If you know where to look in the northwest corner of Izaak Walton Nature Preserve, you can find an idyllic spot to rest on one of two benches surrounded by tall red and black oak trees.
The little clearing can be reached by its own small path off the main trail. Visitors there find a place that feels both secluded and airy, with the trees dense enough to provide a partial canopy but not so populous as to create a sense of claustrophobia.
The patch of oak woods is part of an ecological and historic preservation effort.
The area is commonly referred to as the oak savanna, although Izaak Walton board president John Brinkman notes that technically it is a woodland, since tree density is higher than the 10 to 25 percent of a typical savanna but not as high as a forest, which has 60 percent trees or more and a fuller canopy.
Volunteers have been working to reclaim and preserve the woodland for about five years, he said. He credited Carolyn Beery of Homewood for getting the project started.
Oaks are a natural part of mature sand dune ecologies, and Izaak Walton has two remaining dunes — Glenwood Dunes and Calumet Dunes — that were created by Lake Chicago, the ancient ancestor of Lake Michigan. The oak woodland sits atop Calumet Dunes, Brinkman said.
In the fall of 2014, volunteers began cutting down buckthorn and other invasive species in the woodland. The biggest challenge has been removing cherry trees, he said, which were beginning to compete with the oaks for primacy.
Fire is another key tool in the effort to restore the woodland. Oaks are naturally fire resistant, but cherries are not, Brinkman said. So volunteers have conducted controlled burns in the spring when they can.
Another goal is to add more native species to the mix when the cherry trees are eliminated, things like May apple, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, bottlebrush and wild geranium.
The area is a fairly rare example of sand dune terrain in our area, Brinkman said.
From 1918 through 1926, the Illinois Central Railrooad excavated about 1.5 million cubic yards of sand from land that is now part of the preserve, according to “Homewood Through the Years,” by Jim Wright. The sand was used to build the terrain for the massive Markham Yards rail center.
“This is a very unique environment,” he said. “When it was an ancient shoreline to Lake Michigan it was probably vastly bigger. So this is all that’s left.”
The path that leads into the clearing at the heart of the woodland was an Eagle Scout project, Brinkman said.
“They built the benches,” he said. “That’s a wonderful space. It’s a place for contemplation.”