Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: a fine urban wilderness

In order to get to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore from my home in Milwaukee, I have to go through all of Chicago, with its sprawling suburbs and its densely packed downtown, spiked with skyscrapers, and then across the skyway. The view from the skyway is of a vast apocalyptic landscape seething with active refineries, steel mills, and inactive, abandoned industrial sites. Past the last steel mill I begin to see woodlands and wetlands instead of enormous factory sheds, steel armatures, and tall smokestacks. It is worth the effort.

I’ve been to “the dunes” many times, but always to lie on the beach in warm weather. Last weekend could have been more of the same, but it was freezing! So, instead of sticking to the beach I explored one of the inland trails where it was out of the wind and much warmer. And what a lovely discovery! The Cowles Bog trail led me through some swamplands, over oak covered hills, and past glacial kettle ponds. 

Most of the landscape was still hued with pre-spring shades of russet and charcoal. The marshy areas have started to sprout thin green reeds and tight pale curls of what will unfold as ferns. Bright yellow Marsh Marigolds provide the only other splashes of color.

It was very peaceful, too, considering how close it is to Chicago. Just an hour to the southeast of the windy city, the National Lakeshore is a thin, discontinuous band of sandy hills and soggy wetlands. It lines the southern shore of Lake Michigan, residue of the last great ice sheet. It is discontinuous because it was created around private lands that remain grandfathered within the scope of the park. This happens in other parks, but is particularly prevalent where a park is created long after development has taken hold.

  Checkerboard ownership can make for jarring juxtapositions beyond the proximity of power plants and steel mills. When I arrived at the Cowles Bog trailhead, I was stopped by the guard station that keeps the public out of a private community called Dune Acres. The small trailhead parking lot was tucked away behind a ridge, where residents of Dune Acres wouldn’t see it as they approach and exit their enclave.

Away from the road, my wilderness experience unfolds gradually. At the beginning of the hike I could hear the regular clattering of the commuter rail line that runs arrow straight through the irregular meanderings of sand hills and streams. As I got farther from the rail line, closer to the lake, only the more distant sounding air whistle could be heard as each train reached road crossings. Finally, as I crested the last tall dune, all I could hear was the wind in the trees and the pounding of the surf below. Very peaceful.

I could easily ignore the steel mill that smoked far off down the shoreline.

While there are ten National Seashores, there are currently only four National Lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes. Two are on Lake Michigan and two on Lake Superior. The Indiana Dunes is the one closest to a populous city. (There also are two National Parks in the Great Lakes region: remote Isle Royale in Lake Superior and urban Cuyahoga between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.)

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