Tuesday, 14 June 2022, Indiana Dunes NP
I now had three days - Monday noon until Thursday afternoon - in Chicago to slow down, catch my breath and prepare for visiting the Dakota parks. I'd set a torrid pace for a week, and next week would again feature major time in a car. For this stop, I only had to visit Indiana Dunes NP.
I'd arranged to stay with a good friend, and we would fight Chicago traffic on Tuesday to bag Indiana Dunes. But before that, I wanted to revisit my first childhood home, in Addison, IL.
Twice before I'd returned to Chicago for family reunions, and cousins had driven me to the old neighborhood, pointing out places such as the school where I'd attended kindergarten. On Wisconsin Ave, I only vaguely remembered the family house, though I clearly remembered the house my aunt and uncle lived in across the street. However, on both previous trips no one had answered my knock on the door, and I'd come away disappointed at not seeing the inside.
The third time was indeed the charm. The current owners answered the door, and after locking up their dog, let me come inside to look around. "We're the third or fourth family to live here," the mother explained. "We heard that a lawyer had originally built the house..."
"That would be my father!" I looked around, waiting for memories to kick in. "We left Illinois when I was six, so my memories are a bit faded."
After six decades, these and previous owners had changed the layout, knocking out walls, relocating stairs. Nothing looked familiar in the least. But then I rounded the corner into the living room.
Was it memory? Or only a story I'd heard, and then shaped in my mind? The holidays just before my third birthday came into focus. My father had returned from Houston, where he'd endured unsuccessful treatments to cure his Hodgkin's disease, so he could live out his final weeks at home with family. I recalled hiding behind the Christmas tree, not recognizing the gaunt man in the house.
The scene washed over me, stirring ... something.
After a short reflection, I looked around further, but nothing else pinged. I thanked the residents, and Tim and I proceeded to dinner. I had arranged to meet several cousins for a mini-reunion at a local pizza café they'd chosen. Good to see family, and to catch up on their lives. Conversation flowed smoothly. Then, as we ate our meals, everyone's cell phones exploded with buzzing. Tornado warning! We all looked to the TV mounted on the wall, but the weather map showed the storm elsewhere in the county, so we returned to our meals.
The next day, Tim and I planned to tackle Indiana Dunes NP after his doctor's appointment in the morning. On the way to the clinic, we passed several streets
with limbs downed and trees strewn about. So that's where the storm hit yesterday!
Indiana Dunes may be one of the newest parks (#61, promoted from National Lakeshore in 2019), but people have pushed for its protection for over a century. Power plants and manufacturing plants populated the land among the dunes, endangering the dunes and flora there; one particularly large dune along the shore (the Hoosier Slide) was totally removed and used for (among other things) Ball Brothers canning jars.
Stephen Mather, the first director of the NPS, held meetings in Chicago in 1916 regarding a 'Sand Dunes National Park'. However, it still took another 50 years for Congress to establish Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It remains a patchwork of federal park land and state park, interwoven with various power plants, heavy industry, and the Port of Indiana. When you also consider that you can see the Chicago skyline from the beach, it certainly fits the definition of an urban park.
Which explains how I came up with the 'unique experience' for this park. Given my interest in volunteerism and my disgust with litter, I wanted to match 'trash cleanup' with an appropriate park. Kathy Kupper (my original contact in the D.C. office of the NPS) had suggested a beach-oriented park or an urban park - both of which the Dunes qualified for. The choice made sense to me - but how would park rangers react my 'trashing' their reputation?
I needn't have worried. At the Visitor Center, I noticed a poster encouraging people to pitch in and ditch litter. When I explained my desire to pick-up on West Beach (the most popular spot in the park), they responded with enthusiasm. "Fantastic! Here, please sign the volunteer sheet." I noticed that several people had preceded me already this month - a new name every couple of days, including one earlier today. "Once you sign this waiver form, you can get free parking at the beach. Let me grab a trash bag and plastic gloves for you. Thank you so much!"
By this time - after we'd crawled through lunchtime rush-hour traffic on the web of Chi-town freeways - we'd hit mid-afternoon, with an Extreme Heat Advisory in effect. Better get our exercise in first, before it gets worse. We headed to Miller Woods for a 3.5-mile round-trip hike to a secluded beach. The trail started with a boardwalk through a swampy area,
then changed to a stroll through a white-oak savanna, a landform that has largely disappeared from the area. In addition to the high heat, we also faced the extra effort of walking the sandy trail (remember, we're in a Dunes park!).
We quickly discovered another impediment when we saw the large limb that had fallen across the trail. It took little to step over it. The next downed branch took a bit more effort; the third one we had to fight our way through.
For the last two obstacles, we found it easier to walk off-trail to pass them by. Must have been quite the storm here yesterday.
I enjoyed the green surroundings with a smattering of trees and ponds. Soon tall grasses nearly hid the trail as it proceeded along the banks of the Little Calumet River, the reeds brushing against our legs.
Tim set a more deliberate pace, slowed by the heat, anxious to not trigger vertigo from his Ménière's disease.
Once it left the river, the trail crossed a landscape with dunes anchored by grasses before emptying onto the beach.
A solitary umbrella provided shade to a beach visitor, and I could see the city skyline far to the left.
The secluded beach had few people on it. Grasses anchored the dunes, and short trees and bushes completed the scene.
With our water running low, I suggested to Tim that we could return via the road - it's a straighter shot, and we wouldn't fight the sandy footing. Tim pointed out, though, that the road likely provided no shade, so we opted to return via the same trail.
The heat lingered on our return, but we took it easy. I paused for photos on the river, calmed by its tranquility.
Near the end, an alternate boardwalk allowed us to avoid the downed trees,
and we safely reached the car (and a stash of extra water). The heat had sapped Tim, so he opted out of the litter-picking once we drove to West Beach. That meant I could use his litter-stick, and not have to constantly reach down for the trash.
When I showed the parking waiver at the gate, we got another big round of thanks for helping out. I wondered, though, whether the person who'd volunteered earlier today might have cleaned the beach, leaving nothing for me to bag. Silly boy, don't you ever learn? There's ALWAYS trash. I'd barely reached the short lane to the beach before snagging my first wrapper. I wandered side-to-side, grabbing stray debris on each side of the paved path. On the beach, even more trash lay about - mostly small plastic pieces along with pop- and water-bottles may still half full.
The liquids made the bag heavy, and in 45 minutes I had to call it quits. One family asked what I was up to,
and we chatted for a few minutes, mostly about the beauty of northern Michigan and my yet-to-schedule trip to Isle Royale NP.
I had considered a co-adventure for this park: taking a swim in Lake Michigan. Ready to escape the heat, I dumped the litter stick, changed into my swim trunks, and waded out in the lake.
Info signs in the park reported the water temperature as 58°, and wading into waist-deep waters convinced me that maybe I should refrain from immersing myself further.
Dinner now called. GPS directed us to a seafood café in a settlement encircled by the park, and a wonderful dinner took us nearly to sundown. One more park feature had piqued my interest, so we now raced east, getting to the 1933 Homes of Tomorrow barely in time to catch the sun sinking beneath the horizon.
As the light faded, we briefly walked by the Homes. The backstory: When Chicago hosted the 1933 World's Fair, it featured a number of 'Houses of the Future': houses incorporating such innovative features as dishwashers, air conditioning, and garage door openers. The homes grabbed the public's attention.
Once the Fair ended, a private buyer purchased five of the homes, loaded them on a barge, and floated them across Lake Michigan to Indiana. Through a partnership with Indiana, the NPS, the Indiana Landmarks organization, and private individuals, the homes are being restored. People lease the homes and live there, but once a year the public can tour the houses. (No, today was not the day.)
The rest of the year, you can walk by them, and read the interpretive signs giving details. This one was pre-fabbed of porcelain-enamel with frameless steel construction;
the Florida house evoked images of that southern state, painted in pink;
another was built with artificial stone; the cypress-log home demonstrated the many uses of cypress; a final one has a ground-floor hangar for your personal airplane.
We had no personal airplane, but we fairly flew home along interstates recovered from rush-hour traffic. I've now visited 13 parks on this challenge - I'm 20% done! What adventures await me in upcoming parks?