When I first visited the Dan Ryan Woods aqueducts in autumn, they were dry, so I wanted to go back in spring when there was more likely to be water. According to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, “The limestone aqueducts at Dan Ryan Woods were constructed by the CCC to prevent water from washing away soil on the steep ridges. Visitors can still walk alongside the aqueducts as they wind their way through the woods south of 87th St.” The aqueducts are one of my favorite things in Chicago.
While it didn’t snow, this Forest Preserve District of Will County event had a lot to recommend it:
Campfires with fixings for smores, plus hot chocolate and doughnuts
Bubble machine and music
A dancing Bumble
Games, including giant Jenga
Photo “booth” with the Bumble
Enthusiastic Forest Preserve employees and volunteers
And probably more I’m not thinking of. Afterwards, J. and I went to La Crepe Bistro in Homer Glen, then stopped near Swallow Cliff Woods, where the structure befuddled me. I suppose it’s a blind of some kind.
Sunday I had the brilliant idea of going to Powderhorn Prairie and Marsh Nature Preserve. This is the only place in the city of Chicago with remnant prickly pear cactus. I wouldn’t disturb it; I just wanted to see the flower if possible.
Later, the idea didn’t seem so brilliant when I realized I couldn’t find a trail. Some nature preserves don’t have trails (the better to preserve), but people had mentioned walking around. They must be better spotters than I. At least we saw a great egret across Powderhorn Lake. And an amazing amount of trash around it (egret and trash not pictured).
Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve
There was no Plan B but we stopped at the Beaubien Woods boat launch. At some points you could feel like you’re in the country near a hill, but you’re in a former industrial area adjacent to I-94 and a large landfill. Allow me the solace of my imagination.
Calumet Fisheries, Chicago Skyway, train, and boats
Since we were in the area, I suggested J visit Calumet Fisheries, a Chicago institution he’d never been to. I can’t eat fish, but he likes it. He was excited to see smelt on the side of the building. He got some. Meanwhile, I took photos and videos from the same bridge that Jake and Elwood jumped in The Blues Brothers (which I don’t remember that well anymore). The Chicago Skyway is in the background, and the closer bridge is the one my Amtrak trains use. It was great to see the bridges from this angle, and even better when a freight train came along. A pair of boats on the Calumet River completed the picture.
Finally, we picked up sandwiches at Potbelly’s and dined at the University of Chicago campus, which was aglow in the setting sun.
Every now and then I get an email updating me on my Google Maps photo statistics. As of today, these photos have 10,000+ views. The surprises? The chicken and the nondescript view of Lincoln Park Zoo’s south lagoon. That so many people are looking at Beaubien Woods. And that the photo of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls didn’t make the cut as of today. Not looking like it will for a long time.
Whenever I think I’m going to run out of forest preserves to explore, there always seem to be more. Sunday I spotted Whistler Woods on the Little Calumet River, but then my eye was drawn northward to Dan Ryan Woods and a single word on the map: Aqueduct. That sounded promising. I was torn, but Dan Ryan Woods is slightly closer, and who wouldn’t want to check out an aqueduct?
At 257 acres, Dan Ryan Woods is big and is one of the few forest preserves within Chicago. We stopped at the first entrance we came to on 87th, where I used the necessary and J. took videos of noisy remote-controlled racing cars.
At the next entrance, we found a visitor center (closed), a sledding hill, fitness steps based on the same principle as those at Swallow Cliff Woods, a fancy playground (relatively new, I found out later), and a monument “dedicated by Gold Star mothers in loving memory of our sons who gave their lives in the world war (1914–1918),” which had been been relocated to Dan Ryan Woods.
Dan Ryan Woods is also known for its view overlooking downtown Chicago. According to graphics by the visitor center, Dan Ryan Woods is the tip of an island once in ancient Lake Chicago, 14,000 years ago. This area is one part of Chicago that isn’t relatively flat.
We took the pedestrian underpass beneath 87th Street, where a sidewalk leads to a trail into the woods and to the limestone aqueducts that wind through them. According to the Forest Preserves of Cook County:
The limestone aqueducts at Dan Ryan Woods were constructed by the CCC to prevent water from washing away soil on the steep ridges. . . The CCC built limestone stairways in the 1930s for visitors to more easily access the ridges surrounding the aqueducts — and to admire the land below.
Time, and substantial restoration work, have turned a trip up these stairs into an awe inspiring climb through a mature woodland. Oak and hickory trees arch high overhead, while redbud and ironwood trees stand tall under the canopy. Native grasses and wildflowers carpet the woodland floor.
It’s an amazing walk, even in September, and I recommend climbing the stairs and looking down. The aqueducts were bone dry, and a few joggers ran in them. I was content to walk along them and enjoy the feeling of being deep in the woods, lost in time and space — and Chicago.
A few years ago I met local writer Pat Camalliere at Sand Ridge Nature Center’s Settlers Day. I bought her first two books and this year read The Mystery at Sag Bridge. This passage caught my eye:
In the center of the clearing was a large stone slab, a cube of about four feet. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, in miniature. The rock appeared to be a monument, and the clearing man-made. Fascinated, she approached the granite monolith and read the words carved on it: CAUTION—DO NOT DIG. BURIED IN THIS AREA IS RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL FROM NUCLEAR RESEARCH CONDUCTED HERE IN 1943–1949.
A memory of something she read, somewhere, sometime: Cora put it together. The old road led to Argonne Laboratory, a large national research facility that was hidden in the woods in these Forest Preserves during the Manhattan Project. It was an ideal location, for then, as now, one could walk for miles in these woods and remain unseen. She pictured Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein walking this very ground, although she was only guessing.
This, then, was the secret hidden behind the trees that Cora had come looking for. She had no idea anything was left of the Manhattan Project and was surprised the waste was buried near the old site, as the present location of Argonne was across the valley two miles away—in fact, she would have been able to see it, were it not for the trees. She felt the same sense of history and being in another time and place as she had when she visited Saint James, just a short distance from here.
The Mystery at Sag Bridge by Pat Camalliere
Because other places Camalliere uses are real, for example, St. James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church, I assumed there may be a marker over buried radioactive waste in the forest preserves. On Sunday, J. and I went to Sagawau Canyon to watch the birds. Afterward, we had a little time, so I did some quick research and found what’s known as “Site A/Plot M” located at Red Gate Woods, just a few minutes away.
When we arrived at Red Gate Woods, I knew we were headed in the right direction when I saw this sign by a rough trailhead.
The point where we started is densely wooded, with an eroded trail marked by bike tire tracks and horseshoe prints. Soon it opened up onto what may have been a paved road at one time. I had to follow my location on Google Maps because there were several branch trails and a few splits in the paved road.
it was quiet along the way, with little traffic noise except for the occasional motorcycle or truck engine being revved.
Google Maps says this trail is “mostly flat”; my eyeballs and legs say it’s mostly uphill. We saw some bikers in the woods and on the paved road, along with a few people walking.
After another sign . . .
. . . and a few bends in the road we came to the Site A marker. The text wasn’t what Camalliere quoted in her book. Later I found out she quoted the Plot M marker, where nuclear waste is buried (“DO NOT DIG”). Site A is where the two nuclear piles (reactors), part of the Manhattan Project, are buried (I wouldn’t dig there, either). According to the Forest Preserves of Cook County website, “The area surrounding Site A and Plot M continue [sic] to undergo annual monitoring and remain [sic] safe by all measurements.”
Here’s I hoping I can make it someday to Plot M. Assuming I can find it.
Made it to “Butterflies and Blooms” at Chicago Botanic Garden on Sunday, the 16th. Given the limits on visitors, I thought it might be sold out for the day, but no. Ended up with a hitchhiker, a clipper native to Asia.