Smile Politely

Champaign County Forest Preserve District is turning 75: Here’s how to celebrate

an image of a prairie field on a sunny day. There are blooming flowers and green grass taking up two thirds of the image and blue sky with fluffy white clouds in the top one third of the image.

If “semisesquicentennial” doesn’t flow quite right off the tongue, you can wish the Champaign County Forest Preserve District a happy 75th anniversary instead. This summer (and throughout the year), South-Central Illinois’ string of sylvan pearls is celebrating 75 years of vernal vitality. It all started over Memorial Day weekend in 1948, when Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve became a post-WWII place of natural respite and recreation.

On its first day, the seminal preserve spanned 260 acres. Three-quarters of a century and 700-odd acres later, Lake of the Woods is the eldest to a rambunctious clutch of siblings: River Bend, Sangamon River, Heron View, Homer Lake, and Middle Fork River (and, not to be forgotten, the 24.5-mile Kickapoo Rail Trail).

If you’re hard-pressed to pick a favorite, it’s okay — so is Lorrie Pearson, the organization’s executive director. Instead, she describes her favorite thing about each preserve:

“I consider Heron View more of a rustic preserve, off the beaten path. Lake of the Woods is often where I run into people I know. Middle Fork River, it’s of course the dark skies. I really enjoy spending time [at Sangamon River] in the late summer when the prairie is blooming.”

Two white women with blonde hair stand next to each other in front of a brightly colored painting. The woman on the left wears a pink sweater and khaki pants and the woman on the right wears a dark blue shirt and tan cardigan and pants. Both women are holding postcards with nature images on them.
Jenna Kurtzweil

No matter which preserve is your pleasure, all will be primed and prepped for a party of perennial proportions. This summer, early or late, you can join the festivities from the venue of your choosing.

A 75-mile trail-trekking challenge is the centerpiece of the celebration. Folks who register on the site and log 75 miles of travel through the preserves between Memorial Day (May 27th) and Labor Day (September 4th) — walking, wheeling, running, hiking, cycling, paddling, or otherwise — may submit proof of passage to claim a prize. For those keeping track of Pearson’s park picks, her next handful includes a few pointers for getting from Point A to Point B:

“At the Kickapoo Rail Trail I’ll often use my bike because it’s wonderful not to have to plan a route; you just get on it, and go. I really enjoy running at Homer Lake on the trails. And River Bend is where I’ll bring my kayak,” she said.

Cyclists can sign up for Pedal the Preserves a guided bike tour of the Kickapoo Rail Trail, Homer Lake, and more. Unlike the self-directed 75-mile challenge, this experience is set for August 19th-20th, with the option to turn a one-day adventure into two and spend Saturday night under the stars at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve campsite.

History buffs can plan a visit to the Museum of the Grand Prairie which is located at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve. A new multimedia exhibit will open Monday, May 29th to celebrate the CCFPD’s legacy of conservation, preservation, recreation, and education. For the music lovers, outdoor concerts will be mounted in to-be-determined venues across the district and will serenade those with a yen to “be outside, sit, relax, and maybe run into some neighbors,” Pearson said. 

For those whose fancies remain untickled, Pearson urges patrons of all interests, skill sets, and ability levels to try something new in the preserves. That might look like volunteering with the CCFPD. Perhaps it’s penciling a park-related event on your summer calendar or registering for a class or a camp. It might look like lending financial support or simply setting out to prospect a park less traveled.

“Each of the preserves is so different,” said Lisa Sprinkle, the marketing director of the CCFPD. “They each have their own personalities, and they have attractions for everybody.”

The buffet-style slew of options is intentionally designed to serve the broad Champaign-Urbana community. “When people think of us, they think nature. I want to get the message across that we truly try to offer something for everyone, even if the outdoors isn’t your thing,” Pearson said.

Lately, the CCFPD has been particularly interested in welcoming burgeoning outdoors-people to its ranks: folks testing the waters of a woodsy lifestyle but waffling over where to begin. In 2018, the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve was designated as the state’s only International Dark Sky Park. To help bring the starry skies to more Illinoisians, the CCFPD received a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources last September “to support the construction of a dark sky trail and supporting amenities” that will ultimately “improve accessibility … by providing new, ADA-compliant campsites, paved trails, and accessible seating,” according to the CCFPD website. “It’s a great entry point for those who aren’t experts at looking at the stars,” Pearson said. “These amenities will be geared toward the beginners and accessible for everyone.”

By the same token, the impending 75th anniversary celebration will engage not just the seasoned preserve-trekking veterans, but up-and-coming CCFPD stewards as well, cinching a lifetime of memories and a promising future together with a thick, celebratory bow. Pearson reflects on the reason for the semisesquicentennial season: 

“It’s important for all organizations to look at where they’ve been, celebrate all they’ve achieved, and think about all that they hope to achieve in the future. … We have a lot of great things to celebrate, great community support, and we want to share that excitement with everybody.”

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