Grand Kankakee Marsh perspective; Hoosier National’s Brooks Cabin and Oak Heritage Conservancy

What’s left on the Northern Indiana guidebook project requires nothing more than a computer, a circumstance that, like the journey itself, has powerful upsides to balance the downs –  perspective, to name but one. For example, exploring the Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area as one of six natural areas in a single day – one of 14 in three days – leaves little time to reflect upon its once-dominant ecosystem that has nearly vanished.

But before the Americans finished channelizing and straightening the Kankakee River in the early 20th century, swamp occupied nearly a million acres of Northwest Indiana from the Illinois State Line to Michigan City. Officially known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh (or Grand Kankakee Swamp), this vast mass of soggy landscape was also known as the Everglades of the North, even though it was the biggest wetland in North America.

In the early 1800s, navigating the Kankakee River – the great marsh’s liquid spine – required more than 2,000 turns on a 240-mile journey from its source five miles southwest of South Bend to the Illinois State Line. By 1917, the Kankakee’s Indiana path to the Illinois River had been ditched, straightened and shortened to 85 miles, the grand swamp converted to agriculture and industrial-urban areas.

Much of what still represents that ecosystem today is contained within the 15,172 acres owned by the state and managed as the Kingsbury, Kankakee and LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Areas, following the water’s redirected flow from east to west.

Fish & Wildlife Areas are not nature preserves. They are managed for wildlife, mostly for game species, though not exclusively. The Kankakee Basin-sharing Willow Slough and Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Areas hold Dedicated State Nature Preserves, which are protected in perpetuity, within their boundaries and have been designated as Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society.

The 7,280-acre Kingsbury Fish & Wildlife area is a former munitions facility with significant acreage off limits due to contamination. While the largest of the three properties is neatly sliced by agriculture ditches, Kingsbury’s far southeastern section borders the river and supports two rich, colorful, adjacent wetlands: Grande Marsh and Tamarack Marsh.

The 4,095-acre Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area stretches along eleven miles of Kankakee River shoreline and, along with Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area, is the most impressive of the state’s 23 – if for no other reason that its headquarters were open, staffed and helpful.

The property, which oozes east through the corn from the confluence of the Kankakee and Yellow Rivers, encompasses a total of forty-five miles of rivers and ditches and a 10-mile scenic drive along a one-lane road that skirts the rivers’ south and north banks, respectively.

The 3,797-acre LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area is bisected by the Kankakee River and bordered by the Illinois State Line to the west. Its Black Oak Bayou Waterfowl Resting Area protects a rare remnant of the Grand Kankakee Marsh and provides breeding grounds, food, and cover for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

The tallgrass prairie, which began its westward journey in Indiana, through Illinois, across the Mississippi River and into Iowa, is the state’s most altered natural landscape.

But, with the benefit of a little perspective, it’s got little on the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

The Hoosier history phase begins, a hike with Oak Heritage’s Liz Brownlee

The next tracks on the Rewilding Southern Indiana trail were left at the Brooks Cabin in the Hoosier National Forest last week, where an afternoon hike with Liz Brownlee from the Hanover-based Oak Heritage Conservancy began. The 1890s-era log cabin, relocated and reconstructed, now serves as an information center for the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, which it abuts.

The cabin, characteristic of the types built in the Eastern United States between 1850 and 1920, initially stood on a bend of the Little Blue River in Crawford County. Suffering from neglect when acquired by the U.S. Forest Service in 1992, the cabin was dismantled – log by log – and rebuilt 60 miles north on the edge of the Deam.

The hike only produced a couple photographs, as the purpose was conversation about an upcoming slide show and talk at the Oct. 14 annual meeting of the Oak Heritage Conservancy, a land trust that serves Southeast Indiana. We talked businesss atop the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower and chatted during a short hike on the Deam’s Terrill Ridge.

Liz forwarded links to the Annual Meeting announcement and latest Oak Heritage newsletter.

Photographs: Top, Black Oak Bayou Waterfowl Resting Area, Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area; Second, Kankakee River, LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area; Third, Grande Marsh, Kingsbury Fish & Wildlife Area; Bottom, Brooks Cabin, Hoosier National Forest.


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