I’ve been visiting some great nature preserves around the Chicago area recently in preparation for my first Master Naturalist presentation next week at an area library. I’ve been to most of them before, but one last weekend, was a first-time visit for me, and I must say…I was blown away!
When one thinks of Illinois natural landscapes, you likely think of something like this entrance to the Green River Wildlife area (surrounded by corn and soybean farm fields):
Flat as a pancake…. boring…. get me out of this visually-depressing state!!!
Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll find a patch of tallgrass prairie…
or a grove of bur oaks, a little creek, or even a sandy dune along Lake Michigan’s shores.
One thing you would NOT expect to find this far south of Canada is a boreal bog surrounded by tamarack trees. Yet, we’ve got one right here in northern Illinois-- Volo Bog!
Yes, this is in Illinois!
Volo Bog is a bewildering piece of nature that began forming 12,000 years ago as the ancient Wisconsin Glacier began receding from Illinois. A large chunk of ice fell off the glacier to cover this ground. But unlike most other areas where ice remained, the ground here was dense clay and the melting ice had no where else to go but to form a “kettle” depression into the ground. Over the years, decaying sphagnum moss formed a growing layer of peat between the water and the ground. These layers of peat, water, and moss continue to this day.
Volo Bog’s only water source is rain, and combined with the decaying organic matter, forms a highly acidic, oxygen-starved environment for plants and animals to live. No fish can survive here, yet amphibians such as frogs and turtles happily thrive.
Considering such lack of “solid” ground, when visiting a bog, it’s a VERY good idea to stay on the boardwalk!
Bogs have a long, storied history of swallowing up wayward critters. The area around Volo Bog was once a dairy farm, and legend has it that there are a few dairy cows buried and preserved deep within the peat layer. Acidic bogs are so good at preserving organic matter, that human bodies found in bogs are often much older and better preserved than remains found elsewhere!
The expansive marshy area of cattails and arrowheads give way to tall shrubs that surrounds the tamarack and open water area. Off to the sides of this boardwalk, you can now see glimpses of water between the sphagnum moss and duck weed layer that floats on top of it.
An amazing variety of lush plants live alongside this boardwalk—and yes, incredibly, we’re still in Illinois!!!
Lots of varieties of fern live here:
and a few other cool plants live here too, like this carnivorous Purple Pitcher Plant (note the tube-shaped green leaves. These attract insects who are then unable to escape, leaving a meaty meal for the plant to consume!).
Soon the tamaracks and open water area of the bog are finally revealed. Tamaracks look like evergreens, but are actually deciduous and turn yellow in the Fall.
The boardwalk returns back through the high shrubs again and mysterious ferns beneath.
Finally back on solid ground, the landscape starts to look a bit more like “normal” Illinois. The Visitor’s Center sits in a converted dairy barn behind this lovely pond surrounded by milkweed and other prairie plants.
If you’re ever in the northern Chicago area and visit Volo Bog, I highly suggest attending one of their free nature walks conducted each weekend by their staff and volunteer naturalists. A terrific and informative way to be introduced to this very special and unique place!