Last year’s Maple Sugar Time at Chellberg Farm was not productive. The daytime temperatures were too cold for maple sap to run. I remember someone saying they used water in the sugar shack — there wasn’t enough (or any?) sap for the demonstration. It was still fun and informative, even without the star attraction — maple sap.
This year’s a different story. Maple sap is pouring out of the sugar maples — literally. This extractor was filling every five to six minutes. At 2 p.m., the tub was about one-third full. By 4 p.m., it was nearly two-thirds full.
The warm air, sunshine, and freely flowing sap gave the day and everyone involved energy. We had our traditional Lions Club breakfast at 2, then checked out all the stations on the trail to the farmhouse.
After picking up some goodies (maple syrup, maple cream, maple water, and an Indiana Dunes National Park mug), we also visited Chellberg Farm’s current animal helpers, starting with Belgian team Bill and Jack.
After a stop at the Schoolhouse Shop and Tiger Lily’s for dinner, time to go home and rest my own sap.
Facebook has many flaws, but it does alert me when events I might be interested in are coming up. A few weeks ago I found out about the world premiere of Octave Chanute: Patron Saint of Flight, at Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. I knew the Chanute name vaguely from the old Air Force base, but I couldn’t have told you then where the base had been located or why it was named Chanute. This sounded like a way to get in a visit to Indiana Dunes, learn something, and spend what might be otherwise a dull winter afternoon, depending on the weather.
The parking lot was unusually crowded, and when J and I walked in about a half hour early, a good-sized group was watching Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, a documentary on the history of Indiana Dunes and efforts to restore what can be restored. It’s meant to inspire, but it’s also tragic and depressing.
By the time Shifting Sands ended and Octave Chanute was scheduled to begin, the auditorium had filled up, even when extra folding chairs were brought out. Soon it was standing room only.
Simine Short, author of Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution, and young director Paul Nelson introduced the film. I mention Nelson’s relative age because the audience was mostly 50 plus, possibly 60 plus, which disappointed me because I would like to see younger people interested in history. Of course, when I was younger none of my peers would have been interested, either.
Bridge 16, or the Portage Bridge
The presentation began with some technical glitches (flashbacks to every high school A/V club everywhere!), but my ears perked up at the mention of the Portage Bridge, accompanied by a photo I recognized immediately. Through this film, I found out Octave Chanute was the engineer behind the much-loved railroad bridge over the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park in New York.
Known for his bridges, Chanute was called in when the original timber trestle, the longest and tallest wooden bridge in the world when it opened in 1852, was reduced to ashes on May 6, 1875, after a train had passed over (spark?). Chanute’s iron replacement opened only 86 days after the fire. According to Short’s book, the piers were rebuilt and the uprights and girders strengthened in 1880, “making the bridge better than new.”
Although modern Norfolk Southern trains were restricted to 10 miles per hour over the Letchworth gorge, Chanute’s bridge lasted until 2017, when the Genesee Arch Bridge opened. The state of New York declined the offer of the 1875 bridge, the last of which was demolished on March 20, 2018. I’d been fortunate to visit the old bridge one last time in 2015. When I’d found out about the premiere of this film, I’d had no idea it would take me back to perhaps the most iconic of my childhood memories. I remember walking along those tracks with my brother during one of his visits.
But wait! There’s more!
My ears perked up again at the mention of Kinzua Bridge. I’d found out about Kinzua Bridge State Park when I was looking up Kinzua Dam, another place I’d visited as a child, for my 2015 swing through Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.
It turns out that Octave Chanute was behind the original 2,000-foot-long Kinzua Bridge (or Viaduct), built in 1882 at 302 feet above the narrow valley floor. Short calls it Chanute’s “most spectacular bridge.” She adds that the bridge was rebuilt in 1900 “to keep up with the increasing volume and weight of the coal traffic.” Carl W. Buchholz redesigned the superstructure on the original masonry foundation piers.
By 1959 the viaduct failed safety inspections and was closed to commercial rail traffic. Restoration began in 2002, but in 2003 an F2 tornado “tore eleven towers from their concrete bases. Investigators found that the anchor bolts, installed under Chanute’s supervision, had rusted over the past 120 years.” Over time, the materials had failed the design.
After seeing this film, I’m even happier that I had the opportunity to walk out on what’s still standing of Kinzua Bridge and get a look at the remnants resting in peace on the valley floor. Even destroyed, Kinzua Bridge is indeed a “spectacular” sight.
Why Indiana Dunes?
Of course, most of the film was about Chanute’s contributions to flight and relationship with Wilbur Wright (rocky; Chanute was an open source kind of man and Wilbur believed in closely held information). What’s the link to Indiana Dunes? With their lake winds, elevations, and soft sand, the Dunes were Chanute’s choice for safely testing their experiments — the Kitty Hawk of the Midwest.
Epilogue, March 8, 2020
Octave Grill in Chesterton is named for Octave Chanute. Found out they serve a Chanute burger.
Another Saturday, another trip to Indiana Dunes. First, J. and I detoured to Valparaiso because Rise’n Roll is open until 7 p.m. for the summer (although it’s too bad their customers don’t seem to know that). Afterward we were going to try a somewhat new Mediterranean restaurant, but the wait was longer than I wanted, so we went next door and waited just as long. My spur-of-the-moment decisions are not always logical.
Having watched the Perseid meteor shower, and possibly the International Space Station, at Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach several years ago, I keep wanting to recapture the magic. The NPS doesn’t host the event anymore; it’s at the state park beach these days, minus ranger and guest speaker. It doesn’t seem to be as dark at the beach, though, with Chicago lighting up the night across the way.
After staring at the sky for a while, my eyes play tricks. Stars blink on and off, then disappear entirely. Other lights move erratically, then also disappear. Even without the Perseids (we may have spotted one or two streaks), I saw an entire show.
August 11, 2019
For breakfast, we went to Round the Clock, the two-restaurant chain (Chesterton, Valparaiso). Contrary to the name’s promise, the restaurant closes at night and opens in the morning. This disappointed me vaguely. I didn’t expect Round the Clock to have hours!
On to the Schoolhouse Shop. I wanted to sip coffee with the birds and butterflies in the back area, but since they also had a ginger iced tea I went with that. The cashier told us there were frogs by the water feature if we wanted to sit there, but I opted for a spot closer to the bird feeders and flowers, where a black swallowtail repeatedly evaded me.
Eventually I wandered back to the water and heard a plop that sounded suspiciously like a frog jumping in. As I walked around the edge I heard a second plop. I still didn’t see anything, but a few seconds later I caught a movement followed by a third plop. Eventually I spotted one frog in the water, convinced no doubt he couldn’t be seen. I left for a few moments and when I came back one was perched on an overturned flower pot and another was half sunning on a wee ledge. Later I saw a third one hanging in the water, one leg askew, pretending to be dead or invisible. He reassured me of his health when I got too close. Someone on iNaturalist helped me identify them as green frogs.
I can’t tell you how much I hate to leave the Schoolhouse Shop, although I always do so poorer.
But we had a date with the Emita II, a tour boat moored in Trail Creek by the Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City. Last year I’d made arrangements for a tour, but the afternoon excursions were canceled due to choppy waters. I was glad to have a chance to try again. The clouds were gathering but Lake Michigan looked as calm as it ever does.
We arrived early enough to get a table by the rail that would be on the shore/port side going out — perfect. While we waited for everyone to board, I heard a familiar sound approaching. A westbound Amtrak train raced by on the opposite shore of Trail Creek — possibly the Wolverine that leaves Chicago at 1:25 p.m. on its way to Pontiac. It breezed by so fast it was mostly a blur.
Finally 3 p.m. came and we backed out, passing the Nipsco coal-fired generating plant with its cooling tower that dominates Michigan City — I’m told it can be seen from Chicago, although I haven’t yet looked for it. Our host told us the more slender tower marked the location of the Hoosier Slide, once Indiana’s most recognizable landmark. All that’s left of the Hoosier Slide are vintage blue-tinted Ball canning jars.
After leaving the creek for Lake Michigan, we passed Mt. Baldy, a “living” dune that is moving four feet a year, which means at some point it will bury the nearby NPS buildings and parking lot and encroach on U.S. Rte. 12. Mt. Baldy is also famous for mysteriously swallowing a six-year-old boy who was recovered three and a half hours later. The Smithsonian and the Northwest Indiana Times have the story. I tried to climb Mt. Baldy once but had to stop maybe 20 feet short of the crest — stopped by fatigue, steepness, and shifting sands.
Now Mt. Baldy is closed except for ranger-led hikes; the rangers know where the tree holes are. On this day several people were trespassing on the shore side of Baldy. “They’re not supposed to be there,” the boat guide said. I wonder how often that happens. The guide noted that Baldy has an armchair shape vs. a normal sand dune shape due to its ongoing loss of sand. I wonder what its future will be and hope it, unlike the Hoosier Slide, will have one.
After Baldy there’s a series of beaches and dunes, with many visitors as well as boaters just off shore.
I didn’t know what to expect after the dunes, but there was Beverly Shores — and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes. The flamingo pink Florida Tropical House is the easiest to see, but you get a glimpse of all of them (the Cypress House is the least visible).
The round trip takes about two hours. On the way back we spotted a boat with a plethora of fishing rods sticking up and men who likely had more beer than fish.
I also took more photos of Indiana’s only lighthouse. The former lighthouse, now the Old Lighthouse Museum, was tended for 43 years by a woman named Harriet Colfax. Having once tried to pick up a bucket of sand representative of the a single lighthouse oil bucket, I can tell you toting those buckets up lighthouse stairs even once a day would not have been the job for me. I can just haul myself up, with the help of the railing. Yet lives depended on the lighthouse and its keeper.
After dinner at Leeds Public House we detoured to the shore road, something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Eventually we started to recognize some of the eastern beaches, then the Century of Progress houses, then Kemil Beach. It didn’t take much longer than the usual route, except for getting onto it — the turn was blocked by a big utility vehicle and crew.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.