Chicago’s other lake welcomed visitors to venture inside its barbwire fences in late April for its fifth annual Earth Day hike. Under the jurisdiction of the Illinois International Port District, Lake Calumet—the largest lake in Chicago, located a twenty-four-minute drive south from the Loop—is typically under lock, key, and a ring of security cameras. Earth Day, however, provides a rare opportunity for visitors to access the hidden land.
“This is unlike any other area in the entire city of Chicago, and it’s still literally unknown by most of the region because the first impression you get of the Lake Calumet area is the expressway,” said Ders Anderson, Greenways Director at Openlands, an Illinois conservation organization.
Hikers gathered bright and early at Calumet’s Harborside International Golf Center—the only portion of the area open to the paying public. After stocking up on donuts, a couple dozen nature enthusiasts from as far as deep Indiana boarded the two yellow school buses that would slip beyond the property limits.
Although it was freezing, the huddled crew ranged the windy peninsulas for a two-hour, half-mile educational hike. Anderson narrated the tour along with Tom Shepherd, member and former president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF), and several bird and tree experts. The guides relayed a history of failure and contamination.
“This was heavily industrialized around the 1880s up until the 1980s,” Anderson said. “It used to be a dumping ground with landfills—a lot of fly-by-night chemical companies that would leave their waste behind, go bankrupt, and disappear.”
The lake is now scattered with landfills that protrude into water three to four feet deep on average, the skeleton of a failed marina project. The lake can hardly accommodate life, let alone the ocean-going sea vessels once intended to dock there. The soil, groundwater, and sediment are toxic, and cleaning it up will take years.
Environmental groups like the Calumet Heritage Partnership, Openlands, and the SETF are fighting to get the Chicago Park District and Cook County Forest Preserve District to officially recognize and preserve Lake Calumet.
They foresee a one-hundred acre public peninsula that could host picnic areas, fishing, biking, and small boat and kayak access. The majority of the wetlands would be set off for birds in order to recolonize the species that have been driven from their habitats by chemical waste and to nurture the species already living there.
“Our endeavor is to get at least 282 acres of this property open to the public,” Shepherd said. “Our Lake Calumet vision is almost twenty years old. We’ve been trying to persuade the Port District to give this up. This is something that should be enjoyed by all of us—not only golfers.”