Watch now: Towering bur oak a place to rest during Sweeney Woods hike

Explore once frequently flooded farmland that now hosts trails, trees and flowers while protecting the quality of the Mackinaw River. Lenore Sobota

LEXINGTON — The ParkLands Foundation’s Sweeney Woods preserve is a work in progress, but that work is showing results.

By taking the regularly flooded 40 acres of bottomland out of agriculture production and planting trees instead, the preserve is preventing tons of sediment and topsoil from entering the Mackinaw River, which flows through the northern edge of the preserve with about two miles of river frontage, said land steward Jason Shoemaker.

ParkLands Foundation land steward Jason Shoemaker hikes the upper trail at Sweeney Woods preserve Friday with interns Allyse Barnowski of Round Lake, a senior at Illinois State University, and Steven Burkett of St. Louis, a junior at Illinois Wesleyan University.

The 115-acre preserve is located on both sides of the river, but the 77 acres on the south side are more accessible and contain the hiking trails.

Ongoing work to remove invasive species has made it easier to walk through the wooded areas and brought back spring woodland wildflowers.

“We’ve had a lot of spring ephemerals, woodland phlox, trillium other native flowers and understory, so it’s healthier timber now,” said Shoemaker.

The preserve is 1½ miles north of Lake Bloomington with a parking lot off North 1725 East Road, just south of the Mackinaw River.

The Mackinaw River comes into view along the lower trail at the ParkLands Foundation Sweeney Woods preserve on Thursday. Lenore Sobota

From the parking lot, you can carry (or drag) your canoe or kayak about the equivalent of a long city block to the river to launch your boat. The condition of the launch area depends on river levels. Expect it to be muddy, but at least there are no high banks and it is one of the few areas along the river with good parking for paddlers.

The preserve has about 2½ miles of trails. During my late afternoon hike last week, I was grateful the trail had been recently mowed, but also grateful I had brought bug repellent to fend off possible ticks and mosquitoes.

The wildlife thwarted my attempts at photography. On five separate occasions during my hourlong hike I caught glimpses of white-tailed deer bounding through the tall grass, flicking their tails at me. Birdsong was abundant, but the birds themselves remained mostly hidden or out of camera range.

A couple of 12-spotted dragonflies patrolled the trail. A pair of monarch butterflies flitted by. Based on the number of milkweed plants emerging, I expect to see many more butterflies later in the season.

A bur oak tree, believed to be hundreds of years old, towers over a trail at the Sweeney Woods preserve on Thursday. Land steward Jason Shoemaker said, “It was big when I was a kid.”  Lenore Sobota

At least the trees can’t run or fly away. My favorite — practically everyone’s favorite who visits here — is a centuries-old bur oak that towers over the preserve along the trail in the uplands.

A memorial bench under the tree is nice place to take a break after the uphill hike or sit in the shade of a warm summer day, listening to the sounds of rustling leaves, snorting deer, singing birds and croaking frogs.

Shoemaker said there is no way to know for sure how old the tree is without a core sample but noted, “It was big when I was a kid,” and could be a few hundred years old.

ParkLands Foundation interns Steven Burkett, an Illinois Wesleyan University junior, and Allyse Barnowski, an Illinois State University senior, remove invasive plants from Sweeney Woods preserve on Friday.  Lenore Sobota

Much of the work is done by volunteers from the foundation, Master Naturalists and other groups, as well as volunteer land steward Tom Farmer; AmeriCorps teams; and interns, such as Steven Burkett of St. Louis, a junior in environmental studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, and Allyse Barnowski of Round Lake, a senior in environmental system science and sustainability at Illinois State University.

Both Burkett and Barnowski were busy Friday removing invasive plants so natives have a better chance to thrive.

ParkLands began restoration work in 2010.

“It’s turned into a real nice restoration area,” said Shoemaker.