| Story by Meghan McMahon |
Southwestern Will County is home to a sand prairie habitat that is one of the most diverse of its type in the entire state, and part of that is protected land at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve.
The unique sand prairie habitat at Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve formed as the result of catastrophic flooding thousands of years ago, during the Wisconsin Glaciation. When moraines — rock and soil left behind by a moving glacier — were breached by flooding, water poured into the Kankakee River valley, depositing sand across the area, said Erin Ward, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserve District.
The flooding created a glacial lake called Lake Wauponsee, and the area of Braidwood Dunes and Savanna, along with the nearby Kankakee Sands and Evans-Judge preserves and other surrounding land, were submerged under the lake.
“The lake eventually disappeared, leaving behind our sandy landscapes that we know and love today,” she said.
Today, the 315-acre Braidwood Dunes and Savanna is part of the Kankakee Sands preservation system, which conserves more than 1,200 acres and includes the nearby Kankakee Sands Preserve. The vast majority of Braidwood Dunes and Savanna — 310 acres — has been designated an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Ward has spent time at Braidwood Dunes through her years with the District, including leading hikes and other programs there. Her most memorable time at the preserve, though, was her first, in 2008, when she was working as an intern for the Forest Preserve District. She was at Braidwood Dunes to observe a naturalist who was leading a program, but 50 people showed up so they decided to split the group into two, with her leading one group and the naturalist the other. Her group was a Girl Scout Troop from Elwood, and they were up for an adventure, she said.
“We discovered where the prickly pear grew and where the sassafras trees could be found. We listened to frogs, studied prairie flowers and even learned about ticks and poison ivy,” Ward said. “We had so much fun exploring together, it’s the reason why I continued to do programs at this preserve.”
Currently, the wetland habitat at the preserve has been so wet that the trail does not connect, so programs are typically held at the adjacent Kankakee Sands preserve. The sand prairie habitat is the same at both sites, so much of what can be seen at the preserves is the same as well.
One word of caution: Braidwood Dunes and Savanna is a perfect habitat for ticks, because there are lots of plants for them to sit and wait on and lots of animals for them to pounce on, Ward said.
“Every single time I hike there, I find a tick on me,” she cautioned. “Spring is always the worst, but they are bad there spring, summer and fall. Be prepared with long pants, long-sleeved shirts, closed-toed shoes and bug spray. Check for ticks when you are done.”