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Illinois hunting and fishing

Interpretive panels help tell the story of Emiquon and its restoration. Photo by David Zalaznik/Peoria Journal-Star.

Emiquon embraces the future with new visitor attractions

May 26, 2011 at 09:40 PM

Peoria Journal-Star

In their language, Native Americans 1,000 years ago called the place “spoon.” The sprawling wetland between two rivers fed their villages with fish and fowl.

From a new observation deck overlooking Thompson Lake at the Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County, Jason Beverlin gazed back further in time.

“Eleven, twelve thousand years ago this was the Mississippi” before the last ice age shifted that main continental drain westward and created the character of today’s Illinois River, said Beverlin, Illinois River Program director for The Nature Conservancy.

He hopes to see the Illinois River someday once again physically connect with the lake, which now fills nearly 4,000 acres of the 6,700-acre preserve that the not-for-profit organization has worked to restore to its natural state since 2000. The bodies of water remain separated by a levee built nine decades ago to drain and farm the land where the Spoon River meets the Illinois.

Emiquon’s past and future, however, will pause June 4 for celebration.

The conservancy that day will open a new, multimillion dollar array of attractions designed to draw visitors to the preserve. Visitors will be educated both on the site’s history and the ongoing results of what is the largest private wetland restoration in the state.

The new facilities include a lakeside observatory with a pavilion featuring educational panels and a telescope to spot the dozens of migratory bird species and other wildlife in and along the lake.

A second, elevated wetland observatory rises on a peninsula that loops into the lake, reachable by a new two-mile walking trail or by shortcut over an 800-foot bridge across the peninsula’s inlet. A new canoe launch also is located there, along with a parking lot at the end of the new road that parallels the walking trail.

Planning for the project, which was built with a private donation to the conservancy, began in 2006, six years after the conservancy acquired Emiquon’s land from a corporate farm company, Beverlin said. Construction began in December 2009.

Its opening will coincide with the conservancy’s annual Lake Festival at the preserve. After the visitor facilities are formally opened at 11 a.m., the free festival from noon to 4 p.m. will feature booths displaying research conducted by conservancy partners at the site, as well as food, hay rack rides and trips on the lake in 20-seat voyageur canoes provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The conservancy is restoring Emiquon Preserve independently, but works in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge on huge land tracts to the southwest and south of the preserve.

Since it turned off the pumps that kept the ancient Thompson Lake bed dry in 2007, the lake has swelled with rain and is now up to 10 feet deep, Beverlin said. Recent wet years have enabled it to overflow into what originally was the separate Flag Lake on the site.

The conservancy began permitting waterfowl hunting in 2005 and two years later began stocking Thompson with 2 million fish of 31 different species. The lake opened to fishermen in 2009.

Meanwhile, the conservancy has planted 310,000 native trees, 400 acres of tall-grass prairie and 200 acres of wet-prairie seed mix on the preserve.

Its long-term goal is to reconnect the preserve with the Illinois River by a gate through the old levee to produce a “functional floodplain,” but one controlled and safe from heavy floods and invasive species such as Asian carp, Beverlin said.

“We think a functional floodplain” and the “bio-diversity” it would produce “is good for the health of the river, and that’s our goal,” he said. “It’s that relationship with the river that’s important.”

Emiquon’s relationship with the public, enhanced by the new visitor facilities, is essential as well, he acknowledged.

“For 600 generations, this was an important place,” Beverlin said, to the communities that surrounded Emiquon and buried their dead where nearby Dickson Mounds Museum now stands.

Beginning June 4, Emiquon will invite a new generation to its shores.

Michael Smothers can be reached at 686-3114 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Emiquon Preserve

- A natural wetland between the Illinois and Spoon rivers located off Illinois Routes 78 and 97, northwest of Havana

- Named Emiquon after a Native American word for “spoon,” the wetland was an important food source for villages that existed for hundreds of generations in the current Dickson Mounds area.

- Purchased by a Chicago-based corporate executive in 1919, the site was separated from the Illinois by a levee in the early 1920s, drained and farmed.

- The last crops were harvested in 2006. Pumps were turned off in 2007, and the returning Thompson Lake was stocked with 2 million fish beginning in 2007. Public fishing began in 2009.

- On June 4, The Nature Conservancy will unveil new visitor facilities, including two observatories and walking trails. The multimillion-dollar project was financed with private donations.

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