Giant Goose: A special spot in Illinois outdoors

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ATKINSON, Ill.–Mention of Peabody Coal Company always pulls the twang of John Prine singing his sarcastic “Paradise’’ into my head.

Peabody Coal Company and Paradise meet at Giant Goose Conservation Education Workshop.

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The coal company is commemorated by a heavy-metal frost bucket inside a wire fence at the entrance to Giant Goose. Paradise, Illinois version, is in the 263 acres of former strip pits, half an hour from the Iowa border off I-80.

“We have never been here, it is really cool,’’ said Nikki Johnson, an adult who came on Youth Day on June 6.

It’s cool, in that old strip-pit way.

Fingers and wooded banks of reclaimed pits make a wild oasis, enjoyed by 400 on Youth Day (photo at the top is of Travis Casteel and his daughter Cambell). There was fishing, raptors, reptiles, archery, BB-guns, door prizes (Red Ryder BB guns) , microscopes, face painting, minnow races and lunch.

Giant Goose is the jewel in Illinois for the Izaak Walton League of America, overseen by three chapters: Blackhawk, Geneseo and Kewanee.

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On my tour of Giant Goose, I met with IWLA executive director Scott Kovarovics (right at Goose Pond).

IWLA, the grass-roots conservation organization, was founded in 1922. Illinois has 13 chapters (1,200 members). Nationally, the IWLA tops 240 chapters (44,000 members).

I asked Kovarovics whether he saw reason for hope on conservation.

“I am confident for our role that we can play close to home,’’ he said. “Bigger policies are a lot harder.’’

Big conservation issues, say climate change, overwhelm people. But the anyone can check quality of their local waters.

“There is small-scale restorations of streams or habitat that citizens can get involved in,’’ he said. “When you bring kids out for a fishing day, they also learn that clean water is essential to good fishing.’’

He finds hope in the public voting for conservation issues and for the funding to pay for it. Enough that he said, “I am confident about the future.’’

Unfortunately, he is also right about this, “Historically, conservation was a bi-partisan issue. That is no longer true. That does not bode well for the challenges that remain.’’

But Giant Goose and the IWLA do bode well.

“We can play a role in helping any person getting involved,’’ Kovarovics said. “They are the solution. That is the unique thing about the Izaak Walton League.’’

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Scott Shipman, Geneseo chapter president, drove a tractor and trailer with Kovarovics, Jerry Krause, a volunteer from the Kewanee chapter, and myself for a tour. Krause (left) gave a history lesson as we drove trails and by pits.

Beginning in 1966, Giant Goose was rented, paid by the Des Plaines Lady Waltonians, from the Peabody Coal Company for 12 years before it was purchased.

Lakes and buildings are named for people: Windish Lake, Swann Lake or the Krause pole building. Lakes have channel catfish, bluegill, hybrid bluegills, largemouth bass (one lake produced a 10-pounder) and rock bass. The pits are about 35 feet deep. The coal seam was down 40 feet.

Volunteers do projects and work days. There’s a couple cool Eagle Scout projects: post trail markers that are color coded and a redone cove bank that is restfully beautiful (the closing photo).

The name comes from six pair of giant Canada geese held inside of a fenced-in lake (Goose Pond). They were fed twice a day. Eventually, they became 600 geese and Department of Conservation officials asked them to stop feeding the geese.

They were established, a small scale project that succeeded on a large level.

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