You could spend the 4th of July eating, drinking, and making merry with fireworks. Or you could take a nearly 40-minute walk on Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach Trail, Loop 2, on loose, sloping sand in 90º plus heat and full sun to look for prickly pear cactus.
Having worked out Lyft, my next objective was Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I’d been there before without noticing it’s down the road that runs north of Parker Mill. Gallup Park is on the way to both. After how many years of visiting Ann Arbor, I’m finally figuring out the geography.
I also spotted several places from which the Huron River looks accessible. After visiting Minnesota’s North Shore a couple of times, reading The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and digging into a textbook on earth science, I’ve developed a new appreciation and love for rivers and all their variations (streams, brooks, creeks — or “cricks,” as my dad would say). They shape the land and weather, offer passage to humans and wildlife, provide food, contribute to the economy, join and separate nations, and hold countless secrets from throughout the ages. Just ask the Tiber.
At Matthaei, I found one of the things I’d been seeking — a bowl of plants surrounded by kaleidoscopes. I wanted to we if I could improve on my previous efforts to record it. It’s not easy to aim the phone camera precisely at a kaleidoscope eyepiece, hold the clunky phone sideways steadily, and spin the bowl. I didn’t succeed at spinning the bowl either slowly or at an even speed. I swear my anxious exertions and the pain of standing for a few minutes made me pant..
I headed through the rest of the greenhouse, but didn’t look or linger — it was too hot, for one thing. I went outside, hoping to find flowers laden with butterflies and bees. Instead I found neither much in the way flowers nor butterflies. Perhaps earlier in spring or later in summer.
Next, I wanted to a better video of the wind-spinner sculpture I’d seen on a previous visit. If I had a yard, I’d want something like this in it. My dad, I think, would have loved it (but not the price tag, I’m sure, for anything similar).
I turned toward the Gaffield Children’s Garden, where there’s a “rustic” trail through a wooded area, with benches along the way. It would have been perfect but where there’s shade, there are mosquitoes. Many mosquitoes. At one point the one bothering me turned into a dozen swarming me.
I left the rustic trail for an Adirondack-style chair in a dappled area — slightly cooler than full sunshine, but not as infested as full shade.
A tiny bird, species unknown to me, landed on a birdhouse and called back and forth with another bird, with long breaks for preening. A few people came along, but most of the time there was no one about. I liked the feeling, a little like being retired, although I’d have expected more summer visitors.
Gaffield has pretty features, even if they are artificial. I can imagine I’m enjoying a bubbling mountain stream. (I can’t, however, imagine the mosquitoes away.)
After more wandering and sitting, a peek at carnivorous plants, and a better video of the spinning plant bowl, I stopped at the gift shop and bought souvenirs, including an embossed Green Man tote bag as a gift. If there’d been one more left, I’d have been even poorer.
While looking at stalled traffic from the window at work, I’d noticed that most cars are black, white, or gray. That’s why, when I got into my return Lyft, I praised the car’s light metallic green color. The driver told me the only way she could afford a new car was to drive it for Lyft. On the flip side, it had accumulated 12,000 miles to date. That’s a lot of rides.
And so ended my last afternoon in Ann Arbor this trip. Until we meet again
Lyft is my new favorite thing — as long as I can afford to use it once in a while. I love creeks (even more than Lyft) and while in Ann Arbor had a hankering to visit Parker Mill on Fleming Creek. My left leg has been protesting lately, and I don’t have to walk far there to see the creek and a little bit of the woods. I discovered it’s only a little more than four miles from the bed & breakfast, which in Chicago would get me only halfway to downtown. I fired up the Lyft app.
The driver mentioned he takes his dogs to Parker Mill Park. “You feel like you’re in the country but you’re not at all.” I asked him if I’d have a problem getting back. “No, this is a main road between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I live in Ypsilanti.” I asked him what kind of dogs he has. “Shiba Inus,” he answered. One of the few breeds I know a little about. He told me about his, a dominant female and a rescue male.
As he left me in the parking lot, he pointed out what looked like typical exurb apartment blocks going up next to the park. Look in that direction and you won’t feel like you’re in the country anymore.
There have been a few changes at the mill. There’s a new Bison pump (for filling water bottles?). Two slides descend from it, and before I left someone pumped water for their dog. He looked like he wondered why he couldn’t get his usual dish, but made a half-hearted attempt at a few slurps.
Some rocks may have been rearranged, with new concrete forms (seats?) added. A new set of steps with a red handrail to match the pump has been added. These steps and handrail made it easier for me to get down to the creek, although they aren’t exactly rustic.
I headed under the overpass, where the water seemed deeper than I remember. When I turned my head to the right, the water sounded faster, more urgent. When I turned my head to the left, it sounded deeper, like the flow had decreased. I did this a few times with the same results. Since the creek’s flow didn’t change every time I turned my head, it must have been me. My hearing loss is mild to moderate in the left ear, moderate to severe in the right. I heard more, higher frequencies when my left ear is turned toward the creek. It’s a disturbing feeling, especially since the first ENT I saw (almost 15 years ago) said the loss will progress. It doesn’t help that usually fluid sloshes about in my right ear, partially blocking it.
I continued along the creek under the road until I reached the footbridge over the creek into the woods. Two women, not middle aged but not young, ran toward me, screaming. I briefly looked for the ax murderer who must have been pursuing them. I didn’t see one, and the women slowed down, laughing breathlessly. “A HUGE bumblebee! HUGE!!!” If I could arch my eyebrows like Spock, I would have. Just then, an average-sized bee buzzed by. They fled in terror, half screaming, half laughing. The bee, unimpressed and uninterested, wandered off.
After that, I didn’t see anyone as I wandered through the woods along the creek. I went mainly in the direction that reaches a dead end at a wire fence. I didn’t have steam to go the other way, especially since in late June the weather had finally turned hot, which drains me of any little energy I have. My Osprey ultralight stuff pack, water resistant and not letting any air through, either, was glued to the sweat soaking my back.
I spotted one flitty red admiral that wouldn’t stay still for a photo, and a tree with picturesque mushrooms that weren’t going anywhere.
At last the creek drew me back, although no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find crawdads. I wondered if the water flow had changed and disturbed them, or if I couldn’t spot them in the deeper water.
This side was more populated, especially as the afternoon progressed. Cyclists, hikers, dog walkers, even a man on a bike accompanying a woman who was trying to manage the downslope behind the mill on old-school roller skates. She was young (20s) and fit, and it cheered me to see her grasping the wooden fence, stiffly and awkwardly taking baby rolls forward, finally crashing in slow motion into the grass where there was a break in the fence. This wasn’t her first rodeo; she was wearing thick knee pads.
A sloppily dressed man, smoking and yelling (presumably into a headset, although I didn’t see it), came along, unclear on the concept of a relaxing walk in the park. Maybe his doctor told him he should walk more.
A very old man came along, slowly and gingerly making his way down the steep paved walkway the roller skater hadn’t mastered. He was moving faster than I had.
As on my previous visits, ebony jewelwings flew around, sometimes landing to rest and sun on the rocks near the water. An eastern comma glowed with color when its wings opened, then disappeared when its wings closed.
Near the mill, a big, much-injured tree shelters a picnic table. I half expected a druid to emerge from its trunk I wondered if some of its wounds had been lightning strikes.
I’ve long wanted to stay at Dunes Walk Inn, so I made a reservation for May 4. This is before the season starts, along with a two-night minimum. I had the Furness suite, which was like having a tidy apartment with a deck and a residential view — a home. Furnleigh Lane, wide enough for one car, adds to a certain country feel, even if nearby Rte. 20 does not. At the end of Furnleigh Lane lies a cemetery across the street from the Schoolhouse Shop. Lovely area for a little Dunes adventure.
With an early enough start, my travel companion J and I made it in time for the first Chesterton European Market of the year. I have no idea how much cash I spent — if only I could lose weight as fast as my wallet does.
After the market (during which I snuck into O’Gara and Wilson), we stopped at Red Cup Café, then set out for Rise ‘n’ Roll in Valparaiso. They had beet pickled eggs, a Schirf family favorite! Yes, please. I don’t know if beet picked eggs are an Amish/Mennonite thing, a German thing, or a Pennsylvania thing (or a combination — clearly they’re not just Pennsylvanian). Those made without the beets aren’t nearly as good.
After I had spent what felt like a couple of paychecks on food and more food, we went to Lucrezia Café for dinner. It’s usually too crowded to consider, but maybe we beat the dinner crush. Afterward, we visited the state park beach briefly — it was colder than I’d hoped.
May 5, 2019
Breakfast was at Third Coast Café, followed by a quick stop at the Little Calumet River boat launch down the road. The flooding that had made the trail impassable for months had receded. The trees had been thinned out, too, to an extent that looks like devastation but is likely better for the wetland.
What to do? We went to the Schoolhouse Shop, where I found out the back patio was open. It was warm enough to sit outside, so after I had collected a shopping basket full (and then some), we got coffee and sat outside for close to two hours. Their feeders were attracting a lot of birds, including several species of woodpecker. The owner said they’d seen pileateds flying around, too. A ruby-throated hummingbird or two showed up, but never long enough for a good look. As we were thinking about leaving, a red-breasted grosbeak showed up (it knew my camera was in the car). What a perfect off-the-beaten-track spot.
For lunch we headed to Hunter’s Brewing, which has traded in the long community tables for more conventional seating. It felt strange. I like Hunter’s because you can try different beers in small sizes.
I wasn’t feeling up to a hike, so I suggested the state park nature center — another hotbed of bird feeder action.
When I got out of the car, I was surprised and delighted to spot a female pileated woodpecker digging into a tree next to one of the trails. She’d started to attract a crowd from inside the center, and the hikers who noticed her stopped to gawk or gave her a wide berth so as not to scare her off. She continued to work the tree as the visitors took photos and video until someone came along with a dog. She finally flew off into the woods, although even then not far. I could almost hear her laughing like Woody Woodpecker.
In the back room overlooking the feeders, we watched cardinals, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, woodpeckers, etc., even a hummingbird (or two?).
Later a determined raccoon ambled up and climbed past the baffle, coming to rest on it (no doubt bending it). It gorged on seeds until one of the nature center staff shooed it away. It didn’t go far, however, and returned within minutes each time. She took a photo to prove the baffle hadn’t done its job.
One man, who was not quite the bird expert he pretended to be, mentioned he wanted to see a rose-breasted grosbeak. He left after a long visit — about three to five minutes before a rose-breasted grosbeak appeared. Typical.
I didn’t get any good shots, but seeing the pileated woodpecker so closely and clearly made my day.
The nature center closed, so we went to the Longshore Tower off the west parking lot overlooking the state park beach. We discovered the tower is accessible, with disabled parking near a sloping paved path compared to the stairs from the west lot. A grandmother had wheeled her grandson up there. After I arrived, they politely demurred to each other about when they should leave. “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” “Do you want to go?” Eventually someone decided to go, and they went.
After checking out the view, we walked up a trail to the top of the dune. True to form, J. made it to the top, while I fell short by several feet — at the point where the steepness tested my ability to take one step forward without sliding two or three back.
Finally, we left, but it was early enough I decided to check out the road I’d seen that goes out into Wolf Lake. Once I’d figured out how to look for it in Google Maps, it wasn’t hard to find — if you’re willing to cross railroad tracks, hit many bumpy spots, and splash through water on low spots in the road.
We found we’d been on part of this road before one autumn, but as pedestrians. At a certain point it had been closed, probably for hunting. I recognized the spot at which I’d stopped walking and waited for J., who’d gone ahead for a short distance. Little had we known the road continued most of the way over the lake. Time of year matters.
After driving through the woods we came out near a low spot where the lake sloshed onto the road, parked for a bit, and took in the late afternoon scenery. Canada geese meandered up and down and across the road, goslings in tow. I don’t worry about them becoming an endangered species soon.
We drove to the end of the road, past a number of anglers. The road is part of the Illinois-Indiana state line. I read that game officials like to patrol it to make sure anglers have a license for the waters into which they’re dipping their lines. If true, that’s hilarious. The fish, of course, are indifferent to such niceties of residency.
Near the end, we found a nature sanctuary on a slight elevation and walked down part of the trail. Later motorcyclists, who’d been revving their engines near the top, rode down it and into the wetlands. I wonder if that’s a “thing.”
By now the sun was setting, and most of the anglers and other visitors were leaving or packing up. The regular entrance/exit was closed so we navigated to an alternative exit on a side street. It would be easy to get lost around there.
And so ended another little adventure on the tranquil note of a lake sunset accompanied by the roar of motorcycle engines.
I’d gotten an email about volunteer opportunities at Indian Ridge Marsh, which I had not heard of before. Referring to Google Maps, I saw it’s near Big Marsh Park and Hegewisch Marsh, so J. and I decided to check it out.
It turns out it’s a couple of blocks east of the landfill south of Big Marsh. When we arrived, I realized it’s exactly the fenced area we’d passed at night a few years ago that looked dark, grassy, and empty of industry and that had intrigued me. I’d wished then that it was open to the public and to visit it during daylight hours. And here I was, even if unwittingly.
Indian Ridge Marsh lives up to the “marsh” part of its name. Parts of the trails we saw were under water, and the first one we took (south) was so waterlogged I sank into it up to my ankle and almost got stuck (reminding me of a similar experience on the way to Lusk Canyon/Indian Kitchen in Shawnee National Forest).
The other trail looked wetter, but wasn’t as soft. It led to water divided by a ridge, with another ridge to the west. On Google Maps, the water looks like almost like somewhat regularly shaped holding ponds. I wonder if this is their natural configuration or their steel industry one.
Rulers in the water to the north and west of the E–W ridge, where the trail runs, show water depth. You’re invited to participate in “crowd hydrology” by texting the depth to a number, after which you get a reply text, and the depth appears on a website. Our March 31 measurement at the western ruler was 2.4 feet, which binoculars helped my aging eyes to see.
Across the street from the parking lot and to the south a cut through a ridge reveals the Calumet River and an active industrial area. Past that a steel bridge on Torrence crosses the river. Next to the south end of the bridge a deer crossing seems out of place, given the immediate surroundings.
We parked in a little area north of the bridge and walked across a wooden bridge to more wetland areas, which may have been Heron Pond Park. Although we couldn’t see it from our vantage point, I’d seen a swan from the street. If I had wings, I’m not sure I’d want to hang around an industrialized wasteland. I can only imagine how important Lake Calumet and these neighboring marshes were and are to migratory and resident birds.
When we headed west toward Big Marsh and came to the landfill, we found perhaps a dozen deer munching away on its grassy slopes, oblivious to the warning signs. Further north at Big Marsh, a great blue heron was poised over a channel, flapping off majestically to the opposite side of the water at the sound of the engine. Beyond it more deer were having supper. The sign south of the bridge makes me wonder how far these little herds wander out of the marshes into those nearby industrial areas.
Finally we ended up at ye neighborhood tavern, Small World Inn Bar & Grill, where we were the only outsiders, sitting at a table instead of at the bar. If you’re in the mood for cevapcici (Serbian skinless small grilled sausages of beef, lamb and pork), this is the place for you.
I suppose most people go to national parks to get away from it all. To leave the world they know behind. This kind of escape is available at our newest national park. But there is something else. Something I think my friend was alluding to. You don’t get away from it all at the Indiana Dunes National Park the way you might at Yosemite or Yellowstone. In fact, you come up against it. This national park, you realize, is actually a last line of resistance, a green and blue membrane holding back the accumulated pressure human will has piled on the earth and insisted was progress.
Indian Ridge Marsh is a recent (2017) addition to the Chicago Park District, located a little southeast of Big Marsh Park near Lake Calumet. Norfolk Southern lines run down the ridge. While I was visiting, NB and SB freights met and passed each other.
Note the date — 2 March 2019, the first Maple Sugar Time held at the newly designated Indiana Dunes National Park. No doubt it will be years before the signs are replaced.
As I’ve probably said before, Maple Sugar Time brings back one of the few bits of childhood I remember, if vaguely. My class — second grade? — made a field trip to a maple sugar farm (sugar bush) in March, I assume. I wish I knew where, but I’d guess it was owned by the family of a classmate. The world is enormous to a seven-year-old, so I remember it as far away and magical.
The day was dreary and foggy. Dense clouds of fog everywhere at ground level. Or maybe I’m confusing the outdoor world with the sugar shack, where the steam rose in clouds from the boiling sap. I’ll never know for certain. In a world before smartphone cameras we weren’t able to preserve even marvelous moments except in our faulty, failing brains.
I was given a piece of maple sugar candy to try. LOVE. Much better than plain white baking sugar or sugar cubes — some ineffable, ephemeral quality beyond mere sweetness. My mother must have given me some money because I bought a tiny bag of the precious maple leaf-shaped goodness. Even now, when my “allowance” is more substantial and all my own, I look upon maple sugar candy as a rare luxury.
Perhaps the other high point was the draft horses snorting steam into the fog. We may have gone on a wagon ride. If such a thing makes me happy today, imagine how it thrilled me 50 years ago?
Back to present-day Indiana. J and I indulged in our traditional start to Maple Sugar Time — the Chesterton Lions Club pancake-and-sausage breakfast served in a vinyl-sided tent that keeps out some of the cold and breezes. It’s like the year’s first picnic.
Our timing was perfect. We finished our 2 p.m. “breakfast” and found Ranger Bill with a group at the Maple Sugar Trail, ready to go. The hike covers how to identify sugar maples, and I learned the box elder is a maple.
We walked through the various eras of maple sugar making, from hot rocks to metal pots to Chellberg Farm’s sugar shack to more modern methods. As many times as I’ve been to this event, I’d never gone inside the sugar shack. While an impressive amount of steam arose inside (welcome shelter after the cold!), it came from boiling water. Current daytime temperatures are too cold for maple sugar sap to run. Maybe next week — current forecast is for temperatures in the low 40s. But the forecast changes every day.
The walk ended up at the Chellberg farmhouse. Since the building that formerly housed the store has been covered to an employee/volunteer center, the maple goods were for sale in the entry room. Yes, I did buy maple syrup, maple cream, and of course the luxury of my childhood, leaf-shaped maple sugar candy. In another room, we picked up a Dare maple cream cookie. They’re not just for the kids.
Outside we found Belgian draft geldings Dusty (2,450 pounds) and Mitch (2,350 pounds). Dusty left horse slobber all over my hand and bag. When a girl and her brother stood by him for a photo, he started to groom her hair. A little disgusted, she shoved her brother into her former spot. “That won’t help,” the volunteer said. “He’ll just reach right around him.” On cue, Dusty did just that. He wasn’t licking only people. Between visitors, he gave Mitch’s neck some good grooming strokes.
We said goodby to Dusty and Mitch and chickens and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park so I could get a yearly pass and because the beach is gorgeous (and less crowded) on a cold March afternoon. We walked around, but not on the shelf ice. It seems someone finds out the hard way every year that the sign isn’t there for decoration.
We tried the Speakeasy at Spring House Inn, but at this time they don’t serve meals so off we went to Chesterton’s Villa Nova to warm up on Italian cuisine (and add back any calories we may have burned off).