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Visit Lake Calumet—Chicago's Nearly Invisible Natural, Industrial Wonderland

By JoshMogerman in Miscellaneous on Apr 20, 2015 4:35PM

Lake Calumet [David B. Gleason]

Quick: What is the biggest body of water contained within the City of Chicago?


Nope, not Lake Michigan, which is way bigger than the city. Not the Chicago River, which is part of a system that extends well beyond our town’s borders.

It is Lake Calumet. A body of water that most Chicagoans have probably never even seen. Like much of the Southeast Side where it is located, Lake Calumet represents an extreme mashup of nature and industry that could really only happen in a place like Chicago. And that makes it one of the most fascinating spots in our fair city. Consider:

  • Despite DNA evidence that Asian carp are swimming through the Chicago Area Waterways on their way to colonizing the Great Lakes, Lake Calumet is the only place where a live fish has been found. (Considering the proximity to Lake Michigan and lack of defenses between the two lakes, this was not really good news back in 2010).
  • Lake Calumet was once the center of a large wetland system that covered the area, but it has been so deeply dredged that freighters can chug up the Calumet River and into its waters. While most of the big boats are hauling petcoke these days, some of them still visit LaFarge and St. Mary's Cement on a regular basis on the edge of Lake Calumet. Consider that journey for a second— giant 600-foot long boats going for miles down the Calumet River backwards to reach the lake (the river is too narrow for the freighters to turn around and the boats are not nimble enough to make the journey backwards fully loaded).
  • The area around Lake Calumet was probably the only home of Thismia americana—an interesting flowering plant that used fungi for food rather than the power of the sun. It is assumed to be extinct, since the plant has not been seen since 1916 after the area was flooded with garbage dumps and industrial facilities.
  • Birds have not disappeared from the area—bald eagles have nested nearby. Which is an example of why the area is so fascinating. The same massive industrial footprint (and pollution emanating from it) looms so large it prevents development of the last vestiges of nature in the area—wildlife and wetlands still hang on along Lake Calumet’s shores.
Part of the reason that you’ve probably never seen Lake Calumet is that its pretty hard to access. Golfers get a good view from the clubhouse at Harborside. Drivers on the Bishop Ford see abandoned grain elevators (and big boats) as they pass a portion of the lake’s chopped up western edge. But accessing the lake on foot is tough.

Which is what makes the Southeast Environmental Task Force’s Earth Day Lake Calumet Hike so cool. Get behind the fence to explore one of the area’s most spoiled, yet most wild landscapes with folks who will make sure you are not trespassing or accidentally stepping in toxic goop (both no easy task in the area). Birders should be particularly interested with pelicans, eagles, hawks, ospreys and meadowlarks popping up on previous hikes. Free tickets are still available for Wednesday’s event, so sign up to get a look at one of the area’s hidden gems while supporting one of Chicagoland’s most admired environmental and community activist groups.