Renewing myself at Emiquon

March has been a month unlike any other.

My work responsibilities have expanded and new opportunities for professional growth appear daily.

I’m helping guide a group of 10- and 11-year-old boys as they learn what it means to be leaders as Boy Scouts.

I’m doing my best to give my son my undivided attention when we’re together.

I’ve been intentional about being present and investing in those relationships that I hold dear, those close and across the miles.

I’ve even been able to dabble in the world of garden speaking, presenting three workshops to Illinois gardeners whose senses have awoken at the hint of spring.

I’ve never felt more engaged in life, yet I’ve fallen down when it comes to taking a moment to recharge myself in the best way I know how — getting outdoors and allowing Mother Nature to fill me with renewal.

Yesterday, as I was traveling to Macomb, IL to present a gardening workshop, I noticed signs near Havana for the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge. I’d never heard of this slice of protected habitat along the Illinois River, so I asked fellow presenter Rhonda Ferree, who coordinates the Illinois Master Naturalist Program, if it would be worth a stop on my way home.

Let’s just say I’m glad Rhonda recommended it.

Emiquon is a 2,600+ acre preserve along the confluence of the Illinois and Spoon rivers, created in 1993 to protect wetland habitats that were vital to a number of migratory bird species. It is one of the Nature Conservancy’s largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest.

The air was crisp, hovering just over 45 degrees, as I stepped out of my car along the edge of the preserve. There was virtually no breeze, and the sun warmed by back of my black coat, rendering the chilly air insignificant.

Emiquon is known for its waterfowl. A few coot swam in criss-cross patterns, leaving V’s in the barely disturbed, bluest water.

Clumps of cattails dot the shoreline, barely holding on to last year’s seed heads. I found it poignant to see the billowing industrial stacks in the distance, a reminder of our human footprint and how investment in places like Emiquon are not only restoration, but reparation.

The first critter that I came upon closely was a muskrat that swam with a few feet of the shore. It proceeded to find the head of a cattail under the water, and plow through it like a kid with a county fair corn dog.

I discovered that muskrats are very popular at Emiquon and not particularly spooked by human visitors. Several crossed the trails in front of me, betraying the fact that they have feet better suited for swimming than walking. Their almost comical waddle reminded me of the ROUSes (Rodents of Unusual Size) that lived in the fictional fire swamps of the Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

A Canada goose protected her nest (and likely incubating eggs) on a small earthen mound. For nearly my entire hour-long visit, she kept this low profile, head bowed as if to say, “You don’t see me.” All the while, she made sure to see me as I pointed my lens in her direction.

A lone swan patrolled the marsh, alternating between headfirst dives in search of food and preening its down.

 

In either a display of intimidation, or simply a stretch of the wings, it suddenly rose up, standing almost entirely out of the water before returning to more sedate activities.

I heard the unmistakable call of red-wing blackbirds, but wasn’t able to get one in focus until I was nearing the end of my visit.

Its breast feathers puffed and scarlet orange-streaked wings formed a cape as a high-decibel trill escaped from its open beak. Up close, it seems a monumental effort for something done so often.

I’ll never hear that common call the same. Perhaps a reminder that we may not fully appreciate the effort of others from a distance.

Before leaving, I laid down on a bench near the water, closed my eyes and let my other senses experience the moment. When traffic would subside on the Illinois River Road, a beautiful silence rose, broken only by the call of the coot across the lake or the splash of a muskrat diving into the water.

I breathed deeply, allowing the air of Emiquon to fill me with new energy. I opened my eyes, staring up into a crystal blue sky, ready for another month to come.

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