From swords to plowshares
Bartlett Ravine, a former Illinois military facility, opens to hikers, bikers
For me, laying awake at night thinking about a hiking trip to Fort Sheridan in the morning reminded me of being a kid the night before Christmas. We were heading up to explore a new hiking and bike trail - Bartlett Ravine - and I was excited.
Bartlett Ravine is in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. On our last trip we took our bikes up there on the Union Pacific Railroad, rode the trail to the Lake Michigan shoreline, and then the roads around the National Historic Landmark buildings. Cycling the parade ground and along Patton and Leonard Wood roads was a trip through the history of World War I and World War II. My wife and I had relatives who served in World War II, and it was a memorable ride.
The Fort Sheridan bike trails tie into several other regional bike trails. But we didn't bike Bartlett Ravine during our last visit. On September 10, 2011, Openlands, a land preservation organization, opened the ravine to the public as part of the 77-acre Lakeshore Preserve, which includes one mile of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline.
We find that a glimpse of history adds to a hiking or biking trip, and the ravine would add a another dimension to this one. During the war years, the ravine road, built over a fresh flowing creek, was used as a military road, which is why up until recently it's had limited human use.
On our first trip, the ride around Fort Sheridan had much to remember. In 1917, Fort Sheridan was an induction center for recruits from Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. Lovell General Hospital was the largest base hospital in the U.S. and treated 60,000 patients during the 1918 flu epidemic. In 1944, Fort Sheridan was in charge of 15,000 prisoners of war at camps in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, where they did crop harvesting and construction.
The trail to the Lake Michigan shoreline featured an exhibit of a Bofors 40mm automatic anti-aircraft gun used for training during World War II. It fired 120 two-pound shells a minute with a range of 3,500 yards. (Consequently, swimming and boating from the beaches are still not permitted because of the potential of unexploded shells there.) Nearby was a bird migration exhibit with viewing scopes and interpretive panels. Fort Sheridan includes six wooded ravines formerly used to train Army engineers how to build bridges. Bartlett, an ecologically rich ravine south of the fort, is one of three ravines now owned by Openlands.
The last time we'd experienced a recently opened nature area was when the Evanston Ecology Center started sponsoring canoe trips on the hitherto "off limits" North Shore Channel of the Chicago River. It flowed through a busy city - nearby the CTA, Evanston Hospital, heavy traffic and the Bahai temple. We paddled past night herons, snapping turtles the size of manhole covers, beaver, deer, and fox - all on a short three-mile paddle.
Our expectations for Bartlett Ravine were similarly high. And, as we drove, I tried to imagine a "swords into plowshares" scenario.
Lack of sleep only increased my adrenaline rush as we drove U.S. Highway 41 north from Evanston. I'd heard so much about it. A full mile of protected Lake Michigan shoreline, art work, murals and interpretive stations along the ravine where, with a smart phone, you could listen to informational podcasts.
And with my mind so preoccupied, I missed the Old Elm Road turn off to Fort Sheridan and ended up miles north, in Waukegan, which meant a 40-minute backtrack through Waukegan, Lake Bluff, and Lake Forest.
So, after an hour and a half in the car, we finally spotted the Highwood water tower. I was elated, but in a hurry. After a stormy week, we wanted to get there while it was still sunny.
It was only by accident we turned onto Patton Road, headed north and spotted a tiny parking lot next to a bridge over a ravine. We pulled into the last open parking space, descended a 90-foot embankment on newly built stairs and were greeted by "The Arc of Nature," a large mural that covered the cement abutment of the ravine bridge. We had stumbled onto the military road and Bartlett Ravine.
The fall colors highlighted the mural and sculptures which were placed artistically along the slopes of the ravine. Olivia Petrides' "Leaf Prism" sculpture emphasized the that color green appears in nature in thousands of hues. And another of wood and steel, entitled "Erode" by Vivian Visser, captured the flow of water that carved the contours forming the valley.
Bikers and hikers we met coming up the trail were unlikely descendants of the cavalry and U.S. Army patrols that practiced war games in the ravine during World War I. I could imagine my own army training on the steep, challenging slopes of this three-quarter mile ravine.
Plant and bird diversity
Biologists predict that by 2050 we will lose up to 30 percent of plant diversity in the world because of climate change. For the time being, more than 150 native plants can be found in Bartlett Ravine, six of which are state-designated endangered species. Nearly half of the ravine's acreage is rated as supporting exceptionally high quality vegetation. The restoration is intended to bring the ravine back to its original oak woodland state. Among the 150 plants there we identified round-leaf dogwood, marram grass, paper birch (more common in Wisconsin) and buffalo berry.
To help generate respect for the ravine's ecosystem, Openlands is partnering with 18 regional schools with its Eco-Exploration programs, offering ecology classes for grammar and high school students.
We brought our birding glasses. Years back, our own backyard was alive with Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, nuthatches, hummingbirds, rufous sided towhees, red-breasted grosbeaks and redstart warblers. Alas, our bird population has dwindled over the years to sparrows, grackles and starlings. Meanwhile, the ravine hosts 150 species of birds, and Lake Michigan is one of the most important flyways for migrant birds in the U.S. The ravines provide a migratory stopover for tens of thousands of birds every year. The Lake Michigan coast is a safer, more visual and more productive route for migration, and the diverse woodland and beach habitat of the ravine, with its native plants and vegetation of different heights in the lakefront area is an oasis in a desert of concrete. Birds common to the site include the eastern bluebird, woodland birds such as hairy, downy and red-headed woodpeckers, and seasonally, the red-breasted merganser and the double-crested cormorant.
South of the ravine is a mile of bluffs and lakeshore (only 60 such miles are open to the public in the entire state of Illinois). A new set of stairs with benches and scenic lookout points for birding, ascends 90 feet from the beach to the bluff.
The Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is in the town of Fort Sheridan 25 miles north of Chicago. The Lakeshore Preserve's Patton Road parking lot is located just south of the Patton Road Bridge in Highwood, Illinois. It's open to the public free every day from 6:30 a.m. to sunset. For more information, go to www.openlands.org.
Bob McCray is a community college journalism teacher and writer, who lives with his wife in Evanston, Illinois.