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Thursday, May 18, 2006 11:08 am

Battered but beautiful

Life goes on at a troubled oxbow lake of the Illinois River

art3047
An eagle swing at the Lake DePue village park. The habitat for actual eagles has been badly degraded.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM HANDY
"Populations” and “communities” are ecological terms describing scientific premises, but the large groups of waterfowl resting on Lake DePue, chattering among themselves, seem to imply community in its human sense — that of homes and the relationship of one being to another. The lake sits just above the point where the Illinois River turns to the south, approximately 145 miles north of Springfield. The entire Great Bend area is rife with history, both human and natural. Birds have been coming here for 12,000 years, and humans most likely followed 1,000 years later. It was a place of Indian encampments and French explorers and is still a migratory mecca for birds. However, human and natural history have collided at Lake DePue. It is at once a significant wildlife refuge and an EPA cleanup site. The lake is battered but beautiful. Lake DePue is an oxbow lake of the Illinois River, and such lakes are happening places. These bodies of water are typically connected to the river at the upper or lower end, although not all have maintained a connection. Having been stranded behind natural levees that were created when silt was dropped at the Illinois River’s quieter edges, they supply crucial environment in a chain of abundance that leads up to the arrival of winged and bipedal creatures. Lake DePue has lured breeding fish, nesting eagles, rookery-building herons, and town-building people. It has been the setting for the genesis of life and lifestyles. The purity of spring-fed Lake DePue was once renowned, so much so that the small town of DePue became famous for its ice industry, supplying the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. There were icehouses and fish markets and fishermen’s shanties lining the lake, from which a 100,000-pound catch of legend was reported in the late 1800s. In addition, railcar loads of mussels were shipped out to button-makers, and the numbers of waterfowl visiting the lake were astounding. Livelihoods were pursued in close connection to the water, and the wildlife continued to flourish. Today there is a village park next to the lake with a pavilion, playground equipment, and benches facing the water, adding ease to the practice of birdwatching in DePue. During each visit to the park I have been privy to remarkable days in the lives of the lake’s natural inhabitants — a young bald eagle, testing its skills, flying nearly overhead as adults watch from a vantage point in the trees; a group of white pelicans, thought to be making their spring arrival, meandering about the sky in their no-particular-place-to-go style of flight. On spotting a group of great blue herons in winter, I learned that both the herons and great egrets are staying in DePue year-round and that the herons number more than 1,500 — a population nearly that of the village. While at the park it is easy to imagine a long-ago time and the idyllic scenes of human activities on and near this lake as conjured in “History of DePue,” a booklet published in 1976 in commemoration of the nation’s bicentennial that I found at the town’s library: “The sound of a boat’s calliope as it entered the mouth of the lake was an exciting sound, for it promised magic in the form of a live performance on the lakefront. The young boys in town looked forward to the coming of a boat because the paddlewheel supplied them with a diving board for their summer swims.” The history includes tales of excursion boats with dance orchestras and the celebration of fellowship at ice-cream socials held lakeside to take advantage of the sights and the breeze. However, the early 20th century would mark a time when sedimentation and pollution from upstream urban areas and agriculture began descending the Illinois River and into all backwater areas. Like a reminder of life in sudden transition, a single wall of a fisherman’s house still stands near Lake DePue like a monument — or a memorial — and it becomes all too easy to imagine the ensuing and bewildering transformations that took place. It became an era of factories and immigrants with hope, and the lake so cherished by the people and home to so much wildlife would witness dramatic changes. The first plant was built in DePue in 1903 for the production of slab zinc, which was used in the automobile and appliance industries, as well as sulfuric acid. It was the largest plant of its type in the United States, and an even greater demand for the plant’s products arose during World War I. Although the early labor force in the New Jersey Zinc plant was made up of local people, growing labor demands attracted immigrants from Poland, Slovenia, Spain, and Mexico. Others came from Italy, France, Greece, and Bulgaria. A lithopone plant was built in 1923, a fertilizer plant in 1966. Life seemed easier. The company took care of the town and its people, and surely the waters would wash away the waste entering the lake. It was a miscalculation made by industries at waterways around the world. Robert Gottlieb, in the 1993 book Major Problems in American Environmental History,said that the period between the 1860s and World War I can be thought of as “laying in place the contemporary environmental hazards of daily life in urbanized and industrialized America.” DePue is not alone in suffering the legacy of early industry. The influx of sediments continues to be a problem for all lakes as well. A 1986 report on backwater lakes along the Illinois included a discussion of human impact. The report chronicled continuing sedimentation from the Illinois River during flooding, as well as the addition of increasing sediment from a tributary input resulting from erosion from agricultural lands. It noted that lakes everywhere along the river are being suffocated and subsumed by silt. Two decades ago, in a report published by the Illinois Natural History Survey, scientists predicted that “half of the meager volume of these lakes will be lost in a relatively few decades.” We are running out of time. The factories are now gone, the last one closing in 1990, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, along with the U.S. EPA and the former owners, is working to restore some semblance of the area’s former self. It is thought that heavy metals still lie at the bottom of Lake DePue, and other waste piles dot the landscape of the town. Now recognized are the all-important relationships — of one being to another, of actions to unintended consequences — and human beings and nature will need to work together for the lake to survive. The Illinois EPA is not the only government agency in town. Researchers have determined that the Great Bend is the apex for three major waterfowl flyways, and so the Illinois Department of Natural Resources maintains a presence here to manage the Lake DePue State Fish and Wildlife Area and the 3,015-acre Donnelley/DePue State Park, a significant sanctuary for migratory waterfowl. Both agencies have found the area consequential enough to place managers on site. These managers deal with deadlines and aggravation, and yet wonderment often invades their stories. Rich Lange of the Illinois EPA tells me about the removal of metals-laden soil lining a drainage ditch to the lake while good-naturedly complaining about the interference of the beavers. The eagles never cease to amaze either man. Mike Resetich of DNR tells me about the incredible size of a branch a bald eagle was incorporating into its nest, and Lange shows off a picture he snapped of an eagle found sitting in a tree in the lakeside village park. I am regularly updated on sightings of eagles — both mature and immature. Lake DePue sits poised between human and natural history and all the encounters between the two. The area boasts the legend of Starved Rock, located 21 miles to the east of DePue, and the ongoing story of a smashingly successful wetland restoration at the Hennepin and Hopper Lake basins, 10 miles to the south. DePue itself may one day provide a new chapter in the story of human-nature encounters. A pilot project of native plantings on a phosphogypsum waste stack outside the town is set to take place this summer, as is the study of the lake and its future. Backwater lakes are few, and they are important. Unlike many backwater lakes that were drained for agriculture, Lake DePue still exists, and with existence comes hope. There has been so much done to our natural resources that cannot be undone, so much lost that cannot be recovered. But the animals here are true survivors, and so there remains the remnant of possibility, the suggestion of something awe-inspiring. The term “communities” does indeed imply the homes and relationships of one being to another — the wildlife, the village, and the agency people. This can be seen in the possibilities for the wildlife, such as the river-otter reintroduction that has been successful beyond expectation; and in the possibilities for the town as it is considered for inclusion in the Grand Illinois Trail, which joins existing and proposed state and local trails to create the longest continuous recreational trail between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River; and in the contributions of the agency personnel who are working to build a future for all. Lake DePue may be battered, but with any luck it will one day be better — and still it is beautiful.
More information about the Donnelley/DePue State Park can be found on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Web site, dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R1/Don.htm. Donnelley/DePue State Park and many surrounding areas of interest are included in the Illinois River Country Nature Trail, Princeton Loop. Information can be found at www.fermatainc.com/il/loop_8.html.
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