First, a bit of history. During the middle of the 19th century, the area that now includes most of the southern part of Lincoln Park was the City Cemetery. Then someone started thinking that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to have a cemetery right up against the city’s water supply — Lake Michigan. So, about 1866 or so, the process of removing some 30,000 mortal remains and putting a park in their place began. The park included a series of artificial ponds, including North Pond, to the north of Fullerton Parkway; the Caldwell Lily Garden, bordering the Zoo on the North; the Waterfowl Lagoons in the Zoo proper; and South Pond, which became a favorite recreation area for Chicagoans, complete with paddle boats and two islands for picnicking. In 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo began with the gift of a pair of swans from the Central Park Zoo in New York, who took up residence in South Pond.
Restoration to a natural habitat began in 2009, and I have to say it’s worked out well. The north end of the pond is fitted neatly between the Zoo’s Hooved Mammals exhibits on the east and Café Brauer and the Farm in the Zoo on the west. The Nature Boardwalk begins just south of Café Brauer and circumnavigates the pond, with entry points around the perimeter.
Café Brauer itself is a good example of Prairie School architecture and houses not only the café but an ice-cream stand in a satellite annex, joined to the main building by a second-level terrace which spans the complex. It also includes the Patio, a covered terrace at ground level, which is usually packed in the summer. The prices are reasonable and the menu, while not exhaustive, has enough variety to entertain repeat visits. I haven’t eaten there in years — it’s usually packed, especially in the summer, but the food seems to be a hit. The Patio also serves beer, wine and cocktails.
From the north end of the Pond, just south of the Zoo entrance, one is faced with an amazing view of downtown Chicago framed by the Park. “The City in a Garden,” indeed. The view’s even more striking from the Lester Fisher Bridge, which spans the Pond just south of the start of the Boardwalk. Also at the north end is as small waterfall, installed a few years ago. For some reason, those responsible were unable to have the waterfall drain into the Pond, and installed a series of large corrugated rubber pipes and pumps to “correct” the circulation. (I called it “Chicago’s answer to the Loch Ness monster’.”) Fortunately, these have now been removed and one can once again see fish and the occasional turtle in the water.
So — the Boardwalk itself. It loops completely around the Pond, with access points at intervals, and also observation platforms that jut out over the Pond and provide a good vantage for close-up viewing of whatever might be in the water. The Pond itself covers five acres of the fourteen acre site, and the Boardwalk runs about a half mile around the Pond’s circumference. There are benches located at intervals along the Boardwalk, and paved paths that run around the perimeter of the site and periodically connect.
Late summer — say, from late July through mid-September — is the best time to visit. That’s when everything is in full growth and full bloom. The restoration has included shoreline and wetland plants: bulrushes, cattails, Sagittaria (arrowhead), and reeds — and I may even have spotted some watercress down in there. That gives way to verge and prairie plants: blue vervain, cardinal flower, butterfly weed, purple and yellow coneflowers, goldenrod, rattlesnake master, sweet everlasting, wild lettuce, Missouri primrose, wild mints, and others that I haven’t identified yet (have to remember to take my wildflower guide on the next trip), and a variety of tall grasses, some quite showy.
And there are birds and other wildlife (well, that was sort of the point): ducks, mostly mallards and teal, but the occasional wood duck shows up; Canada geese will visit from North Pond. There are also redwing blackbirds, ring-billed gulls (although they tend to stick to the Lake), chickadees, and a few others (another guidebook). Swallows nest under the bridge. One might also spot a great blue heron, and most particularly, black-crowned night herons, which are endangered in Illinois and at one point had formed a nesting colony on the island. (The original two islands are now joined.) The Zoo designated the area as a sanctuary and has a nice sign describing the birds and their habits. Wildlife being wildlife, the birds decided they liked the wolf habitat in the Children’s Zoo better. On bright days, of which there are many this time of year, you’re bound to spot a turtle or two sunning on a half-submerged branch, and you might glimpse a frog or toad, although they tend to be shy. Rabbits, of course, although they blend into the undergrowth. In the shade under the bridge you’ll spot pumpkinseed and sunfish, and maybe, if you’re lucky and the smaller fish are not, a large-mouth bass will make an appearance.
On the east side of the Pond is the Education Pavilion, a futuristic dome that shelters everything from yoga classes to lectures. There are also newly planted pin oaks on the east side of the pond, which looks like an effort to bring back the oak savanna that used to cover northern Illinois before urban sprawl took over.
The signage, sadly, is fairly elementary. There are periodic “field guides” that point out some of the wildlife to be seen and brief descriptions of the ecology of the pond, interspersed with signs saying “Please don’t feed the wildlife.” I could wish for more information, frankly.
Another minus: lack of public “facilities,” which were originally housed in Carlson Cottage, adjoining Café Brauer. That building is now the home of the gardening volunteers for the Park District, and not publicly accessible for anything. If you feel the call, you have to go into the Zoo proper.
The Pond (and Zoo) are easily reachable by public transportation. From downtown, several bus lines stop right at the Pond and Zoo (the 151 Sheridan, and 156 LaSalle) or a block or so away (the 22 Clark and 36 Broadway, and the 74 Armitage, if you’re coming from the west). Parking can be iffy — the lots tend to fill up in the summer.
The Boardwalk and the benches are made from recycled plastic, just in case you were wondering what happened to those shopping bags you took back for recycling.
Keep a sharp eye out for herons — they tend to hold very still, and blend readily into whatever background is there.
Animal blooper: A sparrow trying to perch on a very limber grass stem. Didn’t work out well.
There is exactly one bench on the Boardwalk that offers shade. One. (Well, it’s a wetland/prairie environment.) There is, however, a nice shaded garden just off the Boardwalk at the south end, and lots of shade in the Park south of that.