Stretching some 33 miles between Wadsworth and Wheeling, the Des Plaines River Trail is one of the Lake County Forest Preserve District's greatest accomplishments.
Built in stages over the last 31 years, it connects 12 forest preserves and protects more than 7,600 acres on both sides of the river. It's used by countless hikers, bicyclists, joggers, recreational walkers and even horse riders -- people who enjoy the trail's scenic paths and the sense of serenity a run or ride there can bring.
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But it's not complete.
On the south end of the trail near Lincolnshire, a gap that's about 1,500 feet long disrupts the gravel path.
And the man who owns the land that includes the missing link isn't ready to sell.
Lincolnshire resident Gus Boznos knows forest district leaders want the land just east of the Par King Skill Golf course he and his sons own and operate. Once a year or so, he meets with officials to talk about a sale.
They have yet to strike a deal.
Boznos, 85, said he's sure the district will get the land for the trail one day.
"They just have to exert a little patience," he said.
That comment garnered a chuckle from forest district Executive Director Tom Hahn.
"We have patience," said Hahn, who's spent years working to acquire land for the trail. "When he's ready, we're going to be ready."
Forest district officials purchased the first piece of what would become the Des Plaines River Trail in 1961. It was part of Van Patten Woods near Wadsworth, in the northeast part of the county.
Planning for the long trail began in earnest in the 1970s, and construction started in 1981. Segments were built one by one as land was acquired.
At the north end, the trail starts at Russell Road near Wadsworth. It runs south nearly 29 miles to a sidewalk east of where Milwaukee Avenue intersects with Aptakisic Road.
That's just south of the Sedgebrook senior-living community and north of a vacant field at the Par King property.
The trail picks up again south of the Par King, behind the Cubby Bear North bar.
From there, it runs south about two miles to Lake-Cook Road near Wheeling and connects to a Cook County trail system.
Despite the gap, the trail is the most popular one in Lake County, Hahn said. He called it "the main spine" of the forest district's trail system.
All of the land in the gap is Boznos' property. It's on the west side of the river, across the water from the forest district's Ryerson Conservation Area.
Large signs on both side of the gap tell people where the trail resumes. Signs also tell people the land ahead is private, and trespassing isn't allowed.
Some people turn back. Others head west to Milwaukee Avenue and stay on the busy road or a grassy stretch in front of the Par King until the trail resumes.
Closing the divide is a priority for Hahn, the district's director since 2004.
"It is right up there as one of our major goals," he said.
And with good reason. In every one of the district's customer surveys, trails rank as the top amenity, Hahn said.
People use them for inexpensive recreation and transportation because of the struggling economy, Hahn said, and he expects their popularity to remain strong.
Trail systems are going to be even more important as gas prices continue to rise, he said.
The district legally can force Boznos to sell the land, but officials have thus far refused to resort to eminent domain. That policy -- in force for more than a decade -- isn't changing.
"We want to work with landowners to make a transaction happen," Hahn said. "Sometimes it takes a number of years to make that happen."
Not close to a deal
Boznos says he's willing to sell. But he also said he isn't any closer to reaching a deal with the forest district than he was when the Daily Herald first wrote about the lone missing link in 2006.
"Not really," he said.
As was the case in 2006, Boznos said he doesn't want to get rid of a miniature railroad line he installed on the property long ago.
Additionally, he said he's made improvements to the site and to the nearby Par King operation.
"We spent a lot of money on the course this year," Boznos said.
He's concerned about trespassers, too.
The negotiations have taken longer than Hahn expected. But the veteran administrator knows a good land deal can take years of work.
Just this year, the district was able to acquire a 100-acre addition to the Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Lake Villa. Talks with the former property owners went on for eight years until both sides signed on the dotted line, Hahn said.
"Sometimes it just takes a long time to get to that point," he said.
Hahn said he prefers maintaining a dialogue and a cordial atmosphere with prospective sellers, rather than being heavy-handed or forceful.
He said he's enjoyed meeting with Boznos through the years -- whether over breakfast or out at the site -- and had nothing but nice things to say about the man.
"We like to banter about how we can make this happen," Hahn said. "I just wish we could come to a conclusion as to how we can get the trail done in a timely manner."
Former Lake County Forest Preserve District board President Bonnie Thomson Carter once said acquiring the final piece of the trail puzzle would be the highlight of her career. It didn't happen while she was president -- she was replaced by Ann Maine in 2010 -- but Carter still hopes she can vote on the purchase before she eventually leaves the panel.
"I do believe one day he's going to realize this needs to happen," said Carter, an Ingleside Republican. "I believe it will be done. I just hope it will happen sooner than later."
Boznos owns more land along the river, including the property where his house stands. About a decade ago, he sold a large chunk to developers of the Sedgebrook complex.
He's hoping to snare a hotel or retail developer for the grass field north of the Par King, a concept Hahn supports.
"It's a very valuable piece of land from a commercial standpoint," Hahn said.
As for the forest preserve district and its trail, Boznos remains open to offers.
"You never can tell what will happen," he said.
Hahn is steadfastly optimistic.
"I know someday that trail will go through," he said. "It will get done."