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April 24, 2015

An Earth Day walk along Lake Calumet

It was a last minute decision that brought me to the shores of Lake Calumet on Chicago's southeast side on the morning of Earth Day 2015. I had seen a post on Facebook by the Southeast Environmental Task Force about a hike to visit the lake, but I didn't make the decision to show up until the night before.

I was partly inspired by an article written in the Chicagoist by friend of the show Josh Mogerman titled, Visit Lake Calumet—Chicago's Nearly Invisible Natural, Industrial Wonderland. In the story, Josh included a litany of fascinating and sometimes chilling facts about what is the largest body of water inside of Chicago's city limits:

  • Despite DNA evidence that Asian carp are swimming through the Chicago Area Waterways on their way to colonizing the Great Lakes, Lake Calumet is the only place where a live fish has been found . (Considering the proximity to Lake Michigan and lack of defenses between the two lakes, this was not really good news back in 2010 ).
  • Lake Calumet was once the center of a large wetland system that covered the area, but it has been so deeply dredged that freighters can chug up the Calumet River and into its waters. While most of the big boats are hauling petcoke these days, some of them still visit LaFarge and St. Mary's Cement on a regular basis on the edge of Lake Calumet. Consider that journey for a second— giant 600-foot long boats going for miles down the Calumet River backwards to reach the lake (the river is too narrow for the freighters to turn around and the boats are not nimble enough to make the journey backwards fully loaded).
  • The area around Lake Calumet was probably the only home of Thismia americana —an interesting flowering plant that used fungi for food rather than the power of the sun. It is assumed to be extinct, since the plant has not been seen since 1916 after the area was flooded with garbage dumps and industrial facilities.
  • Birds have not disappeared from the area— bald eagles have nested nearby. Which is an example of why the area is so fascinating. The same massive industrial footprint (and pollution emanating from it) looms so large it prevents development of the last vestiges of nature in the area—wildlife and wetlands still hang on along Lake Calumet's shores.

That led me to the Wikipedia entry about the lake, which didn't necessarily make the area any more attractive:

Formerly a shallow, postglacial lake draining into Lake Michigan, it has been changed beyond recognition by industrial redevelopment and decay. Parts of the lake have been dredged, and other parts reshaped by landfill.

Perhaps it's the very adversity that has challenged the lake over decades that makes people want to restore even a glimmer of its former luster as a natural area. Just last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Governor Pat Quinn held a press conference on the shores of the lake to announce an agreement to purchase 282 acres of land from the Illinois International Port District with the intention of turning it into a recreational area.

That action is part of a much grander plan called the Millennium Reserve, which has a goal of transforming huge swaths of the southeast side of Chicago in order to

  • Honor its cultural and industrial past
  • Restore and enhance the natural ecosystems
  • Support healthy and prosperous communities and residents
  • Stimulate vigorous and sustainable economic growth.

Those goals seemed even more attainable after President Barack Obama earlier this year designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument. Given that Pullman is just across the Bishop Ford Freeway (I-94) from Lake Calumet, the conventional thinking is that a revived natual area around the lake will benefit from the influx of tourists to the new national monument.

Of course, a freeway can sometimes be as big a barrier as the barbed-wire fences that already surround the lake. As you will hear noted in today's show, Chicagoans don't need an excuse not to visit other parts of the City. And another barrier might be the fact that Governor Quinn has been replaced by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who is zealously looking for ways to cut the Illinois budget.

Still, that didn't keep the SETF's Tom Shepherd from encouraging people to show up on a cold, blustery spring day at Harborside International Golf Course, which right now is the only place that you can access Lake Calumet without climbing over a fence. From there we were loaded onto buses and driven to an access point on the lake. Remarkably, there might have been eighty or ninety people there that morning, not to mention students from three area schools.

Tom is just one of the people I interviewed as we walked along the shore of this maltreated part of Chicago's history. Speaking of history, I also chatted with Chicago historian Paul Petraitis, as well as birder Walter Marcisz, Ders Anderson, Greenways Director for Openlands, Dr. Dennis Nyburg, professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and ecologist Teri Radke and friend Lois Kimmelman.

Yes, it was cold and windy, even for an April day in Chicago. No, there wasn't much to see in the way of flora or fauna--it was too early in the season for the former and the latter were pretty much hunkered down against the wind and the noise of more than a hundred people tromping through what little "habitat" there is. Yet, I learned that some birds still come to this area as they have for millennia, and it is a good spot for bird watching. We also saw what looked to be coyote feces, evidence that they were around, if not in sight.

Ultimately, I'm glad I was part of the hike, if only to be reminded that nothing changes for the better without people showing up.

I think I'll do it again next year.


 Past Shows



Mike with Tom Shepherd

Paul Petraitis

Walter Marcisz

Ders Anderson