Adventures with a folding bike, episode 2: paradise between the
sewers. Scattered along a narrow strip of shoreline between the postindustrial hellholes of Gary
and Michigan City
is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
, fragile and beautiful, perennially imperiled, infinitely precious.
This stunning stretch of scenery is also an ecological bonanza, where tundra shrubs grow alongside desert cacti, where trees bury themselves in the dunes of their own creation, where migrating birds gather and rare insects find a haven mere miles from the biggest industrial polluters on Lake Michigan. It's a piece of heaven in the middle of hell. And it's not flat! You see, we midwesterners don't have mountains or an ocean, so we have to make do with sand dunes on a large lake. If you see mountains or an ocean every day, then it might be a little difficult to grasp the significance of the Indiana Dunes. But where else is the cycle of ecological succession so apparent? Where else are the dangers of pollution so obvious?
It's the wrench in the spokes of Illino-Indianan relations: as much as they foul our drinking water
, we still can't hate them because they have the Dunes. So historically
Chicagoans have been rather bossy about what Indiana should and should not do with their Lake Michigan shoreline, but can you blame us? All we have are a cattail marsh
, a couple of bluffs
, and a famous stretch of artificial parkland won
--and just barely kept
--by the skin of our teeth. Merciful heavens, Indiana, you've got something rare and wonderful--for the love of all things good in this world please
don't just bury it all in industrial waste!
So the Dunes have been appreciated, used, studied, protected, saved, and loved to tiny bits, and through it all nature has carried on its course--with our help, perhaps even despite our clumsy attempts at help. Have we truly been successful in our efforts? Hard to say. I personally like to think that we're doing just about the best we can, all things considered. At least the Dunes are still there to be visited.
I fell in love the first time I ever did; I've returned at least twice a year ever since. The Calumet Trail
has intrigued me for years, but trying to figure out how to get to it used to drive me nuts. Come on, you get off the train and it's right there
, so how do you get a bike there from Chicago? Well, I guess you break down and get a folding bike, that's how. Mt. Baldy, here I come again, finally.
I did my homework on the Calumet Trail: roughly ten miles, flat, straight, crushed limestone, along a NIPSCO
right of way, managed by the Porter County
parks department, parallel to NICTD
's South Shore line, ample parking, no facilities, doesn't terminate anywhere terribly useful. Seemed like a good enough trail on its own but that more could be done to connect it to something else; Calumet Citizens for Connecting Communities
is rumored to be trying. And how difficult would it be to install a water fountain or two and a couple of port-o-potties? That's not sarcasm; I really don't know. If it's actually a monumentally difficult task then I could understand why Porter County hasn't done it, but Will County
did it with the Wauponsee Glacial Trail
and that one runs a long length through middle-of-nowhere farm country. But there I go being a bossy Chicagoan, so nevermind for now.
I lugged my folding bike onto a South Shore train on a bright and balmy October afternoon, the kind of day when the golden leaves flash and flutter in the sun and wind against a starting blue sky and you start to think that maybe, just maybe, autumn isn't so bad after all. An hour or so later I was at the Dune Park station in Chesterton
pointing and giving directions to people who'd had a similar idea. Lucky them, I thought, if this is their first visit; mine was dark and rainy, but I'm not the sort who'd have been deterred from returning. And here I am yet again, this time trying something new. So I unfolded my bike, wheeled across the tracks, stepped onto the trail, and found myself hesitating. What's this silly fear of gravel all of a sudden? If this bike can't handle limestone screenings then I'll know right away and it will be useless to me; I'll walk back to the station, go home, and sell it. Not for what I paid for it, certainly, but I've wasted money on worse.
Well, here I go. Ooph, I wish the shifting wasn't so... Ah!
Bike is good. Trail is good. Life is good. Did I mention it's a utility corridor? This is how it should be--right of ways put to good public use through county-level trails/greenways under a state-level plan for a large-scale interconnected trail network. Looks like Indiana has the right idea with their Greenways Foundation
and Trails Plan
, but I don't live and hardly ever bike there so I couldn't tell you how successfully this idea is being realized. It's hard to tell how strong of an organization the Indiana Bicycle Coalition
is in terms of real bikeway building, but perhaps that's an indication that they're not, or not terribly? I've heard grumblings from Indianans about how difficult it is to bike from point A to point B, so I have a haunch everything is still in the "planning" phase right now. Still, such grumblings indicate that there's certainly a demand for a good bikeway/trail network.
(By the way, fenders are wonderful things. Why did it take me so long to figure this out?)
But it was only my very first experience biking the Calumet Trail, so for now I was happy enough just to be there. I headed east toward Mr. Baldy
, inaccessible by train unless you're willing to walk, which I'm usually not on a trail like this (I'd get bored real fast, moving so slow). The view from Mt. Baldy is quite worth the walk, but for that many miles the trails at Indiana Dunes State Park
/Dunes Nature Preserve
are a much better hike. But I've been to the state park how many times? I've only been to Mt. Baldy once before, a long time ago, and I'd been wanting to go back.
So another hour or so later, there I was. They even had a bike rack by the bathrooms. How thoughtful.
What a difference a couple of years makes--"alarming rate"? I remember well scrambling right up that southern slope, and yes, it does seem to be quite a bit closer to the parking lot. So to combat the erosion contributing to the danger that threatens to bury the parking lot, the bathrooms, the water fountains, the picnic shelters, and the informational kiosks such as this one (is nature trying to tell us something?
), the park rangers have fenced off the southern slope and rerouted
hikers around to the western slope. But I'm afraid they're losing this battle (more below). Mt. Baldy, the famous "moving dune," doesn't care that there's an endangered parking lot directly in its path, and judging from the footprints I saw on the southern slope I don't think many people care, either.
This is the difference between a sand dune and a mountain: on a sand dune you can watch the landscape changing right before your eyes, and it can be very difficult to manage those changes. Aldo Leopold
called upon us to "think like a mountain
"; should we learn to think like a dune as well?
View of the Chicago skyline across Lake Michigan from Mt. Baldy's summit. (Well, not quite the summit--I had to go partway back down to find a good Foreground Tree.) Yes, it's there, you can see it! Click on it for the full-sized version. Under certain conditions the skyline from the Dunes is more visible and quite striking (example
), but unfortunately this wasn't one of them.
A trained professional would tell you that there are some huge number of different species of grasses in this photo. Ecology!
Tree graveyard. How does that happen?
View roughly eastward from the top of the southern slope. It always feels odd to stand on top of a big pile of sand that's taller than the treetops.
View down across the southern slope, where Mt. Baldy is plowing into the oak forest along its landward side. The dead trees are the ones that have already been buried too deep to survive. Note how large (old) they are. These aren't saplings that have had the misfortune of sprouting in the wrong place at the wrong time. The forest has been there for a while, but it's being quickly buried by the dune. As you can see, plenty of people are still climbing up and down the southern slope with little thought of this danger.
Close-up of some dead trees on the southern slope. Looks like there are some vines taking advantage of the situation, but soon they too will perish.
Fence along the top of the southern slope indicating how far south Mt. Baldy must have moved since March.
I departed with reluctance, but the sunset was rapidly approaching and I had a train to catch. Both beat me by about half an hour, but at least this time I had plenty of stunning twilight and was riding right into it. I also had my glasses and fresh batteries in my headlight. Unlike the last time
I played sunset roulette. Speaking of Will County.
Then the next train was an hour late. And then it was delayed again in Gary for no apparent reason.
The bike is fine; the logistics are lacking. Or else I just keep running out of sunlight. Stupid autumn.
...These. Are. Beautiful.
I must get the book
. I already have this book
, with the South Shore line promotional posters that I wish I had full-sized and framed on my wall. Art inspired the Dunes' preservation, which in turn inspires yet more art. It's a nice relationship.