STORY 2: Kickapoo Woods/Bosque Kickapoo

Kickapoo Woods

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Beautiful Kickapoo Woods in south suburban Riverdale, Ill. is nestled alongside a one-mile curve in the Little Calumet River and is part of the Calumet River system.

The name Kickapoo was selected by Roberts Mann, who worked for the Forest Preserves of Cook County from 1930 until 1964 including as the first superintendent of the conservation department, which started in 1945.

Mann thought that Kickapoo was an appropriate name because of the Kickapoo tribe’s prominent history in Illinois. He included his reasoning in his 1964-1965 tome the “Origin of Names and Histories of Places – Including Major Forests and Holdings, Picnic Areas and Recreational Facilities, Nature Preserves, Aquatic Areas and Wildlife Refuges in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois.” It is a fascinating read.

Today the forest and prairie there provide respite for people and wildlife including migratory bird and bat species, which are reliant on natural areas when they travel between their winter homes and summer breeding grounds.

Episode 2 of Friends’ podcast, Inside, Out & About, is about Kickapoo Woods and available on Spotify and Amazon Music (search for Friends of the Chicago River). It features conversations about the natural history of the site, its ecological health and value, volunteer stewardship, the human benefits of nature, and the woodchuck (Marmota monax), a fascinating native mammal benefitted by the improving health of the river system. Hosted by Friends’ Executive Director Margaret Frisbie, Kickapoo guests include:

  • Josh Coles, director, McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum

  • June Webb, former Chicago Pubic School teacher and site steward

  • Liza Lehrer, assistant director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute. and groundhog expert

Native Americans and Fire

Like Chicago Portage National Historic Site featured in Episode 1, the area around the Little Calumet River would have been important to Native Americans and the river itself would have been a great resource. Its proximity to the larger Calumet region, a vast landscape dominated by wetlands and the intersection of the prairie, woodlands, and Great Lakes, meant it would have been a very good place to live.

“Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the Calumet region in 1673, the area was inhabited by multiple Native American tribes, predominantly the Illinois, Miami and Potawatomi.

“The Calumet region has long served as a home for tribes belonging to Algonquin groups around the Great Lakes. The primary inhabitants of the region were the Miami and Potawatomi, while nearby tribal groups that whose range did not include the Calumet region instead interacted with resident groups through trading or during the course of migration. These groups include the Illinois Confederation, a group of 13 or so Algonquin tribes associated with Cahokia (including but not limited to the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Tamaroa, Cahokia, and Michigamea); the Mascouten and Sauk to the east and northeast; the Ojibwa and Ottawa, located in the northern  Great Lakes; the Winnebago to the northwest; and the Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Wyandot, located primarily to the east and southeast. “

The Native Americans of the Calumet Region collected food by means of hunting, fishing, foraging, and cultivating the land.

One agricultural practice employed by the Native Americans was burning, the use of fire to clear the landscape to “facilitate hunting and game drives, clear village and agricultural lands.”

(Gartner 334). Historically, the Miami lit tall grasses on fire for annual hunts in Illinois and Wisconsin, while a controlled fire for agriculture was lit in the spring, giving nutrients to the soil and destroying pests (Gartner 334). Burning took place once or twice a year, and is today the practice is seen as crucial in preserving healthy ecosystems (Japsen I-3).

(Native Americans of the Calumet Region by Byg, Garner, Gordon, Parts, and Weiner).

Little Calumet River and Reversing the Calumet

The Little Calumet River begins in Indiana and crosses the Illinois border just south of 173rd Street in the Village of Lansing, Ill. It meanders in a mostly northwest direction through wooded areas and neighborhoods to its confluence with the Cal-Sag Channel, between the Village of Calumet Park and Blue Island.  

It once flowed into the Calumet River towards Lake Michigan but in the decade following the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900, which was done to help protect Lake Michigan (the city’s water supply) from untreated waste and other pollutants; its natural flow was disrupted when the Calumet River was reversed as well.

“The Calumet River was just as big of a threat [to the lake],” according to Richard Lanyon, the former executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and author of Calumet: First and Forever.

To reverse the flow of the Calumet River, first, a new canal needed to be built and construction began on the Cal-Sag Channel (short for Calumet-Saganashkee) in 1911. By 1922, the 16-mile Cal-Sag Channel was complete, serving as the critical link between the Little Calumet River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal thus creating a hydrological connection to the Des Plaines River and the Chicago River. By 1926, construction of the Burns Waterway in Indiana effectively cut the Little Calumet River into a 41-mile west branch and a 22-mile east branch, which flows to the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor.

Water quality improvements and more advanced sewage and stormwater management are allowing the return of native fish species, and boat launches at Beaubien Woods and Calumet Woods allow access for motorized craft.

Natural History

Kickapoo Woods is 240 total acres of sand prairie and riparian forest teeming with wildflowers, tall grasses, sugar maples, cottonwood, basswood, red and white oaks, black cherries, and American elms. Among the wildlife, Kickapoo Woods is home to white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossum, coyotes, garter snakes and numerous bird species. With its proximity to the river, it is home to a variety of dragonflies and damselflies species which spend a portion of their lives in the water.

A special wildlife project at Kickapoo Woods is a bat maternity colony installed by Friends of the Chicago River in partnership with the Cook County Forest Preserves. One of six bat maternity colonies installed at river-edge locations by Friends since 2015, the 4’ x 4’ x 4’ bat shelter is a nursery large enough for thousands of mother bats and their pups that is designed to replicate habitat where it is no longer available. To keep them safe from people and predators, the maternity colony sits atop 12-foot-tall stilts.   The colonies are designed to hold warmth and are always placed in a sunny location.

Get Active at Kickapoo Woods

Amenities at Kickapoo include a canoe launch, a paved one-mile loop trail, model airplane flying field and unpaved trails in the woods along the river.

An important natural area along the Little Calumet, Kickapoo Woods and its 50-acre meadow are being restored by a variety of organizations and partnerships including Friends of the Chicago River.

Find out more about Kickapoo and how to get involved: