Up until 1999, North Pond was just a pond in the Park, bordered by lawns and lilacs and other shrubs. That changed as the Lincoln Park Conservancy embarked on a restoration of the Pond and its environs to a “natural” state, with plantings of native shoreline and prairie plants. The sanctuary covers fifteen acres, and the restoration has been very successful — although there are still signs of occasional tweaking.
There is a paved path that circumnavigates the Pond, mostly at some distance from the shore, and side paths that lead closer to the edge and through some of the “prairie gardens” that have been planted just off the shore. The path is open to the Park, so you can start anywhere. I generally start at the north end, at the observation deck just outside the North Pond Restaurant, which is housed in a structure originally built in 1912 as a warming shelter for ice skaters. (Chicagoans visit their parks year-around, but no more ice-skating at North Pond, sad to say.) It was rebuilt in an Arts and Crafts style as part of the renovation. The menu is very much New Wave, and offers a range of entrees, first courses, salads, and the like, with main course prices ranging from $35-$40. (No, no hot dogs available here.) The Restaurant also serves Sunday brunch at $33 per person.
The observation deck offers a stunning view of downtown Chicago framed by Lincoln Park, with North Pond in the foreground. (One thing I love about Chicago is that everywhere you look, there’s a picture. This one says “The city in a garden,” with no ifs, ands or buts.) There are signs discouraging visitors from feeding the ducks (who are shameless beggars). People even sometimes pay attention to them. At any rate, at most times during the summer, if you’re standing on the deck, you’ll have an eager audience down in the water – not only ducks, but, if you can see past the reflections, schools of fish.
As you traverse the path on the east side, you come to a pleasant seating area on the grounds of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which borders the Pond on the southeast. The Nature Museum grounds have picked up the theme of natural plantings and host a fairly extensive prairie garden. Also at the south end of the Pond is a set of concrete platforms, for fly fisherman to practice their technique. It’s worth noting that the east side of the Pond is a high bank – the secondary paths lead along the water’s edge, while the main path is on top of the ridge. The west side, while still sloping down to the water, is not quite as high
The plantings are dense and, when they reach their full growth and bloom in late summer, spectacular: the Conservancy claims 150 native species, and I believe it. The more noticeable include bulrushes, cattails, arrowheads and reeds on the shore, giving way to cardinal flower, purple and yellow coneflowers, butterfly weed, milkweed, blue vervain, brown-eyed susan, goldenrod, rattlesnake master, Missouri primrose, and on and on. There are also grasses, some quite showy. There are two “prairie gardens” one on the east side and one on the west, with paths going through them.
I mentioned ducks. Hordes of them – mallards, teals, wood ducks, the occasional merganser, and somehow, always a pair of some domestic variety. A flock of Canada geese also makes its home there, and one can spot a pair of brants now and again. The ducks and geese nest around the pond – the plantings of reeds and other shoreline plants are nice and thick and provide lots of privacy – and as the summer progresses, you can see squads of ducklings and goslings paddling along behind their mothers. The geese also graze the lawns on either side of the Pond, and in the afternoon there’s likely to be a procession across Stockton Drive toward fresh grazing. (Yes, traffic stops for the geese, who may or may not use the pedestrian crosswalks.)
There are herons, as well – great blues, green, and black-crowned night herons (endangered in Illinois, but residents here – there was a nesting colony at South Pond, at the other end of Lincoln Park Zoo, which was set aside as a reserve; the herons decided they liked it better in the wolf habitat in the Children’s Zoo) stalking the marshy verge on the lookout for fish — the occasional cormorant, and also numbers of songbirds, from red-wing blackbirds, who also nest in the reeds (watch out — they’re very aggressive when defending their nests), to cardinals, wrens and sparrows, English and native. If one moves quietly along the more secluded parts of the paths, one might also glimpse a cottontail, and the Conservancy’s website also claims red foxes, coyotes, raccoons and opossums. I don’t doubt it, although I’ve never seen them there – there are raccoons and opossums who regularly traverse my back yard, and we have coyotes just about everywhere. One of my favorite games as I walk around the pond is playing “spot the turtle.” On sunny days, they’ll be basking on the half submerged logs along the edges of the water; you might also just catch a glimpse of a nose poking above the water as one of them swims along just below the surface.
Access by public transportation is easy – the 151 Sheridan and 156 LaSalle buses stop at various points on Stockton Drive, west of the Pond, and the 22 Clark and 36 Broadway are just a long block farther west – you can get off at Deming or Arlington to reach the Pond easily — and the 76 Diversey bus has a terminal at the Nature Museum, just a short walk to the south end of the pond. Best time to visit is from early June, when the ducklings and goslings are making their appearance, through mid-September, when the plantings reach their full glory. It’s a nice place to relax for an hour or two – there are benches in the park, and a gazebo just southwest of the observation deck on the north end – either to read, visit with friends, or just sit and watch.