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Naturalist treks 200 miles to our diverse, urban landscapes
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

Jack MacRae works with a peregrine falcon named Zeus and other injured raptors at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.


Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

DuPage County Forest Preserve naturalist Jack MacRae captured this view of the Chicago skyline from Hyde Park on his 14-day, 200-mile, four-state trek through some of the Chicago area's most diverse natural areas.


Jack MacRae

The beach and ravines at Fort Sheridan near Northbrook was a Day 3 stop for Jack MacRae who spent his two-week summer vacation rambling around the Chicago area visiting a variety of natural landscapes.


Jack MacRae

A white-tailed deer at Harms Woods Forest Preserve near Skokie was just one of the many various types of fauna Jack MacRae encountered on his two-week trek through some of the Chicago area's more diverse natural settings.


Jack MacRae

DuPage County Forest Preserve naturalist Jack MacRae spent an entire day bird-watching at the Indiana Dunes in June and spotted some birds he hadn't seen in more than a decade.


Jack MacRae

Chiwaukee Prairie near Kenosha, Wis., was the jumping off point for DuPage County Forest Preserve naturalist Jack MacRae's two-week, 200-mile jaunt through some of the Chicago area's most diverse natural areas.


Jack MacRae

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Published: 8/30/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 8/30/2009 4:23 PM

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It turns out good socks are vital to a successful two-week, 200-mile hike.

His first jaunt - a measly 6-mile stroll - resulted in a blister that covered Jack MacRae's heel.

The 52-year-old Naperville naturalist did some research and "learned about polystatic footliners." After months of practice - and now armed with state-of-the-art foot-care products - MacRae set off on his journey that took him through some of the Chicago area's most diverse natural landscapes. The trek was intended to show its natural areas aren't just restored prairies.

MacRae began plotting his course in the winter. His trip would essentially wrap him around Lake Michigan. He decided to start just north of the Wisconsin border and end the hike in Michigan. He set up appointments with rangers or other naturalists at each site to learn more about each place he was visiting.

"My intent was to visit as many different habitats and natural areas as possible along the way," he said. "I did want to hit a variety of natural areas."

He then began working on logistics. Friends, relatives and co-workers offered overnight accommodations if they were close enough to his stopping points. Other times he stayed at resorts, bed-and-breakfasts or camped when it was permissible.

Flash content

"I had dropped off backpacks for everything I needed at every location I would end up at," he said.

Sometimes his wife would also offer logistical support during the 14-day expedition. She even made him buy his first cell phone, so he could call if there was an emergency.

"I'm not using it now," he said.

MacRae took a two-week vacation from the DuPage County Forest Preserve District and began his trek Sunday, June 7, at Chiwaukee Prairie near Kenosha.

"Chiwaukee is a completely undisturbed prairie," he said. "It was never a farm, and because it was never developed the native plant life there is what's always been."

From Chiwaukee, he walked to Illinois State Beach Park near Zion and stayed the night at the resort there. During the next four days he would zigzag his way through parts of Lake County and northern Cook County, trekking through savannas near Lake Forest, ravines at Fort Sheridan, suburban forests and a bird sanctuary along the lakefront. He covered roughly 90 miles in five days. One day he walked about 22 miles without ever leaving Cook County forest preserves, he said.

Along the way he saw a variety of fauna indigenous to the area, but it was the evening of his fifth day when he came across wildlife that baffled him while staying with a relative on the 62nd floor of the Hancock Building downtown.

"Those giant spiders that hang out on the windows outside are amazing," he said. "I have no idea how they get there, though."

Many of MacRae's preconceived notions ahead of his trip were often dispelled during the hike. His walk through Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side on the sixth day provided one of his more interesting observations.

"What struck me was I walked about two hours without seeing a person that day," he said.

MacRae went bird-watching in Jackson Park the next day. He watched native lizards - the six-lined racerunners - do their thing at Miller Beach in Gary, Ind., the day after that. Then on the ninth day, he set up camp at the Indiana Dunes, splitting time between the state and national parks for four days.

"One day I spent the entire day in the state park and saw birds I hadn't seen in over a decade," he said.

Birds have a special place in MacRae's heart. He works at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn caring for injured raptors and giving lectures to schoolchildren about the abilities of the birds of prey that are kept and rehabilitated there. He works with an injured peregrine falcon named Zeus at Willowbrook and one day during the hike he got to watch a wild peregrine falcon hunt.

"I'd never seen one in hunting mode before," he said.

At the Dunes, MacRae found even more diverse wildlife, but new challenges. Even though he camped for four days at there, he wasn't idle. In fact, he said walking in the sand for four days was the most arduous part of his journey.

"It was brutal," he said.

MacRae spent the night of Thursday, June 18, at a bed & breakfast in Beverly Shores before leaving the following day and walking along the lakefront to Michigan City, where he stayed at another bed & breakfast nestled within a "conservation community" called Tryon Farm.

His final day he spent hiking to the Ambler Flatwoods near LaPorte, Ind., a late addition to his itinerary.

"I found out about it later in my planning, but the person telling me about it was so enthusiastic I decided I had to go," he said. "When I got there I was really surprised because I don't think there's anything like it in the area."

The 208-acre boreal forest is something someone might expect to encounter in the northern woods of Canada with its array of pines, spruces and firs.

MacRae was amazed by what he saw; unfortunately, though, his camera met its demise in the Dunes.

"Everything was covered with moss and it wasn't like anything I had seen yet," he said.

The Ambler Flatwoods Nature Preserve is the prize of the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, according to organization officials. It's only been a state-sponsored nature preserve since 2006.

"All of our properties are open to the public, but this is our largest, biologically richest and I would say probably our most visited," said Jim Erdelac, stewardship assistant for the organization. "The reason this is important is because these types of vegetation don't exist anywhere else in Indiana."

The preserve is home to 365 different types of plants species, most of which are only found there and nowhere else in the state let alone this close to Chicago, Erdelac said. It is also a native habitat to the Blanding's turtles, which is on several Midwestern states' threatened or endangered species lists. A recent study also determined the preserve is home to more than different 300 kinds of butterflies and moths.

MacRae said his visit to the Ambler Flatwoods was the perfect cap on his two-week jaunt.

He hiked out of Indiana to a state park in Michigan later that afternoon on June 20 and called his wife to come get him.

"I certainly found out I like walking leisurely and that walking for transportation is not the best," MacRae confessed. "If I do it again, it will be on something with wheels. Every time a bike went by I was jealous."