15 July 2018
On the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore events calendar, the National Park Service refers to “spectacular Miller Woods.” I’ve never gone on the ranger-led hike—it’s probably more than I can handle—but J and I decided to try out “World Listening Day Program and Sound Hike” with the Chicago-based Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology.
First we had to get there, which isn’t easy with temptations on the way. At a corner close to our destination, we spotted the Miller Beach Farmer’s Market, where we spent time and money. I love open air markets, even when they’re in a small, dusty parking area.
I had no idea where Miller Woods was, but it’s down the street from Miller Bakery Cafe, where we’d gone for dinner a couple of times. It’s a hidden gem. After parking, you walk over a shaded enclosed pedestrian bridge to the Paul H. Douglas1 Nature Center, which has interesting exhibits and helpful young rangers, and, on this day, leftover cookies. I learned a different way to tell frogs and toads apart (frogs have a prominent tympanum).
After checking out the animals (and the cookies), we met Monica from the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology at the back exit. Behind us was the Miller Beach neighborhood of Gary, Indiana, with stores, restaurants, gas stations, etc. In front of us was a dunes woodland with ponds and two beaver dams, leading to a beach (we didn’t go that far). I had one of my fleeting moments of feeling like I was stepping out of reality into a magical place, separated by time and space.
We arrived an hour or so before the hike was to end, but Monica and her photographer husband told us only one person had shown up earlier. The idea behind this walk was to be as quiet as possible—a struggle for an extreme extrovert like J—and to listen to the sounds around you, how they change as you move, and so forth. I decided I’d better warn her that both he and I have faulty hearing, partly so she’d know our ears might not pick up every nuance hers did, and partly so she’d know that we might not hear her if she spoke quietly.
Off we went, with her husband well in front of us. Miller Woods is fairly quiet for being in an urban area, and I soon became aware of how much noise I can make walking on stony ground if I barge forward—and, interestingly, that my left leg drags more often than my right. A train, I think Amtrak, rumbled through to our left, which was my first indication of train tracks at Miller Woods. One or two birds called repetitively, although at times and in places the birds were quiet.
At the point where we looped back, we could hear a low rumbling (“groaning,” as Monica described it) to our left. She told us there’s a plant of some kind in that direction.
At another place further on, I imagined I heard a skittering on the ground and spotted this insect. I say “imagined” because there’s no way my damaged hearing could pick up an insect’s exoskeleton or wings on stone.
When we were at a low point, she noted how muted and absorbed sound seemed to be (like sound in snow). At a high point after a steep climb up sand, sounds carried—tree leaves rustling, birds calling, sounds in the distance. I told her about aspens, which to my surprise she didn’t know about.
All this time I was tempted to take photos, but kept them to a minimum—even the sounds of the shutter in the relative quiet seemed too disruptive.
Just as we were reaching the end near the nature center, J and I heard a deep strum from the nearby pond vegetation that our guide hadn’t—most likely an American bullfrog. He strummed a few times before we left.
Inside we talked with Monica, her husband, and an older man with a microphone about their organization, iPhone add-on, aspens, and other topics. We learned Monica and spouse live on the north side of Chicago and had taken the train and a shuttle to Miller Woods; they would have to wait until after 6 p.m. for the next train on a Sunday. Dedication! I felt bad they’d had an audience of only three for all that effort.
I found the young rangers eager to answer questions and chat. When I wandered back to the desk from the restroom, I found the two young men pulling the fronts of their shirts down and looking/pointing. I may have looked at them strangely. “We’re comparing our shirt tans,” one explained.
When he’d heard dinner was next on our agenda, the older man with the microphone suggested we try Captain’s House. The proved to be a charming restaurant in a house with a nautical theme and a seafood focus (and alternatives for the seafood averse like me). Next time we’ll have to choose a bigger table.
Is Miller Woods “spectacular”? I can’t say. It’s not the Grand Canyon, Arches, Yosemite, or Yellowstone. We didn’t see all of Miller Woods—the trail goes out to Lake Michigan. All I can say is it was spectacular to me. Now, if I could spot a Karner blue butterfly there . . .
1 Paul Douglas was the Illinois senator who had worked to establish Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.