The Skokie Lagoons: A Jewel for Recreation and A Paradise for Volunteers

"This network of pools, channels and islands winds between Winnetka, Northfield and Glencoe. With public boat access (boasting some of Cook County’s best fishing), biking and hiking trails and picnic areas, this well loved, wooded preserve offers peaceful retreats and activities around every bend. The Skokie Lagoons Forest Preserve covers 894 acres."   Cook County Forest Preserve District fpdcc.com.

THE SKOKIE LAGOONS -- By John Elliott, Chicago Audubon Society Conservation Committee

Bur Oak.  Photo by A.L. Gibson.Long before there was a forest preserve, before a settlement called Chicago was founded on the prairie, before Jean Baptiste DuSable built a trading post on the Chicago River, when explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet made the first recorded passage by Europeans over the Chicago Portage, a grand old bur oak much like the one pictured here would have already been a maturing tree. Known to relatively few, the original still stands today surrounded by a tangle of buckthorn on the western edge of Erickson Woods preserve of the Skokie Lagoons.

When the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the Skokie Lagoons during the great depression of the 1930’s, the region gained a fishing, boating, hiking and biking recreation area—at the cost of losing a diverse marshland home to many wild creatures. From Willow Road to Lake-Cook Road in Winnetka the only remnants of those original communities is a sedge meadow and the neighboring grand old oak that lie between the levee and drainage channel of the lagoons. Over the years much of the land was overrun by buckthorn and other invasive species of marginal value to wildlife. After the lakes of the lagoon system were dredged and rehabilitated in the 1990’s, some hardy volunteers took on the challenge of remedying at least a small portion of past neglect. Chicago Audubon’s Jerry Garden was the first volunteer steward to work on removing invasive species at a lagoon site along Tower Road in Winnetka, beginning at the shore just east of the parking area along Tower Road. After Jerry left us for Alaska, Dave Kosnik and Daniel Kielson took over as stewards. A few years later, Gary Morrissey also joined the stewardship team. In the past few years, work has been concentrated north of Tower, working east towards Forestway Drive. Buckthorn has been removed from much of the target area. While buckthorn removal remains a regular workday activity—and a favorite of many volunteers—there is a renewed emphasis on follow-up work. Even though “it’s not as much fun,” Dave says, follow up maintenance is defense against recolonization and is now a very important task. In spring, control of garlic mustard is also needed. 

Quite a few years ago I put in my small bit of effort working with Mighty Acorns school groups removing buckthorn around that historic oak. In the past few years, responsibility for restoration there has fallen to Adam Kessel of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Unfortunately, he reports, the last school working there left the program two years ago, and the re-sprouting of buckthorn threatens to overwhelm what had been accomplished. Meanwhile, volunteers worked with district contractors to remove teasel from the sedge meadow. Dave Kosnik reports success. If all goes well the meadow will only need prescribed fire for maintenance. Teasel removal was spearheaded by the site’s bird monitors who then documented the return of shrubland birds like Willow Flycatchers. Daniel Kielsen is also president of an organization called the Backyard Nature Center (BYNC) which works with schools, turning the lagoons into something of an outdoor classroom. Their main focus of late has been on aquatics. The BYNC is a community organization in New Trier Township spanning Glencoe and Winnetka that works to connect children, youth, and adults with local natural areas. It is particularly active in bringing school groups to the Lagoons (and other preserves) for science lessons and service learning.

Prothonotary Warblers and Red-headed Woodpeckers that have nested here testify to the importance of restoration for habitat. Migrant birds are finding critical resting stops here now. Lake restoration greatly improved resources for wintering waterfowl, including a Barrow’s Goldeneye that was a winter visitor several years ago. Dave says, “The Skokie Lagoons is a special place, a big area with a lot of diverse habitat in the middle of suburbia. Many people use the lagoons for recreation, and the many native and migrant birds and other animals that live there make it a really important place.”  Thanks Dave, Daniel, and Gary! Thanks volunteers!  The reward is knowing you have contributed in a perhaps small but no doubt valuable way to the revival of habitat for birds and other creatures. 

Workdays every second Saturday of the month welcome any and all volunteers. Contact Dave Kosnik at [email protected] for information. 

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