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’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.