Pere Marquette State Park covers more than 8,000 acres near Grafton, and Rich Keating has studied every inch of it.
Well, not literally, the Edwardsville scientist would argue. But he has spent the past 40 years driving the roads, hiking the trails, stopping at overlooks, camping at the campground, staying in cabins, visiting the lodge and taking hundreds of photos.
Now Keating, 79, has written the definitive Pere Marquette guidebook, a mixture of academic research and practical tips on how to enjoy the park’s natural and man-made features.
“It is really quite a unique landscape,” he said, taking a break at Sacred Grounds Cafe in Edwardsville recently. “How many places in Illinois can you stand next to a 200-foot cliff? The topography of the state has been mostly bulldozed by glaciers.
“(The park has) got as close as you can get to an original forest landscape. There are very wild areas with no trails, and the flora and fauna are very diverse.”
His book is titled “Pere Marquette State Park: An Unofficial Guide to History, Natural History, Trails and Drives” ($19.95, Missouri Botanical Garden Press, 180 pages, softback).
Want to know which plants, animals, birds and reptiles can be found in the park? Interested in its geology, ecology, geography or climate? Looking for a weekend getaway amid nature’s beauty? Keating can help.
He has even calculated the exact number of feet between interesting trail features or landmarks, such as Tucker Knob Indian mound or McAdams Peak, named after early archaeologist William McAdams.
“I used a trail wheel with a handle that you push while you’re walking, and it has an odometer on it,” Keating said.
How many places in Illinois can you stand next to a 200-foot cliff? The topography of the state has been mostly bulldozed by glaciers.
Author Rich Keating on Pere Marquette State Park
Scholars have written papers on specific aspects of Pere Marquette, state employees have created hiking maps and other pamphlets, and birder Helen Westenfeld compiled an extensive bird checklist by season and habitat.
But there was no comprehensive guide, according to Superintendent Chris Hespen. He hasn’t read Keating’s book yet but calls him a “well-respected botanist and naturalist.”
“Dr. Keating has spent many hours afield and many hours doing research,” Hespen said. “He’s a super guy and very knowledgeable. I’m excited about getting my hands on a copy.”
Park named after French missionary
Pere Marquette is operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It’s named after French missionary Jacques Marquette, who explored the Mississippi River and surrounding wilderness with Louis Joliet in 1673.
More than 250 years later, two local newspaper publishers, “Uncle Joe” Page and John McAdams, William’s son, spearheaded an effort to get the park’s original 1,500 acres protected in the early 1930s.
Area residents raised $23,000 — which was matched by state money — to buy out struggling hill farmers. State officials asked for the public’s help in coming up with a name.
“The volume of cards and letters received indicated a lively interest in the process,” Keating writes. “Piasa Bluffs Park had local support, as did Blackhawk State Park, Lincoln Memorial State Park, McAdams State Park and Illini State Park.”
A lot of people can publish guidebooks, just by getting information off the internet. But Rich can provided detailed and accurate information when it comes to plant lists and other scientific facts.
Publisher Liz Fathman on Pere Marquette guidebook
The National Park Service oversaw Civilian Conservation Corps building projects, including Pere Marquette Lodge with its 700-ton limestone fireplace and massive timber beams. NPS also donated an additional 2,500 acres to expand the park.
Pere Marquette’s Cold War involvement is listed under a section of Keating’s book called “Park Oddities.” The U.S. government designated it as one of 300 sites for storage and potential launching of Nike surface-to-air missiles.
In 1974, a ski lift was built in the park, but it operated for “only a short time due to insufficient snow and the absence of a snow machine to lengthen the season,” the book states.
Pere Marquette’s first visitor center was a restored two-story log cabin once used as a corn crib.
Today, the park has a modern museum and visitor center, a boat harbor with fishing, a campground, horse stables, hiking and biking trails, scenic drives and overlooks, picnic shelters and group camps, although recent IDNR budget cuts have curbed programming.
Keating’s favorite characteristic?
“I like the views,” he said. “There are several places where you can get a nice view of the Illinois River valley and what I call the ‘spine of Calhoun County,’ which is basically a ridge between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.”
Man on an environmental mission
Keating has authored or co-authored nearly 125 publications, ranging from academic books to field guides, articles in scientific journals to abstracts for national meetings.
He worked two summers as a ranger-naturalist in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park in the early 1960s and co-founded the Sierra Club’s Piasa Palisades Group in Alton in 1972, Heartland Prairie in Alton in 1977 and The Nature Institute in Godfrey in the early ’80s.
Keating strongly believes in environmental education beyond the classroom, thanks to two mentors from his college years.
“They said, ‘No matter what you do as a professor, you should never ignore the public. If we’re going to preserve anything, the public needs to be sensitized to the beauty and impact of nature,’” he said.
In the ’90s, Keating encouraged graduate student Alice DeJarnett to prepare a Pere Marquette plant inventory, which he included in the book.
Missouri Botanical Garden Press agreed to publish it partly because it was an opportunity for expansion. Liz Fathman, director of print and digital media, wants to supplement academic projects with more visitor-centered or trade publishing.
Another reason was Keating’s knowledge and expertise.
“A lot of people can publish guidebooks, just by getting information off the internet,” Fathman said. “But Rich can provide detailed and accurate information when it comes to plant lists and other scientific facts.”
“Pere Marquette” is Keating’s second such endeavor. He also wrote “Colorado’s Spanish Peaks Region: An Exploration Guide to History, Natural History, Trails and Drives” in 2011.
“My mom has read it, and she loved it,” Fathman said. “She wants to meet Rich. We actually have some property up in Calhoun County, and we go up there a lot.”
Another fan is longtime friend Dick Worthen, 74, of Alton, who has accompanied Keating on dozens of hikes in the park, including an annual New Year’s Day trip to an abandoned pioneer cabin with the Sierra Club.
The two friends also used the trails for training before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania five years ago.
Worthen sums it up this way: “I think it would be legitimate to say Rich knows more about Marquette park than anybody.”
At a glance
This is some basic information about Pere Marquette State Park:
- Year founded: 1932
- Original size: 1,500 acres
- Namesake: French missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette
- Current size: 8,000 acres
- Topography: 419 feet (lowest point is the Illinois River) to 892 feet
- Plants: More than 460 species
- Wildlife: 59 reptile and amphibian species, 46 mammal species and 234 bird species
- Amenities: Lodge, campground, boat harbor with fishing, scenic drives and overlooks, hiking and biking trails, horse stables, picnic shelters and group camps
- Trivia: Served as a Nike missile site during Cold War and once had a ski lift