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When the cicadas hatch, nature lovers travel thousands of miles to meet in Illinois

When Kat McHenry planned a girls' trip to Chicago with her younger cousin, she planned what any Chicago tourist would do: They compared deep-dish pizzas at Pequod's and Lou Malnati's, explored the Field Museum, and sightseeed the city.

But one point on their travel plan stood out in particular: they got matching tattoos – of cicadas.

The emergence of the periodical cicadas, which emerge from underground every 17 years to sing, mate and die, was the main reason the Monterey, California, resident and her cousin, an aspiring entomologist, came to the Windy City.

“What really excited and pleased me about the trip was that I was able to share that with her and … inspire her to get involved in science, to get interested in the subject and help her advance a little bit in her journey toward her education,” McHenry said.

And they're not the only ones. Other nature lovers are coming to Illinois from near and far to see the emergence of the double brood. The two breeding groups of cicadas, which emerge every 13 or 17 years, will appear simultaneously for the first time since 1803 and will span more than a dozen states.

Illinois is where the historic emergence will take place. The 17-year cicadas will cover mostly the northern half of the state, while the 13-year cicadas will be found mostly in the southern part. Both are expected to converge near Springfield.

“Illinois is a breeding ground for [cicada tourism] right now, because there are a few counties, more in central Illinois, that [have] “There are potential areas of overlap where both occur,” says Teri Guill of Carrollton, Texas, who plans to travel to Chicago next week with her 13-year-old niece.

Maxim André Goddard, center, plans to come to the Chicago area with his partner Anna and daughter Alexandria to see the 17-year-old cicadas during their historic emergence.

For Maxim André Goddard, the natural phenomenon is reason enough to make the trip from Montreal to Chicago with his partner and daughter. The family plans to come to the area this weekend. They hope to enjoy the city, but also get out and see the cicadas.

“It's rare to see something like this, so you should take the opportunity to go and see it,” he said.

Goddard, 47, toyed with the idea that his one-year-old daughter might return to the area when she turns 18 to witness the next cicadas' appearance.

“It would be incredible if she could be part of this event again,” he said. “When she's older … that would be phenomenal.”

Dave Odd, who leads Eat the Neighborhood's foraging tours, said he led an expedition Sunday that had nothing to do with cicadas in Oak Park, but visitors from Japan joined because they wanted to see the insects. The group found some cicadas, which Odd fried for the tourists. He's hosting a cicada event at his Beaverville property in June.

Ellyn Fortino, a spokeswoman for the Morton Arboretum, said curious travelers from Seattle, Alberta, Montreal, Washington state, Tennessee, Buffalo, New York and other areas have stopped by or called to say they were coming to see cicadas.

Two of those visitors were McHenry and her 22-year-old cousin Maddy McKee, who had rented a car to visit the arboretum in Lisle. The couple spotted a small group of cicadas in the grass and trees, picked them up and carried them around. McHenry wanted to see more and then posted on Facebook to ask other cicada lovers where they should go. With the encouragement of some Facebook users, the Californians hit the cicada jackpot in Downers Grove.

“There we actually saw them in masses climbing trees everywhere, flying around and making a lot of noise, which is certainly what we expected,” McHenry said.

McHenry, 34, has worked as a marine biologist and traveled extensively to experience natural phenomena firsthand. Last month, she was in Indianapolis to see the total solar eclipse. Observing natural phenomena has always excited her, she said, but this trip gave her a special meaning.

“My greatest joy was being able to share [the experience] with my cousin,” McHenry said.

Guill, 41, also wants to experience a similar moment of connection with her niece. It will be Guill's second trip this year to focus on cicadas, after recently seeing the 13-year-old insects in St. Louis. In 2021, she saw Brood X in Washington, DC. But the self-proclaimed nature lover made the first two trips alone. On this trip, she will share her experience with others.

“One of the coolest things she ever experienced, in her teenage mind, was the annual molting of the cicadas on the side of the house and the opportunity to observe the creatures around them as well,” Guill said of her niece.

The first order of business upon their arrival is a visit to the Insect Sanctuary to view the museum and pick up Cicada Parade-a statues to decorate themselves with and display one in the city.

The last time Matt Prusak saw periodical cicadas, he was 10 years old and had just moved to Tinley Park. He and a friend who lived nearby found a white cicada and buried it in a tin can. He remembered the insects flying around and so had missed the hatching stage.

“Cicadas are so friendly, that’s probably the right word, [and] “That sparked my interest in them because they love to climb on you,” he said. “So I remember that really nice summer.”

Prusak, now 26, heard about a cicada emergence tour in Skokie on Sunday afternoon and took the two-hour round trip from Schererville, Indiana, to Lorel Park with his partner. The couple and other tourists saw hundreds of cicadas emerging.

Prusak's experiences with cicadas as a child helped him develop a long-lasting love for the insects. Seeing them again reinforces that love, he says.

“It was really a nice ending to my coming of age, that's how I thought about it,” he said. “I saw the end before and then I lived 17 years and … saw the other half. So it feels like I've finished the story of how cicadas work.”

It is the song of the cicadas that leaves Guill in awe.

“When you hear this little, tiny creature making a noise like that, it can honestly seem kind of unreal when you're in the middle of it,” Guill said. “It just creates this really surreal and amazing chorus that you really only get to experience in that very short window of time when these broods show up.”

Anna Harden

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