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.
May 19: After taking Petunia to the Hyde Park Animal Hospital and chowing down on burgers and fries at Five Guys, we made it to South Bend, Indiana, before calling it a day. When I was a child, I was drawn to the Fighting Irish brand (without knowing that’s what it was), but the luster had worn off by my late adolescence. I didn’t see much of South Bend, just a bit around the airport and can’t tell you if it’s a quaint college town or a modern, efficient one that looks like a 1950s architecture nightmare.
May 20: J. was sorely tempted by some roadside attractions, including a Studebaker museum, but it’s my unhappy job to keep us focused. Somehow — probably while in search of a coffee shop — we were pulled over the state line into Sturgis, Michigan, by the Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Co. Outside Great Lakes, we found patriotically decorated bicycles serving as ads, although they were locked up like any other bike. While in Sturgis J. also spotted a Harley-Davidson dealership, which features its canine greeter on some of its wares, so we had to stop there too.
The rest of the day was a blur of travel plazas and flatlands as we made our way across Ohio until we arrived in the Cleveland area, where we detoured off the interstate. A turkey crossed the road in front of us as we were getting close to Shady Oaks Farm Bed & Breakfast. Once upon a time, it was a rare thing to spot a turkey, at least in Pennsylvania. Now I’ve seen them on roads in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
After checking in at Shady Oaks; helping ourselves to pita, hummus, and lemonade; and getting restaurant recommendations, we backtracked a bit to Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is the newest (2000) and third most visited national park in the system. The sky was overcast with a threat of rain, and the lighting was poor, but we got our first peek at this beautiful and surprisingly colorful waterfall. It’s hard for me to imagine that this lovely spot once belonged to a private individual, who ran a mill by the waterfall. Now millions get to enjoy it every year.
Our dinner stop was in Peninsula, Ohio, at the Winking Lizard, a local tavern chain with locations clustered around Columbus and northeastern Ohio — a comfortable and delicious way to end a great day of travel and anticipate the next.
May 21: Knowing that our first destination, Hamburg, New York, was only three hours away, we dawdled at Shady Oaks, where we savored a fireside breakfast and some quality time trying to get the attention of the resident horses and pony. Finally, after 11 a.m., we returned to Brandywine Falls, which had become more popular during the daylight hours. There was even a group of park-rangers-in-training, led by a sharp-voiced instructor who made it clear après-lunch tardiness would not be tolerated. Instead of peeking through dense foliage to see bits of the falls, we went down the steps to the viewing platform to take in the whole view, colorful minerals and all.
Our next planned stop was Blue Hen Falls, but first we detoured to the Conference Center area with what is called the Stone Cottage and then to the Boston Store Visitor Center. Although it’s not as obvious from the outside as from the inside, the Boston Store, built around 1836 as a warehouse (“store” as in storage) and boarding house, is a trapezoidal building that follows the lines of the neighboring Ohio & Erie Canal.
Further along we found Blue Hen Falls, a mystical little waterfall in the woods where, with more time and energy, I would have liked to to have found the way down and soaked my feet and soul in its watery goodness. Apparently, despite the “End of Trail” sign, there’s a longer, more primitive trail to Buttermilk Falls that involves some creek crossings. As we say in Chicago, maybe next time — if there is one.
J. sought out Hale Farm, which was closed, but we soon found ourselves at Everett Covered Bridget, built most likely in the 1860s and reconstructed in 1986 by the National Park Service after a 1975 flood lifted it from its sandstone abutments.
Our last Cuyahoga Valley NP stop was the Beaver Marsh boardwalk viewing platform, which had attracted a horde of student observers who would have scared off any wildlife for miles. By now it was overcast, which had drawn out some interesting water lilies.
Back on the interstate, we stopped at Pub Frato in Concord, Ohio, and at Starbucks in Erie, Pennsylvania. We detoured to drive down part of the long peninsula that makes up Presque Isle State Park, where the sun was setting and the wind was howling.
At last we crossed the line into New York, where there are few exits and fewer rest stops, but giant signs proclaim, “Niagara Falls!” as though the region’s big wonder is only a few miles away.
After we exited the interstate, or the New York Thruway, even in the dark I felt at home with the older houses separated by woods and big front yards guarded by trees that have been there since before I was born. It’s different from most of Illinois in a way I can’t describe.
Finally, after passing it two or three times in the dark, I got out of the car to track down Sharon’s Lakehouse, which really is directly across from the Lake Shore branch of the Erie County library system. I also remembered why walk along Rte. 5 in Hamburg is dangerous, especially in the dark. No one hit me, I survived, and, for the first time since 1987, I had returned to Hamburg with a little time to explore my hometown.
As a follower of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Facebook, I saw mention of Maple Sugar Time event on their timeline, along with a series of maple sugar-related questions leading up to it to generate interest. I persuaded J. to …Continue reading →