A conversation with Andrew Morkes, author of “Nature in Chicagoland”
New book details 120 must-visit, fantastic local nature destinations
“I embraced the ‘wilds’ of Chicagoland and learned there was considerable natural beauty and wonder in or near our big, sprawling city and suburbs….in short, Chicagoland provides a plethora of awe-inspiring nature…there’s beauty and even a bit of semi-wilderness in many places if you look hard enough.”
The above excerpts are from the introduction to “Nature in Chicagoland: More than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit,” a new book written by Jefferson Park resident and Beverly product Andrew Morkes. It’s a comprehensive and accessible work that should sit on the shelf beside other classic Chicago nature volumes. “Nature in Chicagoland” details an incredible array of natural areas from right within the city to the outskirts and even a little beyond. It also includes a set of essays on Morkes’ personal experiences, from snowshoeing to winter hiking to lessons learned while camping with his son.
In addition to writing the book and the Nature in Chicagoland blog, Morkes is the founder of College and Career Press, editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and author of more than 40 books about careers for publishing and media companies.
He joined me recently for a phone conversation about the book and what’s inspired him.
BD: My first question is how you got into this. Why did you start your blog and write this book?
AM: I grew up in Beverly, and some of my first memories I have are going to the Palos preserves and hiking as a kid. I was in the Boy Scouts for a while and enjoyed camping, canoeing and hiking, some with my dad who was always an outdoors guy. My mom is not a hiker, but she loves the outdoors. She is a very, very talented gardener and received an Honorable Mention in the City of Chicago’s Annual Garden & Block Contest.
BD: So you’ve been doing this your whole life?
AM: In my 20s and up until about 40 I’d go solo camping to the Southwest and up to the Upper Peninsula. I’d ship a locker box of all my camping gear down to friends who live in New Mexico and stay with them a little bit. I’d go to the UP…Pictured Rocks… sometimes with other people and with my wife when we first met. You get a lot more done on your own. With other people you have to compromise and do what they want to do and not hike as far. But I like [solo camping], it’s fun.
BD: You’ve written quite a bit about experiencing the outdoors with your son. Has he gone on any of these longer trips?
AM: He’s only 11 so he doesn’t have the endurance, or he will get bored or tired. But we’ve gone three or four hours at Cap Sauers Holdings, a place we love. We do kayaking together, too, at Nippersink Creek in Glacial Park and at Pictured Rocks on the inland lakes. Some of the greatest times of life I’ve had are with my son and showing him the outdoors.
My essays are really focused on my relationship with my son as he gets older, from entries as a 4-year-old and 6-year-old as his age progresses. As he got older, he was able to go farther. He loves the plants, the discovery and the animals. I was also trying to teach him that Chicago isn’t just the summer and fall, and to get out in the winter…we’ve been snowshoeing together.
The first time I took him camping he was 3, with my friend and his son. It’s all the things you don’t think about, all the special things you do with kids to improvise as a whole. One of them is flexibility. It’s a different mindset. We set up a play tent in the backyard to mirror the situation. When Liam was younger it was really important to bring some things from home to make him comfortable, even a toy like a Tonka truck to connect something with home. “Let the kids lead” was one of my entries, as they get older, let them pick hikes and let them pick activities. Let them make dinner, gather firewood, and have fun sending photos to our wives. It’s fun seeing your kids grow up and do things outdoors that they couldn’t do five years ago.
BD: Turning to the book specifically, what is it that you appreciate about nature here in Chicagoland?
AM: We love the beautiful mountain and desert places, but those aren’t here. You have to love it in a different way than Yellowstone or Arizona or New Mexico. When I started the blog four or five years ago, I wanted to discover things and I kept looking for interesting places. It helped that I grew up on the South Side, so there are a lot of southwest [suburban] places, but then moving up here [to Jefferson Park] 15 to 20 years ago there were new places. Working for myself, my time is different than most people in that I could go whenever I wanted. At some point I thought I could take the blog and discover more places and share these places with people. People know the biggies but not everywhere else. I wanted to give people the best of all the amazing things you can do in all seasons in Chicagoland.
BD: We’ve chatted before and we both think that Starved Rock [State Park] isn’t the only place to go hiking or get outside.
AM: People need more options. Starved Rock would benefit if it was not always so packed. It’s a lovely place, but it’s getting loved to death. The visitation is more than 90% of national park properties. And the state budget isn’t in place to handle that.
I definitely have a conservation mindset, too. I want people to not only appreciate it for beauty and recreation, I also believe that if we tell more people about these places, if we get more people in an environmental mindset, we could get more traction advocating or even saving these places.
BD: What are some of the places in the book that really stand out?
AM: Nachusa Grasslands had been on my list for three or four years. I finally made it out there this year. That was amazing, I loved it out there. I went to three or four places that day, left at 7 in the morning and got home at night. That was a great experience, and I ran out of time. Literally the sun was going down and had to turn around.
I really enjoyed going to Jasper-Pulaski [State Wildlife Area] for Sandhill Cranes. I didn’t see all the cranes, but it was an amazing experience. It feels a whole world away. There were probably a couple thousand and they didn’t roost there. They all kept going. It was like a highway. It was really cool.
Kankakee Sands, also in Indiana, that was an interesting place. I liked the hiking and really liked that part of it that’s on what was once the biggest lake in Indiana…that was drained for farmland. It was awe-inspiring with the big sky. It being so silent there and not seeing anybody the entire day.
BD: It sounds like you appreciate the experience of simply being in these places as much as anything.
AM: I really like the discovery and just wandering. Seeing things I’ve read about, but haven’t seen with my own eyes. Sometimes being out on the prairie, that big sky feeling is kind of freeing.
Nature in Chicagoland is a 304-page softcover published by Nature in Chicagoland LLC (an imprint of College & Career Press) and is available on Morkes’ website. It’s available for a special price of $18.95 with free shipping via USPS Media Mail in the United States.
The latest on the proposed Carvana tower
Last Monday’s post focused on the proposed Carvana tower in Skokie. Carvana is an automobile dealer that sells cars from “car vending machines,” vertical car lots made of glass. The tower in Skokie would be 13 stories tall and would pose a risk to the many migratory birds that utilize the area, including nearby Harms Woods. It was thought the village board may take up the proposal today after clearing a hurdle in a planning committee meeting. As of this writing, there’s no confirmation that the village will take up the issue today so it may extend into next month. Again, you may submit your comments regarding the project to the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org and please cc Chicago Bird Collision Monitors at email@example.com.
We still have a ways to go to meet our sponsorship goal for “The Magic Stump,” a documentary about the Illinois tree stump that’s attracted myriad wintering raptors through the years. Dec. 31 is the deadline for this round of sponsorship, give $10 by then and you’ll receive the above sticker in the mail!
A pair of Peregrine Falcons posed nicely recently for a camera on top of the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Perhaps they were celebrating the re-opening of the U.S-Canada border….If you’d like to chime in on the hearty TWiB discussion about leaf-raking, please do so here. This thread’s drawn quite a response!….The Lisle-Arboretum Christmas Bird Count is set for Sunday, Dec. 19. We’re in need of counters in my section of Area 4. If you’d like to join us, please let me know, birders of all skill levels are welcome….Chicago Wilderness will recognize the recipients of the George B. Rabb Force of Nature Awards on Wednesday at Thatcher Woods Pavilion. The awards honor excellence in ecological restoration and conservation.