- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ALEXIS, Ill. (AP) - There is a place about five miles northwest of Lake Storey, away from the cities and towns, where you can stand in the middle of a prairie atop a hill and see Illinois the way settlers saw it 300 years ago.

As the weather cools and the colors change, the already beautiful Blackthorn Hill Nature Preserve is becoming that much more so. Already oranges and yellows peek through the tops of hundred-year-old trees, the greens becoming more and more speckled with autumnal hues.

It’s a shame how few know it exists.

The 110-acre preserve, named after the blackthorn locust trees that grow there, is open to the public from dawn to dusk. Located on County Highway 4, just off Angling Road in Alexis, Blackthorn Hill offers hiking trails, a ski trail, geocaching opportunities, a monarch weigh station, butterfly garden, four acres of prairie, a variety of wildlife - including birds, butterflies, deer and wild turkeys - and all sorts of woods and plant life.

The location is maintained and supported by the Western Illinois Nature Group as a means to fight “nature deficit disorder,” WING Chairwoman Lora Wright said.

“We wanted a safe place for families and children and the public to be able to enjoy nature,” Wright said.

After the local Girl Scouts camp closed around 15 years ago, Wright and her husband, along with a few other community members who eventually formed WING, were looking for a new place for the scouts to set up shop.

WING was formed shortly thereafter and the group started raising funds to buy the location from the Yeager family that once farmed the land. Tillable areas still exist on the property.

Through fundraising, WING raised around $40,000 and borrowed the remaining $60,000 to buy the massive plot of land. Blackthorn Hill was opened to the public 13 years ago this winter. Today, the site sees school groups, 4-H members, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, family gatherings, weddings, photo shoots, naturalists and painters.

Walking recently through the activity area, where fire rings were set up and a clearing was made for tent camping, Wright pointed out a maple tree.

She recalled an afternoon several years ago with her husband when the preserve was in its early stages of development.

“We were out here clearing the area, laying woodchips, when we started to hear rumbling, thunder,” Wright said, looking up at the tree. “It started raining, big drops coming down. We just stood under there, taking shelter and stayed dry. We just stood there and listened to the rain. It was a nice quite moment with my husband.”

Leading from the activity area is a long red rock road - a $15,000 project paid for with funds from the Galesburg Community Foundation, Pioneer International, the Twomey Foundation and several other local entities. The road leads past three wooden cabins, hand built by Boy Scouts, and alongside the prairie.

Standing next to the tall grass, Wright picked up a piece of broken pottery.

“Over a hundred years ago, there was a sawmill here,” she said, “and a homestead. That’s probably part of something left from the homestead.”

Standing there, atop the hill next to the prairie, one can experience unfiltered nature. Catbirds and crickets chirping, the wind whistling over pristine forest, animals rustling in the tall grass. Butterflies coming and going from the nearby butterfly garden. And mosquitoes, too, are all part of nature at its purest.

On the treetops, specks of orange promise a beautiful fall.

“In a couple weeks, this will be bursting with color,” Wright said.

While the location is open to the public, WING also offers memberships; $25 for families, $50 for businesses and organizations. Members receive discounts on facility fees and activity fees for sponsored events and can reserve cabins or activity areas. WING has about 35 members, down from a high of around 70. The group is always looking for more members, Wright said.

“I think the variety is the best asset we have,” Wright said. “You can come out here and just have a picnic, you can come out here and tent camp, sleep in cabins, weenie roast. There’s education opportunities.”

As she explained, Lisa Justus, the former Galesburg teacher who introduced the bug catching program in District 205, is becoming a Master Naturalist and is looking to start a variety of education programs for children and adults next year.

“You’d be surprised, but you get kids out here with no cellphones, no computer, they get out here and just start talking to each other and playing. And learning.” Wright said “It’s amazing how quickly they just put the phone down and become kids.”

For more information on Blackthorn Hill Nature Preserve, visit https://www.blackthornhill.org

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Online: The (Galesburg) Register-Mail, https://bit.ly/1BIBuDB

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Information from: The Register-Mail, https://www.register-mail.com

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