Kishwaukee Bottoms offers something for every outdoors person

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-1178123894427.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The Kishwaukee River flows through the conservation area known as the Kishwaukee Bottoms.‘);

The Kishwaukee is the other river that flows through the Rockford area. The North Branch of the Kish, as it is frequently called, is the main branch of the river and has its beginning in Woodstock. The South Branch originates along the Cropsey Moraine, just north of Shabbona (a moraine is an area left behind by the edge of a retreating glacier).

From its humble beginnings, the Kish eventually empties into the Rock River at Rockford. Though it is a relatively short river, it drains land in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, including McHenry, Boone, Kane,. DeKalb, Lee, Ogle and Winnebago counties. The entire watershed is composed of about 1,257 square miles of land.

Most of the area along this scenic river is now under the control of some government agency, though developers have built houses and golf courses as near to the river as possible. In Winnebago County, we have the Kishwaukee River Forest Preserve, and nearby Boone County has the County Conservation District, that protect a good portion of the river as it flows through these counties.

A little-known area in Boone County (except to a few nature lovers and fishermen) is called The Kishwaukee Bottoms and is controlled by the Conservation District. The Bottoms is made of three conservation areas: Distillery, Anderson Bend and LIB. In fairly recent times, this area was used primarily for agricultural purposes, until the 1970s when the land, comprising some 547 acres, was acquired by the District.

The entrance to LIB is 2.5 miles west of Belvidere on Newburg Road. The entrance to the Distillery and Anderson Bend areas is about 2.5 miles west of Belvidere on Business Route 20, and then about a mile and a half on Distillery Road to the entrance to the natural areas. Parking is available here, as is access to a canoe launch facility. Hikers and skiers can enjoy some 7.6 miles of trails that wind through prairies, woodlands, wetland and riverfront.

When one first arrives at the Distillery parking lot, he may be dismayed by the bleakness of the landscape. This is because the area is undergoing habitat restoration work. The non-native and aggressive plants are being removed and will be replaced with native species. The majority of the groundcover is garlic mustard and pasture grass. They will be replaced with native woodland, savanna, wetland and prairie species. It is hoped the restoration project will provide a better habitat for the wildlife that calls Distillery Conservation Area home. This extensive project is being funded by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and The Boone County Conservation District.

For ages before the first settlers came to the Rock River Valley, Native Americans occupied the area and utilized the river to transport goods to trade with other tribes and for the abundance of fish that was readily caught. The name Kishwaukee is derived from a Potowatomi word meaning: “River of the Sycamores.” The huge sycamore trees growing along the river were used by the Indians to make dugout canoes. The Kish, incidentally, represents the most northern natural range of the sycamore tree.

Today, the Kishwaukee is more or less a pristine river, though in the past, man has polluted it from time to time. The most infamous blow dealt the river came in 1988, when the waste from an extensive hog farm was accidentally diverted into the river rather than into a retention pond. Two million gallons of hog waste went into the river, and as a result, aquatic life downstream was destroyed. The Illinois Department of Conservation estimated that 37.2 miles of the river were affected. The Kish is graded by the Department of Natural Resources as a Class “A” stream, which means it is mainly free of silt and conducive to fish, such as the small mouth bass, that must have a silt-free environment. A few years ago, a developer was cited and fined for allowing silt from his extensive development to enter the river. Fortunately, the abuse was quickly noted and silt preventive measures were taken.

At Kishwaukee Bottoms, or any-where else along the Kish, nature lovers will be rewarded with an abundance of plants and animals, especially a large variety of bird species. The river otter has been reintroduced into the area, and one is apt to spot one of these playful, aquatic mammals cavorting about in the water or on the bank. And if you are lucky, you just may encounter a rare massasauga rattlesnake.

Make a point this year to visit Kishwaukee Bottoms and take a trip back in time to when things were not so complicated. Thanks to conservation efforts, the landscape is similar to what it was when the first white settlers arrived

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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