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Columnist
Forest preserves offer up many fun activities
By Lee A. Litas | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/4/2009 12:07 AM

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"It's a way for people to stay close to home and yet be able to recreate, relax and kind of get away," said Sue Hawkins, public affairs manager with Lake County Forest Preserve District, of the nearly 27,000 acres of preserves and some 125 miles of trails contained within Lake County.

In a land area that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, consists of only 447.56 square miles, the sheer size of the designated park areas is significant and unique for what might be considered a rather urban area. At a time when construction seems rampant, there are clearly many places to enjoy nature in Lake County.

Throughout her 17-year tenure, Hawkins has seen an expansion in the educational and historical programs that are offered by the park district. Events ranging from coyote walks to dog sledding, ice fishing to a Civil War re-enactment - the largest in the state - have drawn a steadily increasing following.

With the opening of Independence Grove, just off Buckley Road in Libertyville, the activity level has skyrocketed. The LCFPD transformed what used to be a sterile quarry, a gravel pit, according to Hawkins, into a rich aquatic ecosystem with gently graded slopes and underwater islands.

"We worked a contract to create a 115-acre lake inside the preserve," explained Hawkins. Now that lake is brimming with muskies, northern pike, black crappies, largemouth bass, channel catfish, walleyes, bluegills and yellow perch. In addition game fish are stocked periodically. The district maintains a mandatory catch-and-release fishing program to keep the activity beneficial for nature while keeping it recreational for anglers.

Another neat area is located in Wadsworth. It is here where most of the dog sledding and skijoring, the winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by the dogs (or horse, or motor vehicle) takes place. The course is a mile long and features a number of decision points to make the training challenging, and is even available during the warmer, off-season months when dog teams use snowless rigs or training carts.

Some of the most popular places inside the preserves are the off-leash dog areas. One permit allows access to all, which explains why we have four of them throughout the county.

"You don't have to be a dog person to understand the phenomenon that happens when the same people go with the same dogs to the same dog exercise areas. Inevitably the dogs become friends just as the people do, so socially it's kind of a unique area in that sense," said Hawkins.

Some of the sites even contain ponds for your pooch to swim in and enclosed areas for puppy training. Most have a trail system which is important because dogs are required to be on-leash at all other forest preserves or the owners can be ticketed.

The four different off-leash areas include are offered at Independence Grove with 30 acres allotted in Libertyville, Lakewood Forest Preserve with 68 acres in Wauconda, Prairie Wolf in Lake Forest offering 44 acres, and Duck Farm at 48 acres in Lindenhurst.

With so much to choose from, from weekly summer concerts and exhibits to the Lake County Discovery Museum, it is not surprising that attendance has grown exponentially.

On Saturday, March 7, the LCFPD is holding its annual Maple Syrup Hike. The one-hour hike will include a lesson on why the trees have sweet sap and how to tell which ones to tap. Sap sampling included.

Programs run year round. To find out more, you can subscribe to the Horizons Newsletter or see the calendar information by logging on to www.lcfpd.org.