The colors of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: Bison and beyond
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Yellows and whites rolled over the greens toward the horizon and I unwound.
Usually, I wade into Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on my summer visit when there’s more purple and blue. This year I visited earlier and yellows (false sunflowers, yellow coneflower, rosinweed) and whites (daisy fleabane, Queen Anne’s lace) flowed. Tick trefoil splashed spots of purple. Compass plants, strikingly tall as 10 feet, towered over the other prairie plants.
I should be able to ID more prairie plants on my own. But I checked with Allison Cisneros, The Nature Conservancy’s Midewin Project Manager.
Learning to appreciate prairie has been a life learning experience for me, largely because of Midewin, the 19,161 acres north of Wilmington in southwestern Will County.
I grew up on a farm. My initial response to prairies was to wonder, “What’s the big deal? They’re overgrown pastures.’’
Far from it. From visits with people from TNC and The Wetlands Initiative, who are working on restoration projects, I learned how much variety in plant life there is in a tallgrass prairie; and how many links between plant and animal.
On July 7, I had a four-hour window between dropping our youngest at a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament and picking him up.
When I rolled into the Iron Bridge Trailhead on Route 53 north of Welcome Center, it was jumping.
Visitors to Midewin spiked after bison were reintroduced in the fall of 2015. Laura Lewis had figures from the Welcome Center and Iron Bridge (counted seasonally) showing that. Average attendance from 2010-14 was around 6,000. It jumped to 9,200 in 2015. In 2016, first full year with bison, it jumped to 12,629. I am not alone in being drawn more to Midewin.
Midewin is also, as Rob Abouchar put it looking at my smiling selfie, “one of your happy places.’’
By far my happiest place is the darkness the hour before shooting time on opening day of deer season. After that it would be (in order) hiking/fishing a remote mountain stream for native brook trout; wet wading the Kankakee River and casting topwaters for smallmouth bass; doing anything by the “South Rocks’’ at Montrose Harbor; then Midewin.
Midewin is growing to be a happy place for many. I bumped into more first- or second-timers than ever before. A couple bicycled past, another growing trend.
Donna Barrie of Double B Ranch in Schererville, looking quite regal on her 19-year-old Tennessee Walker, raved about the wonders. She learned of Midewin because of the nearby Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
A couple from Decatur said the first time they were at Midewin it reminded them of Colorado. I see the prairie connection.
Swallows, dragonflies and damselflies flew. I heard birds I should know by call. I did recognize the trilling of red-winged blackbirds and crowing of rooster pheasants.
A couple from Morgan Park, married for 56 years, came with their daughter. Time disappeared chatting with them.
It was time.
The ranger trailer at Iron Bridge is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends, through Oct. 28. That’s the best starting place and volunteers lead guided hikes to see bison. Be aware, the bison are not always where they may be viewed. There is far more than just bison, though.
More on Midewin at fs.usda.gov/midewin.