Last piece of Des Plaines River Trail is in place
As a runner, Bob Friend became accustomed to taking a frustrating detour off the Des Plaines River Trail where it ended near Aptakisic Road in Lincolnshire to rejoin the path about a third of a mile to the north.
Friend moved to Riverwoods in 1993 and learned the Lake County Forest Preserve District envisioned the trail running the length of the county. Section by section, it came to be -- except for the gap that irritated him and others for decades.
"This has been like a lifelong thing. I said, `My kids are going to move out before it's done,' and (that) happened," he joked on a recent afternoon while out for a run with his dog, Lola.
After 35 years, the last piece of the trail finally has been completed, and Friend and Lola were enjoying the finished product.
An official opening is expected soon, but the word has spread. A flow of runners, walkers and bikers have christened this last section of what is now a continuous 31.4-mile path crisscrossing the river from the top of Lake County to the bottom.
"Thanks for this," a bike rider said as he sped past an informal gathering of forest district employees that included Randy Seebach, director of planning and land preservation. Seebach said there is excitement and an emotional lift in completing the important milestone.
"You saw the excitement when we're out here," he tells a visitor. "That's so rewarding."
What is now known as the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway has grown to about 7,600 acres encompassing 12 forest preserves. However, most users likely are unaware of how long the plan has been on the books and what it has taken to reach this point.
"They actually got this thing linked up? Wow," said Stephen Christy, who was supervisor of planning and design for the forest district in 1980 when the first trail segment was built.
The start of that 6.3-mile stretch between Wadsworth Road and Route 173 was built in what later became an addition to Van Patten Woods, the district's first land purchase in 1961. Creating the Des Plaines River Trail has involved 142 land acquisitions over 53 years. But a trail wasn't the original vision.
In 1963, forest commissioners authorized acquiring a minimum of 300 feet on either side of the centerline of the river as a means to "control drainage and water conditions," according to the approved ordinance.
Property acquisition was a key tenet of the fledgling forest district. There were trails in individual preserves, but the idea of connecting the dots along the river didn't surface until the late 1970s and evolved as more land was acquired.
Jerry Soesbe, who was hired in 1966 out of college to complete an open space plan and served as the district's first director from 1968 to 1991, said early planning envisioned a comprehensive approach in the river corridor that included flood protection, recreational uses and scenic views. Specific approaches to reach those goals followed with land acquisition and later development plans for trails and access points.
"They realized this thing was really more important than they thought," Seebach said. "They started to string those properties together."
Christy said land acquisition in those days was contentious and commissioners were under the gun to make sites available for public use.
"We said, 'Well, let's build the first section of this trail,'" Christy recalled. "We wanted to show something was happening, that the land wasn't locked up and was usable."
Trail construction was simpler in 1980.
"There were no permits. There was no wetland review. We just went ahead and laid it out," he said. "You start walking with the (bull)dozer behind you."
Campanella & Sons Inc. of Wadsworth was the general contractor for the first trail segment. It has the same role on the last segment. Kevin Zupec, foreman for the current job, was a heavy equipment operator on the first.
"Did I think it would go all the way to Cook County? It never entered my mind," he said of the original work. Zupec said he plans to "get on my bicycle one of these days" and take a spin on the entire length of a trail he helped build.
Property purchases slowed with a change in law that required voters to approve funding for land acquisition, said Jim LaBelle, a county board member/forest preserve commissioner in 1980. There was a time when much more land was designated for acquisition than funds available, but the vision remained, he said.
"The Des Plaines trail became one of the core objectives of our land acquisition program for quite a number of years," said LaBelle, who served as forest preserve district president from 1994 to 1996.
"The reason it took awhile was the forest preserve was trying to be respectful of the owners in the corridor. Even finding an easement was sometimes difficult to do."
Eventually, the only piece left was the section east of the Par-King Skill Golf Course. After 20 years of overtures, owner Gus Boznos in 2014 relented and agreed to sell a narrow 4.4-acre strip to the district.
Construction has been challenging. Because the corridor was so narrow, bulk material like topsoil could be brought in only one truck at a time. The path is 8 feet wide compared to the typical 12 feet, and a 500-foot sheet metal retaining wall was needed to keep the river from undercutting the trail.
Soesbe, 77, who has lived downstate for many years, says the trail completion is a source of pride and accomplishment for staff, board members and trail advocates who were involved over the years.
"It makes me really happy," he said. "It was my first project. It wasn't just my idea, but it makes it all worthwhile."