Thursday, January 11, 2007

Enjoying River Bend Forest Preserve

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Snowshoeing? Nope. Cross country skiing? Forget it. Ice skating? Only indoors. If you’re going to enjoy the outdoors this winter it looks like taking a walk may be your best bet. Perhaps a hike at the River Bend Forest Preserve in south Mahomet is in order. River Bend is one of four sites maintained by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and the most recent addition to the suite. The River Bend property was acquired through a deal that combined a generous private donation of land with a purchase made possible by a state grant. It was formally opened to the public in June of 2006.

About half of the 275-acre River Bend site is occupied by two lakes, which are actually excavations created by decades of gravel mining. Because no streams flow into or out of them, both lakes at River Bend are remarkably clear and free of pollutants. The smaller of the two, Shadow Lake, is designed to accommodate floodwater from the Sangamon River, which forms the northern border of the preserve. But the larger one, Sunset Lake, is pristine, fed strictly by groundwater. I haven’t fished them myself, but I’ve been told they contain healthy populations of good-sized crappie, a claim I mean to test come spring.

The lakes at River Bend are quite deep compared to most other local water bodies—up to 50 feet—which makes them late to freeze over—that is, in years when things do freeze over. The fact that they remain open into the winter makes them especially attractive to migrating waterfowl. Back in December, three trumpeter swans headed south spent a few days there. Other migrating or wintering birds you might see using the lakes at River Bend include diving ducks, grebes, osprey, and even bald eagles.

Forest Preserve District director of natural resources Dan Olson is quick to point out that the anglers and boaters who use Sunset Lake have an important role to play in keeping it clean and free from the aquatic invaders that are doing so much damage to other waters in the state. By following the special regulations for the site, which include no boats with motors and no live bait except for worms, the public can help to ensure that future generations have the same opportunities for recreation there that we do.

In addition to its lakes, River Bend includes a two-and-a-half mile corridor along the Sangamon River, where Olson and his staff are working to reestablish the native floodplain forest. There, 90 acres have been planted with a variety of oaks, hickories, and other trees, as well as an assortment of native shrubs. One grove of trees near the main entrance to the site is dedicated as a memorial to those who were killed in the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

A combination of multi-use trails and paths designated for hiking provides access to the land features of River Bend. Interpretive signs along the trails direct the visitor’s attention to highlights and provide information about the plants and animals you might see there.

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District should be applauded for its ecologically sensitive approach in the developments that facilitate public use of River Bend. It features roads and trails made from recycled asphalt, parking lots that minimize water pollution by directing stormwater into wetland swales, and landscaping that showcases native trees and shrubs.

Whether or not winter ever settles in this year, River Bend offers great opportunity to get outside.