Palos Heights Parks & Recreation chief bicycles to work using Cal-Sag Trail

 

While most fans of the new Cal-Sag Trail talk about it in terms of the recreation opportunities it will provide, Palos Heights Parks & Recreation Director Mike Leonard showed a more practical side last Thursday.

An avid bicyclist and trail advocate, Leonard rode his mountain bike from his home in Lemont (at the trail’s west edge) to his office at the Palos Heights Recreation Center, 6601 W. 127th St.

He started at 7:11 a.m. and arrived at work about an hour later, pedaling through Palos Park and Palos Heights in ideal weather conditions: sunny and 74 degrees, with a whisper of a breeze from the east.

“The ride was beautiful,” he said. “The way the engineers curved the trail is well thought-out. There are some long, straight shots in the forest preserve, but then it winds around.”

Leaving his SUV at home, Leonard not only saved gas but the relative boredom of a same-old, same-old commute.

“Today, I saw a raccoon, I saw a turkey buzzard perched at the canal, and I’ve seen deer out there before,” he said. “What you encounter on the trail is just awesome, really awesome.”

Leonard started at 7:11 a.m. and took about 60 minutes to get to work.

He expressed gratitude to those whose vision and persistence have brought the trail from dream to reality.

“It really started with Gayle Greenwald, a resident of Palos Heights,” Leonard said. “None of what we have today would have been possible without her first saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be great?’ She got ahold of Steve Buchtel, who at that time was with the Active Transportation Alliance, and they started forming a coalition.”

A great blue heron in flight over a Lake Katherine prairie interrupted the tale.

“Oh man, look at that, a great heron,” Leonard said as the majestic bird with a six-foot wingspan glided away to the west. “That’s awesome. See, that’s what makes this stuff really cool. The variety of birds you see and hear singing on the trail—it’s a chorus out here.”

He continued the story by noting that Greenwald and Buchtel “set up a coalition. They got the help of [recreation planner] Diane Banta of the National Park Service. The coalition hired an engineer, and 10, 12 years later, we have the grand opening of the west end of the trail.”

Along the way, there was some opposition.

“We overcame some NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes that you get in any big project like this, but it’s always about the greater good of a community,” Leonard added. “The thing about the Cal-Sag Trail, it’s about the greater good of the regional community, not just the [14] towns that have the trail in their backyard.”

More than a pleasant walk or bike ride, the Cal-Sag Trail is expected to improve the health of nearby communities, advocates say.

* It will attack obesity and sedentary lifestyles by offering an attractive exercise option to the estimated 185,000 people who live less than a mile from it.

* It will contribute to environmental health by encouraging people to leave their cars, vans and trucks at home and choosing walking and bicycling instead.

* It will give a shot in the arm to local businesses by bringing thousands of consumers to the area.

“If the Cal-Sag Trail were a health club, it would be a 3.7 million square foot recreational and fitness facility that serves everyone and costs nothing join,” the not-for-profit Friends of the Cal-Sag Trail proclaims on its website.

When completed, the trail will extend from Lemont on the west to the Burnham Greenway (near the state border with Indiana) on the east, and it will be the longest in the South Suburbs, eight miles longer than the Old Plank Road Trail.

Leonard and others will participate in a “Bike the Sag” event set for Saturday.

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Photo by Tim Hadac

Palos Heights Parks & Recreation Director Mike Leonard stops briefly to discuss the western section of the Cal-Sag Trail and his bike ride to work on it last Thursday.

 

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