Chicago Wilderness: A Week-Long Excursion

By Korey Jones

(May 2015)

Despite Chicago’s urban density, it is an area filled with plenty of escapes for nature lovers. This week-long class intensively studied both the urban and suburban ecological environments of the Chicagoland area by delving into daily adventures—each exploring a different area of the city, as well as a new type of environment to study. We analyzed the structures of Millennium Park, the environment of the Maggie Daley Park, the factors affecting the Chicago River, the Bird Sanctuary on the north side of the city, the Iron Works facility in Joliet, the crowded dynamics of Chinatown, as well as the suburban nature in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. I also had the chance to explore the Churchill Forest preserve in DuPage County for this course prior to the week starting. Throughout the week I gained a tremendous amount of insight into the ecology of the Chicagoland area, as well as what I, as a sustainability major, can do to make it better.

The first day of our weeklong adventure was spent at Millennium Park and Grant Park, which are both in the heart of Chicago, IL. These parks are around 24 acres in size (City of Chicago), and are filled with many beautiful structures, such as the Lurie garden. One particular structure that we stopped to look at and discuss was the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. This outdoor bandshell is made from stainless steel and stands as a frame for a stage where many movies and concerts take place. The Lurie garden is a place to either sit and enjoy, or walk around to see all the different kinds of urban flowers and plants. If you look closely, you may even see some butterflies and other insects buzzing around. Even though there are some plants that aren’t native to the garden, it is still a very peaceful place to go to get off the busy streets of Chicago and find some serenity amongst the chaos.

The Maggie Daley Park is another magnificent place that is in the heart of Chicago. This park is fairly new to the area, and was a pricey and complex investment; however, it boasts a number of fascinating features.  Even though this park is near Chicago’s busy streets and can, therefore, be noisy, it has a variety of places to branch off to if you’re looking for a quiet escape. An example of this is the meditation area that is in the process of being built in the park. The designers of this area seek to provide a peaceful environment in the midst of Chicago’s hustle and bustle.

The last place we went for the day was Jackson Park.  We took a tour through the forest there, which was truly the picture of serenity. There were many different kinds of plants and animals that I noticed–including chipmunks, birds and many breeds of flowers to admire. We then tried to make our way over to the wooden island, but soon realized the lagoons around the island were under construction, preventing access.  We made our way to just inside the site’s chain-link fence, where a man in a hard-hat informed us that the Wooded Island was undergoing a huge restoration project.

As a detour, we walked a few blocks to the Co-Op bookstore to get a refreshing drink and stroll through the beautiful neighborhood of Hyde Park. We walked through the University of Chicago campus and saw their Quad. It was very interesting to see how different this school looked in comparison to Roosevelt University, despite their similar urban locations! It was different because this environment is very studious and I felt like I was in the middle of a movie starring people who are knee deep in their schoolbooks. Overall, the day consisted of seeing the peaceful escapes that the seemingly hectic city of Chicago has to offer.

The second day, during which we experienced a huge temperature drop from Monday, we were along the Chicago River.  The first place that we stopped was Canal Origins Park. The park was perfectly situated along the Chicago River.  Prior to this experience, I had never heard of the Canal Origins Park, let alone knew it had so much to offer! It was small, yet had so much to see!  As a group, we were given the opportunity to do some exploration on our own, which I enjoyed.  While walking through the park, one thing I noticed was how polluted the river was.  There wasn’t just a small amount of trash in the river; there was a surprisingly large amount of trash! (See Figure 1)

Shoreline of the Chicago River at Canal Origins Park. The river has trash along the shoreline, yet still has lively plants growing. (photo: Jones, 2015)

Figure 1. Shoreline of the Chicago River at Canal Origins Park. The river has trash along the shoreline, yet still has lively plants growing. (photo: Jones, 2015)

Despite the discomforting amount of pollution, it was still a peaceful atmosphere. Hearing and watching the water hit up against the rocks and plants was enjoyable—it was very comforting to see that even in the midst of the third largest city in the country, the sound of nature can be heard.  While walking through the park, I saw not only blatant trash in the river, but also around the park itself, including dense graffiti over the canal walkway’s symbolic relief artwork.  While sitting at the entryway of where the river flows, Michael Bryson told us the history of the Chicago River and its flow.  With that history fresh in our heads, we went on a canoe trip with the Friends of the Chicago River on Bubbly Creek.

This was not your ordinary canoe trip with a nice, scenic view. This part of the Chicago River was smelly, full of trash, and bubbly, hence its colorful name). The bubbles that you see there are the result of methane gas, released from decomposing organic matter on the river’s bottom. We canoed for about three miles up and back down the river and saw mainly industrial buildings—some of which I noticed hooked up their discharge pipes directly to the river. We canoed from the mouth to the headwaters of Bubbly Creek and got to see and hear about where all of our sewage and rainwater run-off really goes.  When Chicago’s sewers are overwhelmed with rainfall, the river becomes a receptacle for untreated wastewater.  Despite being dirty and smelly, it was still an enjoyable and incredibly eye opening experience to see how polluted we humans make our urban rivers.

After the cold canoe trip, we made our way over to Chinatown. The park there was very quiet and peaceful, even though it was in the middle of a major transportation port. ­­­­­ It is located along the Chicago River, and has a pathway to walk around and see the plants and animals. However, this is still considered to be an industrial part of town.  While contemplating the readings we had for the day, one quote from the reading, “Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook,” by Sonya Huber stood out to me. She said, “This is love the way you fall in love with viaducts, chipped concrete with the steel veins of rebar, the way you fall in love with a telephone pole covered with rusted industrial-strength staples, the rock show posters all melted away in the weather and time” (Huber 2013, par. 1). This particularly spoke to me as I walked through this park because we love our city for what it is.

No matter how polluted our city is or how beautiful our nature can be, we are still in a city that is full of industry and chipped-away concrete. But this is our city and we love it!  Chicago’s industrial history is a part of its identity, and parks like Canal Origins are living places where we can experience the city’s past and present.  When we find the shores of the Chicago River clogged with trash, or witness the stink of Bubbly Creek’s decaying depths, it is up to us to initiate change.  We can, and should, restore what natural environments remain within our city, while simultaneously preserving its historically significant features. Over all, despite the cold weather, it was a serene and beautiful day to be by the Chicago River.

Bright blue robin eggs from a robin’s nest at the Montrose bird Point Sanctuary. (photo: Jones, 2015)

Figure 2. Bright blue robin eggs from a robin’s nest at the Montrose bird Point Sanctuary. (photo: Jones, 2015)

On Wednesday we spent the majority of our day at the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. What a great hidden place for these birds and animals to call their home! There are some parts of this natural habitat that are blocked off with fencing to protect the new ecosystems that need time to grow. They are restoring the prairie right now, but there are still other bird and animal habitats for visitors to see. It was very calming to have the opportunity to walk along the dirt trails and listen to all the sounds around me. While exploring I saw many different species of birds. At one point during my adventure, I came across a robin that was on her nest, but when I got close she flew away (See Figure 2).  As I was walking around, I noticed others with binoculars who were also bird watching. I stopped to talk to the other bird watchers and they said that they come here often just to relax and enjoy the nature and outdoor wildlife. It’s always a joy to meet fellow nature lovers!

Not only did we look at the urban environment, but also took time to evaluate the suburban environment. As a class, we also visited the suburbs of Schaumburg and Joliet. We encountered many different ecosystems such as Roosevelt’s prairie walk and veggie garden; Busse Woods—where we took a silent walk to observe the sounds of the forest, layered against the din of suburbia; Spring Valley Conservation Area; and the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site. These activities really opened my eyes to see all of the things that these towns have to offer!

A particular excursion that I found very beneficial was the visit to the Spring Valley Nature Center and the Volkening Heritage Farm, a 135-acre open space in Schaumburg offering recreational and educational services to its visitors.  I never knew that there was a farm in the middle of a suburban town! This area consists of lots of trails to walk on as well as the farm, which is open to the public. I found the farm to be a very educational experience—specifically in regards to its location. However, this isn’t your typical farm—the owners run their land as if it were still Schaumburg in the 1880s when German immigrants settled the area.

The kitchen that is on the farm in the house that the farmers use. This is an old fashion wood-burning stove. (photo: Jones, 2015)

Figure 3. The kitchen that is on the farm in the house that the farmers use. This is an old-fashioned wood-burning stove. (photo: Jones, 2015)

With that being the case, they have an old-fashioned stove that they use to cook their bread and food on—using solely the ingredients they grow on their farm (See Figure 3). They use a horse and plow to till their four garden plots. They even still dress in traditional attire, which consists of a long dress, apron, and wooden shoes. The farmers get their eggs for the day from the free-ranging chickens in their own backyard, as well as cows that provide their milk. They also have pigs, which the farmers use to have pork for the year; typically these farmers would butcher one pig per person each year. They grow all of their own food, including kale, lettuce, asparagus, apples, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.  Our lovely guide, Monique, provided us with a tour of the farmhouse. She was very well educated on the subject of the Volkening farm and was willing to thoroughly answer all of our questions. Overall, this farm is incredible and a great place to visit. I found the fact that this team of people is able to sustain subsistence farming in the middle of a Chicago suburb to be very impressive!

In addition to the explorations provided by the class, I also went to visit Churchill Woods Forest Preserve on my own time, located in DuPage County. What a peaceful experience and an eventful place! As I walked around this forest preserve I noticed several different things: lots of people enjoying the outdoors, horse trails, scenic drives, animals, and several ponds. After I walked around with my dog, Khloe, on the gravel trails, I noticed that there were lots of birds, chipmunks, squirrels, as well as a few deer scampering about the forest floor!

Pond in Church Hill Forest Preserve, located in Dupage County (photo: Jones, 2015)

Figure 4. Pond in Church Hill Forest Preserve, located in Dupage County (photo: Jones, 2015)

These animals are typical for a forest preserve, but one thing that stood out to me was the body of water. For a good chunk of the time that I was at Church Hill woods, I sat by a pond contemplating my surroundings. This was very relaxing and soothing. While listening to and examining this pond, I noticed that it looked like an algae bloom was happening!  Despite this abundance of algal growth, there were many fish jumping and swimming near shore, as well as frogs croaking and hopping around. What I liked about this pond the most was that there were trees hovering around it and a pathway of rocks along the water, which made for a beautiful scene. This allows visitors to get up next to the water and take a closer look at what other organisms are living there (See Figure 4). This pond is a natural environment that provides an ecosystem for which the wildlife depends upon.

I found this forest preserve to be well kept and very welcoming.  There were several bikers and even a family circus going on while I was there! The reading throughout the week, specifically a student collaboration written by Cheryl Green, Colleen Husted, and Pete LaHaie, resonated with me as they stated, “Well-designed parklands involve a creative combination of influences from nature and the human hand, the latter of which can be masked integrating prairies, wetlands, grasslands and woodland areas into park landscapes” (Green, Husted, and LaHaie 2012). This is a very articulate way to explain what a parkland should be. Churchill Woods, I would say fits this description perfectly. As the week went on, I explored Busse woods and noticed that this forest preserve had a lot in common with the section that I walked through in Churchill Woods.

Overall, this week has taught me a lot about the urban and suburban nature that surrounds me. I have grown up in the suburbs of Chicago and never even realized all of the beauty at surrounds me! I am walking away from this week-long class, grateful for all that it taught me, and excited to continue to explore all of the urban nature Chicago has to offer. I am also eager to pursue my major in sustainability and potentially improve upon some of the struggling aspects of the ecosystems we observed.  “by the ways that human life and wildlife interact in urban settings and how we (as citizens of Chicago) have the power to positively shape our city’s life and greenspace.” (McGraw 2015).


Green, C., Husted, C., & LaHaie, P. (2012, May). Parklands. Retreieved from

Huber, S. (2013, January 6). Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook. Retrieved from

McGraw, K. (2015, January 15). The Nature of My Inspiration. Retrieved from

Millennium Park. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2015, from