Looking for the Grand Kankakee

May 30, 2014

Last week, my wife and I, feeling restless in South Bend, took a self-guided tour of the natural history of our region. We wanted to see the remaining local traces of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, the wetland that once dominated Northern Indiana the way the Everglades still dominate South Florida. Today the Kankakee River is almost invisible. It is a series of small canals (drainage ditches, really) running southwest from the “cooling pond” at the old ethanol plant. The Kankakee River once flowed slowly from these unassuming headwaters in loops and turns for 250 miles to the Illinois border through wooded marshland up to five miles wide.

In a sense, the marsh is still there, under the mint farms west of town. In the early part of the 20th century, when the river was dredged and straightened to its present 87-mile length, drainage tiles were placed under the reclaimed farmland. But if you ask our neighbors in the Rum Village area, they can tell you that the marsh is really still there, a kind of soggy ghost that has been flooding their basements since the ethanol plant stopped pumping water two years ago. Tellingly, a WNDU story this week about a new well and pump installed by the city to prevent the flooding made no mention of the Kankakee. The river – and even more so, the marsh, teeming with fish and wildlife – is one of those monumental, tragic losses that no longer register on the popular imagination. If the marsh were still here, Michiganders would vacation in Indiana.

Today you’d never know that there was once within easy reach of South Bend a natural place to rival the Everglades, but wooded and richer and more beautiful. It extended over 500,000 acres, an area as vast as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you drive down West Calvert Street, past the ethanol plant, to the dead end, you can step from your car and have a view of the river in its modern canalized state. Then it is possible (although maybe not advisable) to follow the dirt road along the south of the canal all the way to Mayflower Avenue. We did that, wondering all the while whether it was legal and worrying about the consequences of blowing a tire. Then we went to see the Belleville Park ponds, remnants of the larger, marshy places where some local historians believe LaSalle and his men put in their canoes after the portage from the St. Joseph River. That 17th-century hike between the two bodies of water linked the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes to the Mississippi, the superhighway of the western frontier. After inhaling that ancient air, we drove to LaSalle Park to view Beck’s Lake, the remnant pond of Kankakee Lake. Finally, at Riverview Cemetery, we gazed down the slope to Pinhook Lagoon at the spot where LaSalle probably ascended from the St. Joseph River.

But my imagination was still lost in the Kankakee. You would have to travel almost to North Judson, in Starke County, to see anything like a true vestige of the original river. But Google Earth makes it possible to trace parts of its course and also to see the outlines of the full extent of the marsh, a shallow glacial valley starting around the toll road and extending and broadening to the southwest and across the border to Momence, Illinois. The sinuous shape of the river survives as odd squiggles on the farmland and various oxbow lakes, until you reach the Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area.

I’m reminded of so many other natural wonders we have lost and are losing in a world in which new technologies never quite satisfy our desires. Human desire needs a Grand Kankakee or a Grand Canyon, a place greater than us, a reminder that we are here for a moment only. We are the visitors, the guests. This world is not our home.