About twenty thousand years ago, big chunks of ice drifted slowly across the planet during a long geological event known as a glacial period. These big chunks of ice were REALLY big—as big as mountains. As they moved across the earth, they crunched and crushed everything in their path, scraping the surface flat in some places and creating entirely new topographical features in others. Trees, hills, you name it—if it was stationary, too slow, or too stupid to get out of the way it became grist for the glacial mill.
Surprisingly, these big chunks of ice just went around a small area of the planet located in present-day northwest Illinois, eastern Iowa and southern Wisconsin. Nobody knows why, but this area measuring roughly 400 by 400 miles was spared from the big ice-crunch. Today, if you’re enjoying the view from a limestone bluff in Palisades Park above the Mississippi River in Savanna, Illinois, you’re standing in an ancient, old-growth forest, looking at a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged and untouched for thousands and thousands of years.
If you drive away from Savanna in an easterly or southerly direction, after a short time you find yourself outside of this driftless area, and the land becomes flat, scraped clean. Visitors who approach the area from the east on Route 20 to buy antiques in Galena or drink beer in Savanna’s taverns, marvel at the sudden change in topography as their automobiles carry them to the tops of ancient hills and to the bottoms of ancient valleys.
Hiking through the virgin woods in northwest Illinois is like stepping back through time. The unique natural environment supports the growth of plants that are no longer found anywhere else on the planet. The area is home to rare species of birds, mammals and fish that are protected by the federal government in the 200-mile Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. Migratory waterfowl routes that begin at the top of the planet and terminate in the southern hemisphere converge here over the Mississippi backwaters, providing glimpses of seldom-seen birds. The big river’s sloughs and main channel are also a magnet for many colorful varieties of the human species—recreational boaters, fishermen, nature-lovers of all ilk and—of course—photographers.
Apart from its natural wonders, Savanna and environs also holds great historical interest, having been home to primitive Native American cultures and battle fields of the 19th century Blackhawk War. Visitors to Savanna enjoy proximity to the stomping grounds of such figures as Abraham Lincoln and Ulyseus Grant, whose home in Galena is preserved and open to the public.
Lastly, the quirky, small-town culture is just plain fascinating to experience. The elbow-to-elbow condition of urban life is an alien experience here, where you’re fifty miles away from any town with a population of more than 3,000 people. There’s an eclectic mix of cultural experience which includes biker bars, historical museums, wineries, amateur theater, antique shops, a Mexican restaurant whose signature entrée is pizza, and another eatery with the counter-intuitive name, “Poopy’s,” which advertises it’s food as “the best shit around.”
Pleasant as it is, northwest Illinois is not without its challenges. The economic aftermath of industrial exodus, combined with the flattening effect of internet commerce, has created the same difficult conditions here that other rust belt communities are facing. Even so, the area’s strengths far outweigh its deficits, and it offers far more attractions than can be described in a brief litany such as this. The best way to find out more about this special place is to come and see it for yourself.