After our lunch on August 24, Sean, Angela, Mary, and I set off on our afternoon adventures at Indiana Dunes National Park. Since the morning, we had slowly been making our way west from the easternmost point of the Park. Our next stop was the Visitor Center, and then we’d do some more hiking. It was already clear to us that we would not be able to do all the hikes on our list in one day, but we knew we’d be back to this out-our-backdoor Park time and again in the future.
At the Visitor Center we checked to see if they had any National Park branded merchandise yet for our collections. They had postcards, so we grabbed some for our usual recipients, my parents and aunts and Sean’s sister. The only pins and patches they had were ones that looked sort of rushed and were branded with the Passport to Your National Parks text. They were…meh. Sort of gaudy and faux-golden. We’d have to wait a while longer.
As we took in the exhibits, Angela remarked that she appreciated how straightforward this Park was about the general possibility of death or dismemberment.
As we were preparing to leave, Ranger Kelly overheard us talking about not being totally sure about the difference between bogs, fens, and marshes. She asked us if we’d like to know and explained that while both are wetlands that accumulate peat, bogs clog and fens flow. In other words, fens have some sort of surface or groundwater replenishment. She also pointed out that nearby Cowles Bog is actually a fen with the outflow point having been discovered only relatively recently.
Thanks, Ranger Kelly!
Replenished ourselves by our lunch of Big Ass Beach Hoagies and with bogs and fens on our minds, we decided to go for a hike through Cowles Bog as our next adventure.
The parking area for Cowles Bog was nearby. When we got out of the car, a dragonfly landed on Sean and insisted on staying with him.
After he gently removed it from his shoulder, it stayed on his thumb and eventually moved to his hair before flying away.
The trail system is comprised of multiple short (0.2-0.9-mile) interlocking segments allowing for loops and lollipops of varying length. As we started out, we weren’t sure how far we’d end up hiking.
Cowles Bog is named for Henry Chandler Cowles, a University of Chicago botanist whose 1899 publication, Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan, published after extensive field work in the fen that now bears his name, revolutionized the understanding of ecological succession in plant communities. It was Cowles who showed that plant communities change and mature as they become more established.
In 1965, Cowles Bog was designated a National Natural Landmark, a year before the National Lakeshore was established.
The trail ran along the bottom of a dune ridge with the wet parts of the fen mostly to the south (our left).
We stopped to admire an odd burl with leaves growing out of it on a birch.
Part of the extraordinary biodiversity of Indiana Dunes National Park is its location on the continent. It is the northern extension of the range of some species and the southern extension of others. It is the western edge of many species of the eastern forests and also the eastern edge of many prairie species. It also contains isolated communities of species from much farther north, such as bearberry, that are remnants of the ice age. These plant communities established themselves here in the first wave of plant succession as the glacier melted. Cool microclimates within the dunes landscape have allowed them to stay for tens of thousands of years.
At a fork, the trail turned and headed up into the ridges of dunes.
Between two of the ridges we could see the the towers of the heavy industry immediately adjacent to this portion of the Park. The smokestacks were from a power plant. But beyond the trees was the sprawling ArcelorMittal steel plant, which sometime the week of August 12 had spilled cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan, causing beach closures that only occurred days after the spill. The public hadn’t been notified for possibly four days after the spill occurred.
Although all the beaches were open, we did not get into the water that day. But it did inspire a hiking conversation about all the ways humans have poisoned themselves over the centuries.
The trail steepened and it became obvious that we were climbing the final (and highest) dune before the shore.
Then we emerged from the woods onto a high dune overlooking the Lake. It was such a beautiful day!
We descended the trail out toward Lake Michigan.
Between the dunes and the almost nonexistent beach (because of the high lake levels) was an expanse of Marram Grass, protecting the shoreline from further erosion.
A group of likely college students was at the beach, swimming and enjoying the day. One of them asked if we had goggles since they’d lost their frisbee in the churning waves. We did not.
To the west, the power plant and ArcelorMIttal loomed. Indiana Dunes National Park is beautiful, but it has some major viewshed and industry-adjacent problems. It will be interesting to see if the psychological power of “National Park” changes attitudes about the fragility of a landscape so close to apparently irresponsible polluters.
Since the beach was inaccessible, we had to use a footpath through the grass to reach the next trail segment back up into the dunes.
It was a steep climb up the sandy trail back into the woods, but at least it was shaded.
At one point, a tree sort of blocked the trail. It had clearly only recently fallen since its leaves were still so green.
The trail skirted the property line between the National Park and the industrial areas to the southwest.
Eventually, the trail led back into the woods as we headed back to the parking area.
All told, it was a great little two-and-a-half hour hike.
It was now about 4:45pm, and Mary had to say her farewell to head back to the city. Sean, Angela, and I were up for another adventure or two, so we drove to nearby Bailly Homestead along the Little Calumet River.
The earliest buildings at the homestead date from the early 1800s, while the grand house came a bit later.
The signage at the site is fairly dated. For instance it references that the Treaty of Chicago placed land in the area in the public domain, but leaves out that it lead directly to the removal of the Potawatomi on their “Trail of Tears.”
The Bailly Homestead, a National Historic Landmark, was the home of Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein (1774 – 1835). Bailly played a role in the development of the Calumet Region of northern Indiana. He was an independent trader in the extensive fur-trading network that spread from Montreal to Louisiana, and ultimately to Europe. Joseph Bailly was one of the earliest settlers in northern Indiana. In 1822 Bailly set up his fur trading post at the crossroads of several important trails, including the Tolleston Beach and northern branch of the Sauk Trail. He provided a meeting place for Native Americans and Euro-Americans. Except for White Pigeon, Michigan, Bailly’s trading post was the only stopping place for travelers and missionaries between Chicago and Detroit.– National Park Service
I asked Sean what he’d do if he were suddenly transported back in time on that front porch. He shrugged, “Guess I’d have to sell my body.”
The door to the two-story log cabin was open, so of course we went inside.
After checking out the homestead, we walked down to the new paddling access site to the Little Calumet.
The launch was extremely cool since it had a rig for people with disabilities to be able to easily launch a canoe or kayak. Good job, National Park Service and partners!
We headed back to the car, where we dumped sand out of our shoes before saying goodby to Indiana Dunes National Park.
Angela stopped for gas, and I was amused by these lighters.
On the way back into Chicago, we stopped for dinner at Calumet Fisheries, the legendary smokehouse, which won a James Beard Award in 2010.
We ate our fried catfish and shrimp on the picnic tables out front. Sean and I went home with a chunk of amazing smoked salmon.
It was about 7:45pm when Angela dropped us off at our place, almost twelve great hours after she’d picked us up. And when we walked into our apartment, Elsa was happy to see us.