) we can."
He further adds that he enjoys "being able to do what I want; the freedom to catch a fish" and "being outdoors without any limits."
What type of fishing do you prefer?
Reed told me he prefers to fish from the shore or a canoe in a nearby lake. He also wades in the DuPage River to fly fish.
What type of fish and bait do you use?
For bass, he uses a crank bait. For catfish, Reed makes his own bait. He puts meat into a ziplock baggie until it spoils. He then uses the rotten meat to get the bigger catfish. He has "10 or 11 tackle boxes", saving his own money from odd jobs to pay for the lures and equipment.
How does he catch the bigger bass?
(Reed holds the McCool family record for this category, so I listened closely for his answer.) He told me he fishes first for a 3 inch bluegill on a small hook. Once he catches one, he puts the bluegill on a larger hook to attract the bigger game fish. He told me the bigger the bluegill, the bigger the bass he catches! He has many stories of catching 5 and 6 lb bass from this method.
How do you read the lake from the shore for fish?
Reed explained that catfish prefer the deep, dark areas of the lake. They often feed by burrowing in the lake's bottom which makes the water murky from this activity. He looks for these murky areas in the lake and sends his bait into those locations with good success.
Do you have any unusual fish stories to tell?
"I once caught a huge alligator snapping turtle on a spinner bait. I had to cut the line to let it go. I had a video of it on my cell phone."
"Another time, I was fishing with my Dad and I caught two fish on a single lure." Reed told me that two 14 inch bass had each taken a separate hook on the same lure at the same time!
What are your future dreams for the outdoors?
"I always wanted to live near a lake or near nature in a cottage." He added that it was "just what I like."
Have you seen any effects of man on your outdoor adventures?
Reed told me that algae killer is periodically put into ponds and the lake near his home where he fishes. "This also kills many fish", he said.
He also notes that for years, his Grandpa John would feed deer by hand in his backyard. Several years ago, Reed remembers that deer were culled from the adjacent forest preserve (120 in number per John). He notes that his grandfather has had no recent deer to feed since that time.
I thanked Reed for his time, and look forward to watching his interest in fishing and the outdoors continue. I also took notes on his tips in getting a bigger fish!
Have you mentored or encouraged someone to appreciate the outdoors? If so, let me know, at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time. And remember to stay on the trail.
As an obstetrician, I am well acquainted with announcing "boy" or "girl" at the delivery. It is a fun and special time to be the referee and make "the call" when the couple does not know the sex of the baby ahead of time.
When it comes to plants, however, the rules are different, and it is a good idea to check the playbook before making "the call". Such was the case when I encountered Jack (or Jackie)-in- the-Pulpit plants.
These plants have the option of being a boy or a girl and then changing their mind. Like any referee, once you know the playbook rules, it becomes easy to tell the boys from the girls!
I had recently hiked through Reed-Turner Woodland in Long Grove, Illinois. There, I encountered numerous Jack-in-the-Pulpit plants along the sides of the trail and in the understory of the forest.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit is a herbaceous perennial found in moist to dry deciduous woodland forests, bottomlands, swamps, and bogs in North America. It begins to flower in May.
Its unique appearance is due to the spathe (the pulpit) which overlaps and covers the spadix (the jack). Common names include Pepper Turnip, Marsh Pepper, Bog Onion and Cuckoo Flower.
Individual plants may live up to 100 years. The plant contains calcuim oxalate that gives it a bitter taste. Raw, it is also poisonous to humans.
More interesting, however, is that an individual plant can change its own sex from year to year! This is one of the few plants in nature that has this ability.
So just how does a jack-in-the-pulpit determine its sex? And how can a casual hiker tell the difference between a Jack or a Jackie?
It turns out that the answer is easy. Whether the plant chooses to be male or female in any given year is determined by several factors: its age, the availability of water and nutrients, the plant's leaf health, and root storage. All these are conditions that are reflective of the plant's preceding growing season.
The plant's underground root structure is called a corm. If the corm is older (5 years or more), receives adequate water and nutrients, and food production from healthy leaves, the resulting corm becomes large. Large corms are needed to produce seeds. The more that a corm can store, the more the stored energy can be used in seed production.
When the corm reaches a critical size to allow energy for seed production, the plant will produce female parts at the base of the spadix in the subsequent growing season. The female flower parts are small, and look like tiny green berries when viewed with a magnifying lens.The female plant will also produce two trifoliate (three part) leaves to enhance food production from photosynthesis.
So, to identify a female Jack-in-the-pulpit (a Jackie) in the spring time, look for green berry like parts at the base of the spadix and two trifoliate leaves ("its a girl!). Since handling flowers in forest preserves is not permitted, just look for the two leaves instead, and don't peak under the spathe. Keep Jackie modest!
In late summer and in early fall, only female plants will have the characteristic red berry cluster. After producing berries and seeds, the corm becomes smaller, and the plant may be a male in the following spring season.
A male plant develops when less energy is stored in the corm. This occurs in younger plants (2-5 years), those that have had their leaves munched on by insects or deer, and in dry or low nutrient conditions. In the next growing season, the plant will develop male parts. Under magnification, these appear as small thread like structures with tiny yellow to brown anthers at the base of the spadix. Addtionally, male plants grow a single trifoliate leaf.
As a reminder, while viewing plants in the forest preserves, don't pull the spathe up to view the base of the spadix - Jack may want some modesty, too! Just look for Jack-in-the-pulpits that have a single three pronged leaf!
An individual Jack-in-the-pulpit plant cannot fertilize itself. Fertilization is accomplished by fungus gnats which are attracted to the plants' emmission of a fungus-like odor. When the gnat wanders into the bottom of the spathe and near the base of the spadix in a male plant, pollen is transferred onto the gnat's body. As the gnat travels into the spathe of a female plant, pollen may be deposited at the base of the spadix. Fertilization may now occur.
The seeds develop in a cluster of red berries. Birds then eat the berries and disperse the seeds throughout the woodland floor. Successful seedlings take at least three years to produce their first flower (usually as a male plant).
So there you have it!
Look at the photos in this article. Can you tell the boys from the girls? Good luck!
Here are a few quotes from famous Jacks (and a Jackie), in no particlular order:
Don't be too proud to take lessons. I'm not. -Jack Nicklaus
When you're riding in a time machine way far into the future, don't stick your elbow out the window, or it'll turn into a fossil. -Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy
It's amazing the little things you can use, like one of my flowers out there [in the backyard]. He would dry a leaf and use it for a model. -Jackie Kennedy
One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. -Jack Kerouac
The function of man is to live, not to exist. -Jack London
One last drink, please. -Jack Daniel
You must never underestimate the power of the eyebrow. -Jack Black
The world is the true classroom. The most rewarding and important type of learning is through experience, seeing something with our own eyes. -Jack Hanna
If you come across an unusual plant or animal finding on an outdoor hike, let me know at:
Until next time. And remember to stay on the trail (and leave the spadix alone).
White trillium, an early spring flower of the prairie woodlands.
Botanic features of trillium include an underground rhizome from which arises an extended stem known as a peduncle or scape. Three leaf-like structures known as bracts arise symmetrically from the stem, after which follow the three symmetric flowers. The length of stem from the bracts to the flowers varies from species to species. The flower petals may be immediately adjacent to the bracts or several centimeters removed.
An individual plant may require more than 12 years to make its first flower! Because of this, and for the reasons noted below, plucking this plant's flower is discouraged.
Prairie trillium, a purple flower of the spring woodlands.
On recent hikes, I encountered two trillium species: the larger white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and the purple colored prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum). Patches of white trillium were more common in the woodlands I visited. The white trillium are easier to see than the purple prairie trillium. In one site at Ryerson Forest Preserve, I even found both species of trillium adjacent to each other.
Note the extended pedicle length from the bracts to the flower of white trillium.
The rhizome-stem structure of trillium is such, that if the flowers and bracts are picked, the plant will die. The plant's actual leaves are normally wrapped around the underground rhizomes; if the bracts are removed with the flower, there are no functional leaves for the plant to survive.
In states and counties where rare trillium species are endangered, they are protected by law. Local customs also discourage picking the flowers and bracts of this plant.
The purple flower of prairie trillium is nearly adjacent on the pedicle attachments
of the bracts.
Deer, however, don't follow laws or customs, and will go out of their way to find the flowers and bracts of trillium to munch on. Wildlife studies report a reverse correlation of the height of trillium plants to the density of deer in a woodland site. In other words, the shorter the average trillium height, the denser the deer population in a given area.
Trillium prefer woodland areas under tree cover.
Trillium populate woodlands and fenced areas under partly shaded trees, including oak, hickory, and maple. This perennial plant is also popular with North American gardners.
Adjacent species: prairie trillium and white trillium at Ryerson Woods Forest Preserve.
A variety of trillium species may populate a given woodland area. The species' flowers may vary in color and stem length. White trillium changes its colors from white to pink over a single growing season. The purple color of the prairie trillium may hide the plant from being seen by grazing deer.
A close up veiw of the purple prairie trillium flower.
Seed dispersal of trillium is primarily by ants. This is known as myrmecochory. The seeds have a soft, fleshy organ attachment called an elaiosome. The elaiosome contains lipids and nutrients. Trillium seeds also release an odor (remember Stinking Benjamin?) that attract ants.
Ants carry the seeds and the attached elaiosomes back to their nest. They eat the elaiosome and discard the smelly seed on their nest's garbage pile. It is there that the trillium seed germinates and grows into a plant.
Ants seek the trillium flower.
Studies show that seventy meters (231 feet) is the maximum distance that ant dispersal can transfer seeds in a woodland setting. This short distance is not enough to explain how trillium has covered the extent of prairie woodlands, for which it exists, since the retreat of the last glacial age 10,000-14,000 years ago. Other animals have been identified as secondary seed dispersal vectors for trillium, including Vespid wasps and deer.
Vespid wasps have been shown to disperse seeds up to 30 meters (99 feet); enough to populate a local area, but not enough distance to explain post glacial seeding. Deer, however, can pass undigested trillium seeds, and do travel long enough distances to account for post glacial seeding of prairie woodlands. For this reason, deer are given credit for the wide prescence of trillium on the North American post glacial woodlands.
Spongy seed pods containing trillium seeds and their associated fleshy elaiosomes. Photo by Douglas W. Jones.
Trillium is also a popular symbol used by businesses (just google it).
Locally, a trillium is used by Riverwoods, Illinois on its village sign. This plant is also the state flower of Ohio and a symbol used by Ontario, Canada.
Village sign for Riverwoods, Illinois.
Trillium symbol of Ontario, Canada.
Enjoy the view, but don't pick the blooms!
So, the next time you are in a prairie woodland or driving by a shaded country fence in early spring, look for trillium! The flowers are fun to look for and easy to find.
If you happen to see a deer grazing nearby or spy an ant on a trillium bract or flower, just remember they are seeking the same woodland treasure as you are.
Until next time. And remember to stay on the trail (and don't pick the trillium).