Finding Northern Indiana’s Lost Marsh

The Grand Kankakee Marsh was the largest inland wetland in the contiguous US until it was drained for agriculture. Now conservationists are trying to piece it back together.

I recall, growing up in northern Indiana, brief references to the Grand Kankakee Marsh. In the seventh grade, many of us in my class were able to go to Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area for a “swamp stomp,” which was a fun, muddy field trip that entailed wading through the swamp. I also knew, as a kid, that at one time the Kankakee River region had been a destination for waterfowl hunters from around the world. I didn’t, however, spend much time considering the history or ecology of the land that I was growing up on. When I saw signs that said “Peat Area” near the state park where my family camped, I didn’t know what “peat” meant and didn’t understand the wetland heritage that it signified. But when I began kayaking, in my teens, I began looking more closely at the natural landscape.

photo of jasper-pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area
The Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area is a remnant of the Grande Kankakee Marsh, which once encompassed over 1,500 square miles between current day South Bend, Indiana and Momence, Illinois. Photo by Dan Dzurisin.

One of my first kayaking trips took me through Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area, southwest of South Bend, Indiana. Though that occurred nearly ten years ago, when I was graduating from high school, I clearly remember the long, straight “river” that was the Kankakee, with levees on each side to stop flooding. I also remember not being able to paddle back upstream to my vehicle. I had just enough flip-phone reception to call my dad, who drove over an hour to meet me downstream, where he picked me up in his white truck at a spot where carp were jumping. That was the day I began to vaguely understand what used to exist in the area. Still, I greatly underestimated the geographic extent, and ecological importance, of the vast and diverse wetland that once existed there.

More than 150 years ago, before developers dug ditches, built levees, and transformed this landscape into the farmland it is today, the Grand Kankakee Marsh was the largest inland wetland in the contiguous United States. Once a dynamic ecosystem supporting an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, the marsh has been reduced to a handful of small protected areas and parks — mere reminders of a vast former natural landscape. But some scientists and conservationists are trying to bring back a portion of this formerly grand marsh that many people like myself, who grew up nearby, are largely unaware of.

The fall after my kayaking trip on the Kankakee River, I went to Purdue University to begin my formal education in wildlife biology. Though somewhat distracted by newfound freedoms, I did start to hear more about the Kankakee Marsh. I remember my dendrology (tree study) instructor speaking sadly about Beaver Lake, which was drained in the mid-1800s to create farmland. At 36,000 acres, Beaver Lake was three times bigger than Lake Monroe, currently the biggest lake in Indiana. During a spring trip to Kankakee Sands with my ornithology professor, my classmates and I saw shorebirds on a mudflat within a beautiful, wet prairie. Then, in the fall, on a trip with The Wildlife Society, I visited Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area to see thousands of migrating sandhill cranes. The cranes’ exuberant, wooden voices filled the evening air, as some glided into the field to forage where others seemed to playfully leap. I’ll never forget the tears in my friend’s eyes. He saw a deep beauty that I didn’t yet.

Somehow, I’ll admit, I still didn’t understand then that all these memories — the peat-covered state park where my family camped, the middle school “swamp stomp,” the leveed Kankakee River, stories of Beaver Lake, my visits to Kankakee Sands and Jasper-Pulaski — each represented fragments of the same natural wonder.

Created by melting glaciers that also formed the Great Lakes, the Grand Kankakee Marsh followed the natural, meandering, non-leveed course of the Kankakee River, encompassing over 1,500 square miles between current day South Bend, Indiana, all the way to Momence, Illinois. It was about the size of Connecticut. Bison wandered, greater prairie chicken displayed, waterfowl abounded, large predators roamed, and Native peoples lived off the land. The diversity of habitats and wildlife were similar to today’s Serengeti plains in Africa.

Soon after the Civil War ended, a 50-plus year ditching effort cut 250 meandering river miles down to 90 straightened miles, while nearly draining the entire marsh. Habitat disappeared. Today, only five percent of the former Grand Kankakee Marsh exists as wetland, tiny islands in a sea of corn and soybean fields.

Less than 75 years after the draining was initiated, the state of Indiana began purchasing and restoring remnants of the Grand Kankakee Marsh where six Fish and Wildlife Areas and Potato Creek State Park exist today. Other entities, like The Nature Conservancy, have also contributed significantly to restoration efforts.

When recently I finally learned to look, seeing what remained felt like finding charred fragments of a storied painting. Though I knew it had been awe-inspiring, I couldn’t clearly imagine the marsh in its entirety.

I soon found myself searching for information about the Grand Kankakee Marsh to better imagine what I couldn’t see clearly. My research led me to Jeff Manes, an avid fisherman and former steel worker who wrote and co-produced a documentary called Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

In March, Manes invited me to his home along the Kankakee River to talk about the marsh. Manes also invited Jim Sweeney, a leader of the Izaak Walton League of America, which supports natural resource conservation efforts throughout the United States. Sweeney, retired from an energy company, has been working for more than 20 years to restore the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

In Manes’s living room, with a view of the leveed river, we squinted at the landscape. And at the past. I began to see more clearly the natural wonder that had existed where we sat.

“Isn’t that pitiful?” Manes said. “We have to daydream about what it must have been like.”

Sweeney replied: “It would have been a national park, if it had survived.”

Manes continued to explain how plans to create a bistate Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge, spanning the Illinois-Indiana border, were shelved in 2000 due largely to opposition by landowners who feared their land would be taken without their consent. Subsequently, Everglades of the North sparked much public interest. According to Manes and Sweeney, overcoming the political opposition that stopped the refuge’s creation would require the marsh to become more prominent in local people’s minds.

“If everyone knew that there was a half million-acre swamp here at one time,” Sweeney said, “I think that we could talk them into … bringing some of it back.”

These efforts are already underway. In 2016, Illinois resurrected some of the plans from around 2000 by endorsing the creation of the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. Friends of the Kankakee, an Illinois-based organization dedicated to restoring the Grand Kankakee Marsh by acquiring land from willing sellers, donated the initial 66 acres (that’s all, so far).

Illinois citizens are also influenced by management of the Kankakee River in Indiana, so their input about what happens across the border is important, too. “Poor Illinois,” Manes explained. “They’ve been getting all our sand and silt. And it’s causing a problem over there.”

Because it’s been straightened in Indiana, the Kankakee flows much faster than it did historically. Consequently, so much sediment settles in the Illinois part of the river (where it wasn’t straightened) that some boats can no longer pass through. Restoring wetlands and the Kankakee River’s natural course in Indiana would help to fix this problem. Refuge approval, though, will likely require many letters to Indiana’s governor.

Every day, the Kankakee’s flow gradually returns to a more natural path, as the river carves away the unnatural banks. Similarly, every day more people like Manes, Sweeney, and myself understand more and more clearly the sum of the parts that we’ve seen.

Like the glacier that created the Grand Kankakee Marsh, we hope that together our movement, which I’m now proud to be a part, will generate enough weight and power to create something beautiful. When that happens, I believe that the Kankakee ditch will be reborn as a river that will flow through the center of a marsh that will again be called grand.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described the Grande Kankakee Marsh as once encompassing 5,000 square miles. It once encompassed 1,500 square miles.

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