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.
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).
At last, after our thwarted attempt on Monday the 15th we were able see the Apostle Islands clearly, although I couldn’t get any good photos. Afterward, we checked out the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters in Bayfield, and ate a late lunch at Greunkle’s.
Finally, and reluctantly we left beautiful Bayfield behind, saddened by the knowledge that vacation was over and that in a day and a half, Lake Superior, Kabetogama, Rainy Lake, Crane Lake, and all of their historic, cultural, architectural, and wildlife treasures would also be behind us. We made a few stops, including at an out-of-the-way fishing hole and at a castle-like building in the middle of nowhere (J. took a photo of it). At Rice Lake, we ate at Lehmann’s Supper Club.
We soon faced an unexpected problem — there didn’t seem to be many places to stay in northern Wisconsin, and a big event at Wisconsin Dells meant every lodging was booked. Even an operator from hotels.com couldn’t help. By now both of us were very tired and desperate for rest.
At last, I found a place with a room — Devil’s Head Resort. The problem was that it was more than an hour and a half away. As we got closer, we ran into another problem — unbeknownst to us at first, the GPS decided to take us through Devil’s Lake State Park instead of on the regular roads. Poor J. was trying to stay awake while driving on the park’s hilly, sharping winding, snaky road, while I was trying to stay awake to keep him awake. In hindsight, it was terrifying.
Despite poor coverage, I managed to get the resort’s desk attendant long enough to get better directions. At last we arrived — after 3 a.m. Never did a cinderblock-walled room look so welcoming and comfortable.
July 21, 2013: Day 10
After a better rest than I expected, we went to Blue Spoon Café in Prairie du Sac, a little out of the way but worth it for a good breakfast on the tiered back patio overlooking the Wisconsin River. A railroad track lies between the river and the buildings, a little above river level. It reminds me of the dreams I used to have that I’m at home and that a train runs behind the trailer, curving around Dad’s garden and Virgil’s ash tree before heading west to an unknown destination. Sometimes it derails, sometimes it never ends, and sometimes it takes me with it.
We spotted a Harley Davidson dealer, so J. stopped to get something for his brother while I got a free bandana.
At about this time rain came, and I don’t remember that it quit. For long stretches, it was pretty bad. Closer to Illinois we ran into an almost unreal amount of road construction, which, with the rain, meant a slow, tiring return — just in time for the work week starting Monday, when Lake Superior and all the other lakes and the waterfalls receded into the realm of a dream.
The Bayfield Inn offers whirlpool suites. Is it necessary to say that as soon as I woke up from the long drive and late night, I inserted myself into warm, soothing jets for as long as I could, which wasn’t long enough?
Today’s objective was a cruise around the mysteriously named Apostle Islands. Our genial captain told us quite a bit about the unpredictability of Lake Superior weather, and it was soon clear that current conditions were conducive for a thick pea soup fog. After we had learned a great deal about the islands we could barely see through a few breaks in the fog, we headed back to shore with the option to get a refund or choose another day. Fortunately our plan had us staying in Bayfield Saturday before heading home, so we signed up for that morning’s tour.
With the afternoon in front of us, we lined up for the ferry to Madeline Island. Maneuvering the car around the narrow space by the pilot house made J. nervous, but the man guiding him said, “Trust me.” All, including the car, made it unscathed. Even better, the morning’s fog had cleared, and the sun had emerged. I looked happy enough!
On Madeline Island we ate outdoors at The Pub at The Inn on Madeline Island, which has a wonderful view of the lake and mainland. The only fly in the ointment were the flies, which weren’t repelled by the natural repellent J. had bought when exchanging the cruise tickets. Even so, you can’t beat a good bar lunch on the lake.
Afterward, we drove around, eventually heading out of town and checking out the houses and properties. I imagine, but don’t know, that most people leave the island for the winter — which was hard to picture on a sunny summer day.
We found ourselves at Big Bay State Park, where we fought off mosquitoes while gazing across the lake. A kayaking class floated by. On one of the Pictured Rocks cruises, someone had told us that sea kayaks are recommended for navigating Lake Superior and its unpredictable weather, and that it’s a very bad idea to go out alone. We’d seen a few brave souls on their own.
Our last stop on Madeline was at Grampa Tony’s, where so many teenagers were working that I started to look for Richie Cunningham.
Our next goal was Kabetogama for two days, but we detoured to Amnicon Falls State Park until it was too dark to take photos.
The never-ending road took us through Duluth, which, in the growing twilight, appeared surreal. As at Porcupine Mountains, there was something unearthly about the muted light.
On this long drive as on others, we were terrified of hitting deer. On one of these night drives, someone ahead of us flashed their lights. We found a mini-herd parked in the center of the road. They didn’t budge even as the car passed slowly within a couple of feet of them. They know who rules the night. After that incident we jokingly hoped for “deer buddies” ahead of us in remote areas who could warn us of deer near or on the road.
The rest of the night reminded me of entering Shawnee National Forest. In the dark, it felt like we were surrounded by forest and fields, with signs of habitation and commerce seemingly scarce. When I needed a bathroom break, it took some time to find a rough, almost deserted bar that was still open.
After an interminable time in the darkness (unbroken, alas, by the aurora borealis), we found the Sandy Point Lodge area, but with spotty to no cell phone coverage it was difficult to navigate. Finally we arrived, exhausted — but it was closer to 1 a.m. than midnight, there was no light, the door was locked, and no one answered the phone. We learned a valuable lesson — call ahead to make arrangements.
Although coverage was weak, I was able to check Yelp and make a few calls. At last a sleepy-sounding woman answered and said we could stay at her place, Arrowhead Lodge and Resort. Delirious with joy that I wasn’t going to have to sleep in the car, I told her we’d be right over. “No hurry,” she said. “I have to get dressed.” We found Arrowhead and brought in as little as we could, following her up a narrow staircase. By then it was after 3 a.m. That was a long day, and then some.
July 14, 2013: From Pictured Rocks to Lake of the Clouds to Bayfield
Before heading to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we took a few moments to admire the view from Sunset Motel on the Bay. Forget Southern California and Los Angeles — this is where a TV series should be taped — in spring, summer, or fall, of course.
Finally we tore ourselves away for the morning cruise on another lovely day. With the sun over the shore, the lighting wasn’t as dramatic or as good for photography, which allowed me to relax and focus more on what we’d seen and what we’d missed the night before.
Back in Munising, we went to Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, a comfortable place with the key ingredients — good coffee, edibles, and WiFi, plus the added bonus of used books for sale! I could have stayed there all day or even all week, but Munising’s waterfalls were calling. What a great thing it must be to live in a town with so many picturesque waterfalls. There’s also Johnny Dogs, where hot dogs are named for cities — not unlike the Chicago hot dog, which is probably what I had. Hyde Park could use a Johnny Dogs, complete with outdoor seating.
I’m not sure which of Munising’s waterfalls we saw, except for Alger Falls at the intersection of M-28 with M-94. Others include Wagner Falls and Munising Falls.
By now it was getting late in the day, and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was not getting any closer, so we had to say goodbye to Munising reluctantly after finding out the lighthouse wasn’t open.
The road to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park runs in part along Lake Superior, where the muted light held mystery, and on the clean beach you can feel like the only person on earth.
By the time we got to the park, dusk was starting to descend, and the mosquitoes were out for my blood. J. said it was all he could to put the park admission money in the envelope, surrounded as he was by a cloud of vampirelets.
Despite the persistent nips and dimming light, we made it to Lake of the Clouds, where the forest was a rich green and the river and lake a deep blue under a pastel sky subtly tinged with pink. I wish we could have spent more time there, but Bayfield awaited.
J. and I set out very late for the northern adventure, leaving a little before 11 p.m. The first port of call was Port Washington, north of Milwaukee, where the only place that seemed to be open was Holiday Inn Harborview — nothing like the Hamburg Thruway Holiday Inn circa 1970.
July 13, 2013: Day 2
After a stop at Smith Brothers, breakfast at Tellos Grill and Café, and a thwarted attempt to get into the lighthouse, we were on the road again. We had to be in Munising, Michigan (Upper Peninsula), before the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore sunset cruise left harbor at 7 p.m. It’s a more daunting drive than it appears to be on a map, especially with only one sleep-deprived driver.
After passing through Green Bay, the next notable stop was Escanaba, Michigan, for old-style fast food at Hudson’s Classic Grill, where we squeezed onto a bench outside to save time.
By now I’d noticed the mix of trees along the way had been changing, and by the time we entered Hiawatha National Forest I’d figured out that this is what a boreal forest looks like — magical, because it’s not the beautiful but familiar deciduous mix of Western New York and northern Illinois. I couldn’t help but think of Hiawatha (the poem) and “From the land of sky-blue waters” (the Hamm’s beer jingle). I haven’t heard the Hamm’s commercial for years, but it’s part of the detritus the human brain collects.
While the drive from Port Washington to Green Bay seemed long, at least after Escanaba we knew we were closing in our target, although at a slower pace through the forest.
Munising, Michigan, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
At last we arrived in Munising and headed straight for Sunset Motel on the Bay. We checked in, dropped off some stuff, drove the short distance to the dock, and found a place to park. By this time, a long line had formed, and a few minutes after we’d joined it at 6:40 it began to move as people boarded one of the two boats. At least we didn’t have to run to catch the boat, so the timing was as perfect as could be — considering the hundreds of miles we’d covered and the limitations that come with having the one overtired driver.
As for the cruise, the photos tell the story, I hope, of perfect weather and nearly ideal lighting from the setting sun glowing on Pictured Rocks. People jumped up and down or stood at the rail, holding up their phones to try to capture the wonder (and probably missing much of it as the boat sped along). When the captain reversed the boat into a tiny bay where we were surrounded by ancient color, I knew the rush had been worth it. What a glorious end to a long day.
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.