HOMER – Memories of summer camp, lakeside weddings, family reunions, nature hikes, quiet conversations between friends – Homer Lake Forest Preserve is the source and home to all of these. Located in the southeastern section of Champaign County, its 800 acres offer a slower pace for fishing, birding, hiking, picnicking or for just sitting on a bench by the water.
I began my visit to the park late in the day on the West Lake Trail, which is 4.6 miles, the longest hiking loop at Homer Lake. For more than a mile the path follows the edge of the lake through forest, with plenty of benches along the way. Then the path opens onto the prairie portion of the wildlife conservation area, and continues for several miles before it loops back to its starting point.
In the forest, the damp air carried the scent of earth and leaves. Five different varieties of oak live there, alongside walnut, hickory, wild cherry, sycamore, cottonwood and green ash.
The tree canopy is high overhead with subtle gradations of gold, crimson and green. The undergrowth is mostly autumn olive, and small, bright red berries are everywhere. Here and there, native gray dogwood trees dangle clusters of creamy white berries from red stems.
The lake comes in and out of view along the path, and the forest was quiet, except for the faint hum of insects and bird calls. So quiet, in fact, I could hear the sound of a bird's wings beating in flight. It was a downy woodpecker.
Halfway through the forest, I sat on a bench. A lone fisherman, in a small craft just off the bank, let the gentle current carry him as he cast and reeled his line. I resist the urge to call, "catch anything?" He appeared to be a man who enjoyed his own company.
Later, at the edge of the forest, the sky opened wide and the path split in three. I kept to the left, into the prairie. The prairie plants stood about 4 or 5 feet tall. Only goldenrod and prairie aster are still in bloom this late in the year. For a stretch, the path runs next to a county road, before swinging back to the parking lot.
Homer Lake Forest Preserve was established by the state as a conservation area and later transferred to the Champaign County Forest Preserve. Construction of the lake began in 1967. The site also incorporates old Homer Park, which dates all the way back to the early 20th century. Several areas of historical interest are located within the park including an old sugar maple camp and the site of a one-room schoolhouse. A historical marker at the north side of the park informs visitors about Abraham Lincoln's travels through the area on the nearby Old State Road. In the winter, families come with sleds and toboggans to enjoy Sled Hill.
Site superintendent Brian Taylor said that in addition to fishing, boating, and hiking, bird-watching is a popular pastime. An osprey was spotted last week in Flicker Woods, down by the Salt Fork River, he said.
Birds that overwinter and can be seen in the autumn include northern cardinals, eastern blue jays, yellow finches and house finches, as well as various woodpecker species. Taylor said the pileated woodpecker is especially interesting to see, because of its size. And in the evenings, the great horned owl, screech owl, and barred owl – all natives to Illinois – can sometimes be spotted.
The eastern bluebird population at the park has increased since 1991, when a group of three women made that their special project. Known as "the bluebird ladies," Betty Reinhold, Kathy Funk and Betty Routh put up numbered nesting boxes throughout the park, and continue to monitor the number of eggs and fledglings each spring. Taylor said the birds, with their distinctive red and orange breasts, will be back in late March.
Two osprey nesting platforms were constructed by local Boy Scouts as an Eagle Scout project a number of years ago. Taylor said that ospreys have yet to nest there but that hawks use it as a convenient perch while they keep watch for an easy meal.
A new feature at Homer Lake is a wetland area near the center of the park, established this spring. Taylor said that the wetland and surrounding prairie restoration areas are already attracting new wildlife.
"In the next few years, that should be beautiful to see," he said.
Homer Cub Scout cubmaster Cher Cain said when she takes scouts to the park throughout the changing seasons, they see a variety of wildlife. But her favorite memory is of a hike she took with her family late last spring.
"There is a beaver-gnawed tree trunk down by the river," Cain said. "It is shaped like an hour glass, about 2 feet high. It can only be seen when the vegetation is low, like in the spring and late fall.
"It's down the Flicker Woods trail that starts next to the dam. On the same trail, we stopped and listened to woodpeckers, then looked for them in the trees, which prompted us to count the number of holes drilled into the trees by critters. About the same time, two baby ducks flew low over head towards the river behind us.
"It was the coolest thing."
If you go, be sure to stop in at the educational center on your way into the park, especially if you have little ones. There are games, puppets, puzzles, live animals and nature displays.
The bird-viewing area at the back is frequented by a not-so-timid chipmunk. And if you leave your driver's license as a deposit, you can borrow a naturalist backpack full of trail activities and tools to help you explore the park.
Each pack contains activities to complete along the trail as well as educational equipment (binoculars, pond dipping tools, identification books, magnifiers and more!). These packs are available at no cost; however, a driver's license or check for $75 per backpack is required as a deposit.
These will be returned to you upon safe return of the backpack.
If you go
Hours: Homer Lake Forest Preserve is open every day 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. In November through March park closes at 5 p.m.
Facilities: Boat docks, an outdoor amphitheater, interpretive trails, numerous picnic sites and shelters and restrooms. An environmental education center at the entrance is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The staff hosts special programs including late evening owl walks. Center holds exhibits in local flora and fauna.
From Champaign-Urbana: Take Interstate 74 east to the Ogden exit. Go south through Ogden on Illinois 49 and continue south about 2.5 miles. Turn right (west) on County Road 1350N (a tall lone pine tree and a sign mark the turn) and go west about 1.5 miles. Signs point the way to the entrance.