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Wandering Nike site and Chicago’s Southeast Side: Pawpaws and a cinematic view


An egret works a wild area being restored on Chicagos Southeast Side.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

A guy watering his dog after a morning walk said they had encountered a couple of ‘‘yotes.’’

Urban coyotes didn’t surprise me.

John Vukmirovich and I had parked at the north end of Wolf Lake before rambling around the Nike Missile Site C-44 and nearby marshes on the Southeast Side.


A view of Nike Missile Site C-44 in late September, 2018.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

As we set off, Vukmirovich halted me to listen to the wind in the cottonwoods.

Last October, he penned, ‘‘Long ago, on a blue fall day under a high, bright sun, I came to associate the sound of the wind high in the cottonwoods there with the sound of Time itself,’’ in a commentary for the Sun-Times.

His word-slinging is one reason I ramble with him.

We were partially on a pawpaw mission. Vukmirovich is to pawpaws what Jonathan Chapman was to apples — sort of.

As we walked, Vukmirovich noted little bluestem were turning color. An osprey flew over. Not long ago, ospreys nesting in that area were a secret.

Our first stop was to look for young pawpaws. Apparently, they had not survived. Our one concrete mission was finding an older pawpaw. The area was so overgrown that we lost our way and had to bushwhack through phragmites until we reoriented.

Vukmirovich compared us to William Holden in ‘‘The Bridge on the River Kwai.’’

Another reason I enjoy wandering with him are literary and cinematic references creatively twined with the natural world.

Reoriented, Vukmirovich found the clearing where the pawpaw grew.

‘‘Oh, Oja, my sweetheart; eat your heart out, Orson,’’ Vukmirovich exclaimed.

The tree was much bigger, about 2½ feet, than it was a couple of years ago. It looked strong, healthy.

Vukmirovich named the pawpaw for Croatian actress Oja Kodar, who partnered with Orson Welles late in his life.


Oja, the pawpaw named by John Vukmirovich, is growing well on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

We found a faint trail out.

‘‘Rule No. 1: Always find a deer runnel,’’ Vukmirovich said. ‘‘They’re always going good places.’’

We normally see lots of deer, but we saw nothing but hoofprints this time.

We found wild sunflowers and Joe Pye weed, then stumbled upon a regenerated pot patch (not in very good shape) from somebody’s planting a couple of years ago. 

The whistle of an osprey cut the air as we neared the marshes near the Indiana line. Along the shoreline, we saw quality milkweed and, not surprisingly, numbers of monarchs.

Egrets worked the marsh. Several dozen Canada geese rested. I expected many ducks, but only two wood ducks whistled off from tight to shore and one mallard exploded out.

Walking back, Vukmirovich found one prairie sundrops.

A puddle held more than a dozen small frogs or toads I need to get identified. A few steps later, I turned over a piece of plastic. Eight garter snakes untwined. Vukmirovich couldn’t help himself and grabbed one to look at it.

A mountain biker flew past us on a faint trail as we neared the parking lot. Someone else enjoying an overgrown, almost forgotten, wild area in Chicago.

As we drove out, a young woman walking and a man on a bike interacted along the wooded road in a different sort of natural wildness.

It was time.

We stopped at the Purple Steer (the one in Whiting, Indiana, not the defunct one at 106th and Ewing) for lunch.

Vukmirovich wandered off and said over his shoulder: ‘‘How many people say they need to wash garter snake [guano] off their hands before they eat?’’


A long view of a natural area being restored on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times