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).
8 September 2012
Lately I’ve felt like the Energizer bunny — I keep going and going and going. The difference is that I have neither its energy nor its resources. I don’t know what I’m running on, but it should be part of any national energy plan.
On Saturday, September 8, I went to my first physical therapy session. Objectives: Reduce lower back pain and increase walking endurance. I walked the half mile to AthletiCo, where the therapist explained my problem using a model spine that had lost its stiffening rod. I know how it feels. Its nerves protruded between its disks, and I don’t have to imagine what it would feel like if they were pressed due to lack of space — I feel it every moment from my hip to my foot.
The therapist tested the strength and flexibility of some key joints and then I was allowed to relax on a heating pad for 10 minutes of near bliss negated by the next step of a hard knuckle massage that I swear left invisible bruises. At this point, I’m sure I was thinking that gorillas and chimps have the right idea — walking upright is overrated.
Next came some easy exercises designed to open the spaces in my spine and strengthen my core. Everything hurt, but the time I left to walk the half mile home, I did feel better. Real? Or psychological? I do know the compressed nerves are real, that’s for certain.
After another half-mile walk (to the Metra station) and a half hour of my train neighbor’s cranked-up music, I landed at the Homewood Starbucks to wait for J. We made another false start, this time west instead of north, before he aimed his new car toward Indiana Dunes, that traditional recreation favorite of University of Chicago students and many others. As is typical of me, I never made it there while I was a student — too busy wallowing in my inability to keep up with classes and too afraid to let go of whatever soil I was then rooted in. But on this Saturday in 2012, 30 years later, I arrived at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. Here I managed to take the ranger in the gift shop aback with three digits’ worth of purchases (all I can say in my defense is that more than half was for a birthday gift).
The next stop was Chellberg Farm, which up until recently was a working farm of sorts, or at least it had animals. Alas, all life is gone, and all that remains is a vintage farmhouse and outbuildings, the former equipped with not-so-vintage cameras to keep an eye on the tourists. The woods behind the house are lovely, dark, and deep, lush with growth with the darkness mottled by sunlight — a great place for a walk.
We headed toward Cowles Bog, which is actually a fen. A densely tree-lined road continued past the parking lot, guarded by a gatehouse and a gentleman in uniform. Down this dark lane lies Dune Acres, population 183, which seems to be open only to residents and their guests — a truly gated community. As pretty as that narrow passage is, that’s not how I would choose to live.
We walked only about three quarters of a mile into the woods before I had to give up. This isn’t like me, but it’s the new reality — little to no endurance.
Next on the itinerary was the state park, where we saw the dunes for the first time. A tiny Chicago lay across the water, slightly hazy but illuminated by the setting sun. With the version of summer that ends on Labor Day over, the beach was sparsely populated, and signs warned of a dangerous rip tide.
A couple of young Mennonite families picnicked near the parking lot, although the adults spent most of their time chasing down a couple of energetic toddlers. Oh, to be two with toes in the sand and not a care! And to be able to remember it, too.
Before seeking dinner we detoured to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Homes of Tomorrow, which we could see dimly in the deepening dusk. They were under renovation, but they reminded me of something I’d picture from The Great Gatsby. In the meantime, the lake and the lake grasses were beautiful against the dying light.
We found a restaurant in nearby Chesterton, Octave Grill, and waited out the wait for a table at the Dog Days Ice Cream Parlor. This last was the kind of place that I wish I had nearby here in Hyde Park, but it wasn’t busy. J. had plenty of time to chat up the owner.
And so home after an exhausting, exhilarating day.