There is a playground, pit toilet and a hand-powered well pump on the 1.5 acre entrance to the Aroma Land Water Preserve on Heiland Road, 1 1/4 miles south of lllinois Route 17. It doesn't look too impressive from the road, but it easily can become a favorite for people who venture the trails of the 140 acre preserve.
Nathan Duby, of Momence, who's getting in shape for ROTC at Eastern Illinois University, said it didn't take long for it to become his top destination.
"It's nice. A lot of the parks aren't as nice," said Duby, taking a brief break from a jog. "They keep it clean."
The Forest Preserve of Kankakee River Valley considers it a crown jewel among the properties it owns due to its ecological significance, said Ken Allers, forest preserve district president. A rare wetland, virgin prairie and riverside ecosystem there are under permanent protection of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"It's our most ecologically significant site," said Doug Short, the forest district's superintendent of planning and development. "It still has some ecological integrity."
A trail from the park moves through a shaded, often buggy trail past residential homes to emerge into a virtual fireworks show of wildflowers at the virgin sand prairie. The five-acre sand prairie is virtually devoid of black soil and is home to Illinois' largest stand of one species of endangered mallow.
Restoration groups have even harvested the seeds to plant the rare flower at other preserves.
"This seed would have been here 200 years ago," Short said. "It's an indication of the high quality of the sand prairie."
As a buffer, the park district purchased an adjacent 30 acres along Heiland Road through a conservation grant in 2010 and has invested to restore the former agricultural tract to a natural prairie. A path runs through both where a gamut of prairie flowers and birds can be found. The endangered mallow even has started migrating toward the buffer as it finds new places to bloom.
It isn't unusual to find chickadees, bluebirds, indigo buntings or even a horned owl somewhere.
At the wetland section of the preserve the key feature is muck. Yes, muck. Houghton Muck to be precise. It's a rare type of soil deposited between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated.
It doesn't look like much more than mud or cracked, dry soil, but has been recognized among Illinois' highest quality natural sites since a landmark 1970s survey of the state's most valuable natural areas.
The Indian Caves site at Perry Farm Park in Bourbonnais, for example, was also recognized in the decades-old survey, Short said. Officially, it's called the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, but the plethora of migrating birds, maple and river birch trees at the wetland probably don't recognize the distinction.
A longer hike will take you to the shore of the Kankakee River where the park district owns a quarter-mile of floodplain forest, which is also a preserve under DNR protection. White oak and black walnut trees stand about 75 feet tall in spots. About 100 yards of shoreline is largely free of brush and makes for a nice fishing spot — free of the litter better-used spots often collect.
The forest preserve also owns the island across the water, which comes with a bit of a mystery. Short said it is named Goat Island because a former property owner once used it to graze his goats, the river serving as an apparent natural fence.
"They would keep them out there to graze because they wouldn't swim off," Short said. "That may not be true, but it's what I've been told."
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