By: John Griffee
Long before South Bend’s establishment, there was a humble river that flowed through the area, influencing the course of history and the shaping of our environment: The Kankakee River.
Though the Kankakee has lost most of its grandeur and size due to human intervention, the river still flows through the area, albeit in a straightened channel. The once mighty Kankakee that drained thousands of square miles hardly resembles its past form these days, though its remains can be seen at Kankakee State Fishing and Wildlife Area and Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park.
Over three hundred years ago, the famous French explorer, Robert LaSalle, would have been navigating through the South Bend area using the Kankakee River. Even before LaSalle’s excursion across the Great Lakes area, the Kankakee was an important source of refuge for local Native Americans.
Stretching from northwestern Indiana into northeastern Illinois, the Kankakee River is a tributary of the Illinois River. During the pioneering era in the United States, the river offered explorers a transitional area between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. Aside from its significance to explorers and the fur trade, the Kankakee supported one of North America’s largest wetlands, even larger than the Everglades at one point.
Wetlands are potentially the most important type of ecosystem found anywhere in the world, harboring mass amounts of biodiversity and acting as our largest carbon sinks. Carbon sinks are natural areas that use large amounts of carbon, typically through plant life, acting as a mitigating force to global warming.
During the reallocation of the natural forces of the Kankakee River, many habitats were lost and local animal and plant populations were devastated. The river was channeled and used as a natural irrigation source for agriculture in the area. What remains of the river in our area can commonly be seen in the form of irrigation ditches, stretching through the outskirts of South Bend towards North Liberty.
Attempts to reclaim the once great wetlands area that the Kankakee provided has found some success through the Indiana Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project. The group’s respective website has a tab listing all of the wetlands areas bought in their efforts to restore the former bounds of the Grand Kankakee Marsh.
One name on the list may stick out to South Bend residents and hikers in the area: Chamberlain Lake Nature Preserve. The parking lot at Chamberlain Lake greets visitors with a sign mentioning the restoration group as well as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The act has funded over 3,000 total projects, allocating almost two billion in grants towards the reclamation of wetlands.
Though the Kankakee River has lost over half of its original length, there are promising signs of the return towards its origins. The Kankakee is not just a river, it’s a piece of history.
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