Created: 5/18/2016 Updated: 5/18/2016
Ever wish you could get an insider's look at our Collections facility? In honor of International Museum Day, we're giving you that chance! Check out the facility, and a few of the hundreds of thousands of specimens it holds, in this video! Featuring Dawn Roberts, Director of Collections, and Erica Krimmel, Assistant Collections Manager.
Created: 5/12/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
If you've walked around North Pond recently, you may have noticed this goose. It's suffering from a condition known as Angel Wing Syndrome.
Angel Wing is a condition that affects mostly waterfowl, caused by a nutritional deficiency in vitamins and minerals combined with a high level of carbohydrates and sugars. While a number of factors are involved, human-fed bread is one of the probable causes. It causes the carpal joint (or wrist) on the wing to grow awkwardly, leaving the wing unable to sit flush at the bird’s side. This affects their ability to fly and the growth of their primary flight feathers -- making them look more like sticks than feathers.
Damage in fully mature birds is irreversible and likely fatal, due to the inability to fly to food sources and rejection from their flocks. If the bird is young and the diet changes dramatically, however, the damage could be reversed.
Although there are more nutritional foods that humans can provide (like non-moldy cracked corn, wheat, barley or standard birdseed), geese and ducks are grazers and have no trouble finding food on their own. In fact, feeding them can create an unnatural and unhealthy dependence on us as their food providers, and can lead to other problems, like overcrowding and water pollution.
Help keep our waterfowl happy and healthy by spreading the word about the dangers of feeding them bread and crackers. You can download the image below and share it on your own social media channels to help educate your friends, family and neighbors.
Created: 4/25/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The world-famous PNNMPFPGS (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale) is in full swing! Plants are selling like hotcakes in the magical world of cyberspace at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale. You’re understandably excited, and probably opening a new browser tab as we speak. But don’t get distressed if you notice some ‘sold out’ messages. There’ll still be plenty of plants available for purchase IRL on May 8th here at the museum.
To help you keep that excitement percolating until sale day, let me drop some details about five of the pollinator favorites we will be offering.
Lesser Calamint (Calamintha nepeta)
Not to be confused with catmint (Nepeta spp.) Or catnip (Nepeta cataria.) Or Catwoman (Julie Newmar.) Calamint is more well-behaved than any of those, though it may spread a bit by seed. Growing only a foot or two tall, it produces a seemingly endless supply of small, white flowers on neat panicles from June to September. The foliage stays tidy and offers a pleasant, minty aroma. Spent flower heads look pretty cool in the winter, so you won’t want to cut them back until spring. Best of all, though, bees of many kinds go absolutely bugnuts (get it?) over calamint. A calamint without bees would be like…indoors, I guess? I don’t know how else that would be possible.
Alyssum is a delicate, precious plant – so sweet and dainty, with wiry little leaves and tiny, honey-scented flowers. Why, just look at it! One can hardly believe such a thing exists on the same planet as botflies, Ebola, and trial lawyers. But then, alyssum doesn’t just exist. It thrives. And frankly, it doesn’t appreciate your twee condescension. It blooms continuously throughout the spring (into summer if it’s not too hot) and again in fall if you chop it back a bit during the dog days. And those pleasant little flowers are potent pollinator attractors, bringing in all sorts of small bees and nectar-loving flies.
‘October Skies ‘ Aromatic Aster
Three things I love about this plant:
- Rabbits hate it.
- Butterflies love it.
- It stays low, neat, and dense, and unlike some other asters, never needs staking.
One thing I hate – that some botanist in search of something to do decided to change the genus name from the simple, evocative, and universally understood “aster” to the pedantic and thoroughly unspellable “symphyotrichum.”
This plant has a reputation, and not in a good way. People say it’s picky. Short-lived. Wants to be coddled with extra watering. Bupkis! With a little afternoon shade, it needs no more watering than your average perennial. Short-lived? No more so than coreopsis or columbine, and nobody complains about them. Seriously, give it a try – that striking, pure red color is a rare treat in the perennial garden. And hummingbirds love it!
I know what you’re thinking: either I’ve gone off my rocker or I have no idea what I’m talking about. Because everybody knows impatiens don’t attract pollinators. Before you write an angry, embarrassingly misguided letter to your congressman, hear me out. Let’s face it: butterflies like sunshine. They don’t spend much time in the shade, and few shade plants have formed mutually beneficial relationships with them. But people do like shade. And in a big city with lots of big, spiky buildings like Chicago, shade is all many of you have in your yards and on your patios. So I chose impatiens for the garden sale, as they will bloom quite reliably in shade. Are you likely to see a bunch of butterflies busily nectaring on impatiens? No. But they are the ONLY full-shade annual I am aware of that can and does feed the occasional wandering butterfly. So step aside, and let sunlight-impaired butterfly gardeners take a shot. (A long shot, admittedly.)
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.
Created: 4/12/2016 Updated: 7/7/2016
Do you realize what is happening RIGHT NOW at www.naturemuseum.org/gardensale? Well, if you were gifted with even the vaguest ability to make discernments from contextual clues, I don’t need to tell you. But for the rest of you (bless your hearts), let me spell it out. We are having a Garden Sale! The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Plants for Pollinators Garden Sale (or PNNMPFPGS, for the simplicity’s sake) has begun, with pre-sale online ordering (at a discount!) Why should you be excited about the PNNMPFPGS? Because of the PFP part, naturally!
PFP (Plants for Pollinators) is a thing people are into these days, and for good reason. Planting a garden that can attract and feed pollinating species of insects and birds is like putting ice cream on a brownie. Sure, brownies are great, but when you add ice cream, you get a treat truly worthy of the inevitable, ensuing weight gain. Growing a garden is also great. But a garden that’s alive with bugs and birds – now that’s a real, brownie-and-ice-cream level experience!
Besides, pollinators do so much for us (over thirty percent of our food crop production relies on them) and we don’t always treat them well in return. Habitat loss and improper pesticide use have negatively impacted many populations of pollinators. Providing them with extra food in the form of beautiful garden flowers can really make a difference!
So check out the pre-sale, but if you’re the type that prefers to buy in person, come down to the museum on May 8th from 10am-4pm to pick out your plants. We’ll have everything you need: annuals, perennials, and knowledgeable horticulturists (who are handsome but in an approachable kind of way) to answer your questions. As if all this wasn’t enough, watch this space for more info on pollinator gardening as the season progresses.
Here’s just a small sampling of the plants we are offering:
Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ – Dwarf Joe Pye Weed
Not much is better at drawing in butterflies than Joe Pye Weed. But your typical version of this plant gets really tall and can require staking. Not this “dwarfish” variety. It still tops out at a rather impressive 3’-4’, but it stays manageable and doesn’t flop as much as other varieties.
Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ – Claire Grace Wild Bergamot
Bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds find this long-blooming native irresistible. This variety is less prone to foliar diseases than your standard, run-of-the-mill Wild Bergamot.
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ – ‘October Skies Aromatic Aster
Asters provide nectar late into the fall, which is crucial for bees as they store up honey for the winter. Monarchs also appreciate snacking on Asters as they migrate southward.
Good stuff, right? And that was just a taste! But maybe you’re new to gardening, and feeling a little intimidated. Take a deep breath. If you need some basic know-how, look no further than your taxpayer-funded, University of Illinois’ Cooperative Extension Service. They’ve got knowledge galore, like so:
See? Couldn’t be easier. So are you stoked about pollinator gardening now? Good, cause we’re super-stoked about helping you make it happen!
Thanks to Rose Pest Solutions for sponsoring this post.View Comments
Created: 3/21/2016 Updated: 3/28/2016
At the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, we pride ourselves on producing self-created exhibits on timely issues that will resonate with our family audience. As we celebrate the rich history of our institution during its 160th anniversary, we are busy putting the finishing touches on our most ambitious exhibit yet, one that puts one of the most consequential issues of our time into perspective for families in a fun environment.
On April 2nd, the Nature Museum will open Weather to Climate: Our Changing World. The exhibit will present in an accessible way the fundamentals of weather and climate, the science behind climate change, and what actions people can take to reduce our own impact. The exhibit will run through October 23, 2016 and drive a community-wide conversation about climate change.
For the last two years — thanks in large part to a diverse collaboration of subject matter experts including Molly Woloszyn at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center and Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel — we have immersed ourselves in this important issue. By creating Weather to Climate from the ground up, we were able to put a truly personal touch on the exhibit. Throughout this process, we worked hand-in-hand with our education department to make sure the interactive content is presented in a way that is easy to understand. In addition, the exhibit will facilitate ways for visitors to continue discussing climate change after they have left the Nature Museum.
This exhibit also represents our biggest foray into multi-media. The exhibit will feature interactive displays, video games, weather simulations, climate labs and more, including an immersive entry experience where guests can experience the sensations of different types of weather. From a design standpoint, it has been fascinating to see ideas initially scratched out on paper be transformed into active, dynamic content.
In addition to the interactive, multi-media elements, the exhibit will also include a selection of animals from our living collections. The animals featured will represent some of the animals that are likely to experience an increase or decrease in population as a result of climate change.
The Nature Museum is dedicated to creating a positive relationship between people and nature through collaborations, education, research and exhibitions such as Weather to Climate. As Chicago’s urban gateway to nature and science we could not be more proud to bring this global conversation to our own community. Join us on April 2nd as we open Weather to Climate and begin that dialogue.
Alvaro RamosView Comments
Vice President and Curator of Museum Experience
Created: 2/10/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
Later this month we will host the Chicago Volunteer Expo, now in its fourth year. We are proud to be the home of this city-wide event that showcases hundreds of volunteer opportunities at over 85 nonprofit and community organizations. Join us on Sunday, February 28, from 10am to 4pm, to find the opportunity that’s right for you.
Need a little motivation? Here’s why we think you should be there:
- It’s free. There’s not a lot more to be said here. Who doesn’t love a Sunday outing that costs nothing?
- It takes place at the Nature Museum. Instead of a giant, boring convention center, we hold the Chicago Volunteer Expo right here at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Not only will you get to learn about hundreds of volunteer opportunities all over the city, you’ll also have the chance to explore our exhibits. You can meet live critters, check out our historic collections, and get acquainted with urban nature. And I challenge you to find a more pleasant place to be on a February afternoon than our Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, which we keep at 80 degrees.
- You’ll have real conversations, with real people representing great causes. Sure, you could go online and search for volunteer opportunities, but an in-person conversation just can’t be beat when it comes to decisions like where to volunteer your time. Sometimes the most interesting opportunities are at tiny organizations that are not posted online and don’t show up in Google searches. Even if you do find a good opportunity listed, too often you fill out an inquiry and simply never hear back from anyone. At the Chicago Volunteer Expo, you can personally meet with more than 85 organizations and learn immediately how you can help make an impact with your valuable volunteer time.
- Instant gratification. Even while you’re still browsing the options at the Expo, you can start lending a hand on the spot. We call it speed volunteering – it’s kind of like speed dating, but less awkward. All day long, you can help turn used plastic grocery bags into beautiful and functional sleeping mats for the homeless. It only takes minutes, and you can see your impact immediately.
- School credit or brownie points at work. Most schools now require service learning of some kind, but it can be hard for teens to find volunteer work. We carefully curate the organizations that come to this event, and 59% of them offer volunteer opportunities for teens. Another common challenge is finding opportunities for groups of coworkers to volunteer together – it’s great for teambuilding, but a lot of places just can’t accommodate groups. Never fear: 61% of the organizations at the Expo will take groups.
- Volunteering might make you happier. It’s been studied! People who volunteer are happier than people who don’t, and some researchers have even found a causal effect – volunteering actually caused the increase in happiness. If you’re feeling those wintertime blues, why not lend a hand for a cause you care about? You might find that it’s mutually beneficial.
Jill DoubView Comments
Senior Director of Public Engagement
Created: 1/14/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
The Chicago Academy of Sciences has been a leader in local ecology and scientific education for 159 years. To commemorate the anniversary of our founding on January 13, 1857, our new exhibit, "Chicago's Explorers," highlights the institution's scientific and educational activities. The exhibit will be on display at the Nature Museum through the end of February.
If you'd like to learn more about the Academy's history, check out our detailed timeline, which will continue to grow as we continue to explore. We hope you enjoy our exhibit and get out to explore nature in Chicago with us!
Director of Collections
The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839
(Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)
The Saloon Building is where Chicago’s first city government was formed and oversaw the fastest growing city in the world. It was also here that a group of forward-thinking scientists, physicians, and business leaders founded The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences on January 13, 1857. Some of these founders had been a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors just 11 years earlier. The institution was incorporated in 1859 as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences,” which remains our institutional name today.
Robert Kennicott, ca. 1860 (left)
(Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Kennicott’s caribou shirt, ca. 1860 (right)
The collections of Robert Kennicott formed the core of the Academy’s initial scientific collections. His expansive studies of Illinois fauna resulted in the discovery of many species new to science, some of which were named after him by other scientists, including the stripe-tail darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicotti). Kennicott also led the first U.S. scientific study of Russian America—the place that eventually became the state of Alaska. He died there while on expedition, on May 13, 1866.
The Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days from October 8 to 10, 1871. On the final day, the fire approached the Academy. The building was equipped with a fire proof vault and, with this in mind, staff quickly stored everything of importance there, expecting the building to be damaged but their valuable scientific collections and research notes to be saved. The heat from the fire was so great that it melted the supports of an ornamental limestone cornice at the top of the building, causing it to fall and crash through the roof of the vault. This structural failure allowed the fire to sweep inside and destroy the vault’s contents, along with the museum and most of the rest of the collections.
Academy staff were devastated. William Stimpson, the Academy’s director from 1866 to 1872 and a prominent malacologist (a scientist who studies shelled animals such as clams), lost his life’s work in the fire. In just a few moments the “the Smithsonian of the West” and the fourth largest scientific collection in the country was gone, and the Academy’s future was in question.
Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, 1894
Following the fire, the scientific community and public rallied around the Academy. Businessman and philanthropist Matthew Laflin was the primary funder for a new building, which opened on October 31, 1894 in Lincoln Park. In this new space, much of the Academy’s earlier scientific work, including natural history collecting, was able to continue and a new emphasis was placed on community involvement. This would be the Academy’s home for the next 100 years.
Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908
At its founding, the Academy was one of only a few natural history museums in the nation. As such, its purview extended from coast to coast. As other similar institutions were founded, the Academy narrowed its scientific work to focus primarily on the Midwest and on specific kinds of organisms. Frank Baker, an Academy curator from 1894 to 1915 and prominent malacologist, conducted ecological surveys across Illinois and scientifically described many new species of snails. Among his significant publications are The Mollusca of the Chicago Region, several papers on anatomy of Lymnaea (a group of common pond snails), and a taxonomy of the family Muricidae (a diverse group of sea snails). Many of these publications are still relevant to malacological research today, and the historical record provided by Baker’s surveys gives us high-quality comparison data to assess how our local ecosystem has changed in the past hundred years.
Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915
Traditionally, animal specimens were preserved as study skins or as crudely stuffed mounts. Then, in the early 1910s, a man named Carl Akeley pioneered new specimen preparation techniques that enabled him to create more realistic displays. The Academy also began to experiment with these ideas, and devised large, meticulously detailed dioramas as a new way to represent local species and natural areas.
Frank Woodruff, an ornithologist, curator, and director at the Academy from 1896 to 1926, oversaw the development of the “Chicago Environs Series,” a group of exhibits that presented natural areas around Chicago. His first life-size diorama, depicting the dunes ecosystem and the Calumet River, used photographs that were enlarged up to 11 feet high by 10 feet wide for the backdrops. Here, Woodruff (in suspenders) and other Academy staff process one of these diorama backdrops.
Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915
Field trips, like the one pictured here, were among the many ways the Academy actively included the Chicago community in its scientific work and promoted the appreciation of nature. Students who accompanied Academy naturalist Henry Cowles to the Indiana Dunes gathered data that eventually resulted in his theory of ecological succession—the idea that a habitat naturally progresses (e.g. from pond to wetland to shrubland to forest) as certain species dominate resources and then die off. In addition to offering field trips, the Academy’s innovative teacher training programs helped make Chicago’s teachers some of the most scientifically literate educators around, while lectures, films, and nature walks were popular with the broader community. For local naturalist groups, the Academy provided a home with space to meet and experts to interact with.
Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 1937 (left)
Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937 (right)
Continuing efforts to document and study biodiversity, the Academy conducted several faunal surveys of the American Southwest between 1937 and 1946. The specimens, photographs, and motion film brought back to Chicago were shared through public lectures and publications, providing many Chicagoans with their first look at this desert environment. Spearheading the Arizona expeditions was Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy from 1936 to 1958. Among many other scientific advancements, Gloyd published “The Rattlesnakes: Genera Sistrurus and Crotalus” and so defined North America’s most iconic snakes, including Illinois’ now-endangered Massasauga. His wife, Leonara, studied dragonflies and accompanied him on at least one of the Arizona expeditions.
William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Academy revitalized its exhibits and expanded its education and outreach programs to further focus on Midwestern ecology. Under the leadership of William Beecher, director from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, the Academy increased its involvement in local environmental issues, from preserving the Indiana Dunes to monitoring bird collisions with windows. Beecher also implemented the Junior Academy of Sciences, a program aimed at middle and high school students to provide extracurricular learning opportunities for young people interested in science. Today we still have active volunteers who began in the Junior Academy fifty years ago.
Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990
Throughout its history, Academy lectures and symposiums have provided a venue for the community to learn about and be involved in scientific discussion. From the 1970s to 1990s the focus shifted away from taxonomic research to address pressing environmental issues, science education practices, and urban biodiversity. Among the influential meetings hosted by the Academy:
- “The Chicago Urban Environmental Conference” (1977) helped coalesce the land stewardship movement in Chicago.
- “Understanding Chimpanzees Symposium” (1986) and “Understanding Chimpanzees: Diversity and Survival” (1991) were attended by Jane Goodall and later credited by her as influencing to her work.
- “Science Learning in the Informal Setting” (1987) highlighted the importance of experiential learning.
- “Sustainable Cities Symposium: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity” (1990) was an early recognition of the role that urban habitat plays in conservation.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999
(Photo credit Dan Rest)
After 100 years in the Laflin Building, the Academy opened the doors to its new, larger home in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in October 1999. The Nature Museum provided the Academy a fresh venue through which to engage its audiences and continue to address the local environment in its exhibits, programs, and research.
Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015
Since 2001, the Academy has been leading conservation efforts for a variety of local, threatened species. In the Istock Family Butterfly Conservation Lab, thousands of rare butterflies are bred for release, including the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum) and Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). Partnering with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Academy staff have raised and released 236 baby Blanding’s turtles into the Chicago Wilderness region. Just this past fall, an Academy scientist found a hatchling Blanding’s turtle in the wild—the first one recorded within the project area since 1998.
Conservation efforts at the Academy include both animal husbandry and wild population monitoring, the success of which is largely due to the active participation of volunteer citizen scientists. Today, the Academy leads several citizen science initiatives: the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Project Squirrel, and The Calling Frog Survey. Award-winning lesson plans, teacher development courses, and public programs build on and support the Academy’s conservation efforts.
Explore nature in Chicago with us!
Chicago is an urban area, and yet, nature exists all around us. What kind of nature is in your backyard or neighborhood? How do you interact with nature? Share your urban nature experiences with us through social media, #urbannature.View Comments
Created: 1/8/2016 Updated: 7/29/2016
Don’t you just love this time of year? The decorations, the parties, that feeling of excitement in the air? Wherever you go, you hear those old familiar phrases: Peace on earth, goodwill towards ferns…Have yourself a merry little pothos… Happy philodendrons to all, and to all a good night! I tell ya, you just can’t help but smile a little longer and a little stronger during this special season.
What’s that? You didn’t know?? How is that possible – have you been living under a rock? Houseplant Appreciation Day is January 10th! Clearly, it’s high time someone taught you the true meaning of Plantmas. No need for ghostly visitors, envisioning a world where you were never born, or stealing Cindy Lou Who’s last can of who hash; we can do this right here, right now. Read and learn, Ebenezer Grinch.
Ever seen one of these beauties?
They call it a money tree, because reasons. Will owning a money tree bring you inexplicably swimmable piles of coins, a la Scrooge McDuck? No, but if you were to let it grow to full size, you would get this:
Sweet genius, that is a legit, tropical rainforest tree with buttress roots, bats for pollinators, and big ol’ edible “chestnuts” for seeds. Who needs good fortune when you’ve a got a Pachira glabra (or rather, five of them braided together) growing in your house? A stalwart of new world rainforests, right on your coffee table? Now that’s worth appreciating.
Do you like to eat? Do you like to eat fresh fruit? Do you like to eat fresh fruit that you grew -- in your own house? Well then, you best be appreciatin’ this avocado variety hard. Tasty avocados from a three-foot tall tree in your living room – yep, that’s a thing. Also things are home grown bananas, citrus fruits, figs, mulberries, passionfruits, and even star fruits. Merry Plantmas indeed!
Aww, look at that little thing! It’s adorable. All pudgy and messy-haired like that schoolmate in the chess club you weirdly had a crush on in 8th grade. If that’s not enough to get you to appreciate this plant, check it out fully grown:
Magnificent! Still pudgy, but it’s blossomed in such an attractive way that you’re kicking yourself for not asking it to junior prom.
Not just a pretty face, this tree is tough. A relative of asparagus, the ponytail (not actually a) palm hails from sunny Mexico. Water stored in the trunk accounts for its bulbous look, and helps it endure extreme conditions. Mature specimens have been known to survive two years without water. No wonder they sometimes live for three centuries!
Last but not least, do you recognize this wild beauty?
Not really? Perhaps this picture will help:
“I appreciate you!”
That of course, is Euphorbia pulcherrima, otherwise known as the poinsettia. Talk about a plant we should be appreciating more – the poor poinsettia surely takes first prize in the “plant we’re most likely to buy and then throw in the trash while it’s still living a month later” contest. Granted, it is a hassle to get it to bloom the following year. And, as it grows it will become sparser and leggier. And the sap can be mildly irritating (not poisonous). And you can’t plant it outside, because frost will kill it. So I guess it’s really not surprising that people coldly toss them in the dumpster by the millions right around, well, now. But this Plantmas, let’s not forget to pour out an eggnog for our fallen poinsettias. So young… So tragic…
There. Now do you understand the true spirit of Houseplant Appreciation Day? Are you ready to gift your houseplants with the finest fertilizers, the most beautiful pots, and the tastiest sunlight? I thought so. Your heart’s grown three sizes this day.
Created: 12/31/2015 Updated: 1/8/2016
As we began closing out 2015, we asked our visitors to make a New Year's #ResolutionForNature. We asked them to complete an ornament to be hung on our Resolution tree, and the response was incredible. Visitors of all ages stopped to pledge their natural resolution for 2016, and we wanted to highlight our top 20 favorites. Check them out below! Then, share your own #ResolutionForNature with us in the comments section. Happy New Year and a Green 2016!
Created: 11/20/2015 Updated: 7/29/2016
Cook County has an extensive forest preserve system that has served as an example of habitat preservation, public involvement in stewardship, and species conservation throughout the world. This land also provides a variety of ecosystem services, such as flood control that, along with the sheer beauty of the space, increases the value of our neighborhoods. And, of course, the forest preserves provide space for a wide range of recreational opportunities. Whether you simply want a peaceful place to walk or a shelter to host a family reunion; if you need a path to bike, skate, or run on, or a river to paddle in; if you like to bird watch or fish, the forest preserves are there for you. You can even do things like golf, fly model airplanes, ride horses, snowmobile, ski, and more. To me, it has long seemed the only thing missing in our forest preserves was camping. Well, that lack is no more. This summer, under the leadership of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the forest preserves are now home to five campgrounds, too.
These campsites are set up for people of all camping preferences with places for tents, groups, RVs, and even cabins.
I am admittedly a campground snob. I grew up backpacking so if I’m going to spend time in a developed campground, it has to be a good one. Even for an overnighter, I usually drive an hour or two from home. However, after my experience at Bullfrog Lake last weekend, I discovered that nice campsites are within walking distance.
Visitors who have to drive from home will usually miss such sublime scenes as watching steam rise from the pond and listening to ice tinkle as it melts in the first rays of sun…or frost-kissed leaves.
First of all, booking was easy (much better than the online booking for most state parks) and a staffer called me a few days before I was scheduled to show up to check in and see how many parking passes I would need. Our group arrived well after dark and I was a little worried that I would have to deal with a gate, a trick padlock, or some obstacle. Nope. The path was clear, the signs direct, and the campsite easy to find.
The office is always open, stocked, and staffed by exceptionally friendly folks.
I set the kids to pitching the tent while I wandered over to the headquarters to see how check-in would work. I expected a dark hut, lit with a single mercury vapor bulb next to a cobweb filled pipe where I was supposed to cram some damp paper work. Again I was wrong. It turns out the forest preserve campgrounds are staffed 24 hours a day. I stepped into a well-lit, well-stocked, heated reception cabin and was welcomed by a staff member so enthusiastic that she would make Smokey the Bear seem grumpy. Check-in took a few seconds, plus time to spin a prize wheel (I won a free high five but the guy after me won a boat rental). Moments later, I was heading back to my camp site with a few pieces of well-seasoned ash wood.
The physical construction of our site was excellent and well prepared for heavy use. Where the average campground would use a few treated 4x4 posts to display site numbers, hold lanterns, and mark boundaries, this campground used 8X8s, heavy steel posts, and wide concrete. Paths around the site are wide, firmly packed limestone. Roads are wide enough to for two way car traffic without being so wide they feel like a barrier. The bathrooms are constructed on slabs with meter-high concrete wall foundations, finished with hardboard siding.
These features may seem inconsequential but such details are the difference between a durable campground that feels comfortable for years to come and a place that will soon feel more like Lower Wacker. For example, in addition to looking good, the high foundations on the bathroom ensure durability and ease of cleaning. They also keep out the bugs. Well packed trails ensure that trails drain and remain functional year round.
Year round functionality is important because these campgrounds are open 362 days a year. We were there on a cold night, the sort that makes one dread visiting the loo. As it turns out, the bathrooms are heated. They also have hot water, a shower, and automatic lights. Such details make camping very comfortable. In fact, I initially felt like heat and comfort was a bit excessive but then I met my camping neighbors.
These campgrounds are in the midst of one of the largest urban areas in the country. As might be expected then, many of the campers have never camped before. Frankly, for a first timer, especially if you don’t have an experienced buddy, camping can be daunting. Clean, spacious, heated bathrooms go a long way to making a pleasant experience for a neophyte. And the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. If you don’t have camping gear, the office has a variety of things for sale, including sleeping bags. They also have things like naturalist backpacks with binoculars and field guides available for check out. Apparently there are also staff-led nature hikes, archery, and other programs at times, too.
The landscaping uses a wide variety of native plants and, as it matures, will make the sites even better. This Echinacea was just outside my tent door.
I think such amenities are really important because camping can be a powerful way to learn about and appreciate nature. When you are camping, you are more likely to be at the right place and time to see amazing animals, plants, and natural phenomena than if you have to drive there from home. We saw tons of birds as they began their day--flickers, a downy woodpecker, a flock of geese flying into the mist on Bullfrog Lake-- and a wide range of frost-spangled plants. But the great thing is, you don’t even have to sleep in a tent to have these experiences, either. Across the path from the tent sites are camper sites with electric hook ups (and access to a dump station) and up the slight hill from there are some small cabins. Nearby, with a nice lake view, are some larger cabins, too. Clearly, the needs of people from all experience levels and abilities have been considered in the planning and construction of these camps.
Can you spot the foraging downy woodpecker? We watched him for 15 minutes.
After a nice hike in the frost- flaked air, I stopped by the office again. The staff person was new but the cheerfulness and devotion to the campers was the same. In the end, I’d say this is the best run, best built, and cleanest developed camp site I have ever been to. The only thing that might be missing are a few logs to sit on around the fire and use as chopping blocks for fire wood but, then again, the place is pretty new. The native grasses, flowers, and trees are still establishing and they are obviously paying close attention to how people use the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to see logs the next time I go camping in the forest preserve. It’s not easy to have camping in an urban area and this is a first rate opportunity. I hope everybody in the county will take advantage of these places; maybe I’ll see you there. Anybody up for snow caving in February?