Friday, October 19, 2012

Surprise! Hiking in Gary's Miller Beach


This is why I love the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and many other hidden remnants of the remarkable natural landscape that once stunned the early French explorers with its wildness and wonder.

I’d heard about Miller Beach for years as a frequent explorer of the Indiana Dunes and the surrounding prairies and marshes. Looking on a map, I’d often wondered just what was adjacent to the humungous US Steel Gary Works. I’d visited the actual beach and the Paul Douglas Environmental Center and walked around the marshes there but never thought to venture further, knowing that the land might be mostly residential or compromised by the years of industrialization. Like many who’ve explored these heavy industrialized areas, I’ve learned not to be surprised at what to expect.

I asked for a map at the resource center, but the ranger said they didn’t have one, but that she’d mark it on my map. This was a good sign, I thought, or was it?

Off I went through the golden leafed black oak savannahs with the familiar sounds of the south shore line rocketing through the little Gary suburb of Miller Beach, preparing me for the usual hiking experience at the Dunes where you’re never far from the realities of this post-industrial landscape. The marshes were browning and choked as usual with the invasive hybrid cattail.

Then, I came to a trail that led off the marked Miller Woods Loop trail. This trail dipped, meandered and then came to what I guess is the west end of the new Marquette Trail. The trail is an old rail bed.  As I looked right and left, the trail became a tunnel of golden leaves with scarlet sumac along the banks. The sun, the warmth of the day, and sudden flood of color jolted me awake. It was fall, wasn’t it? In the city, you recognize that the trees are changing and the days are getting shorter and cooler. But it’s a passing thought as you get on a train or go about your busy life.  In natural settings, however, color sharpens and soothes some quality of perception that we can’t access in the manufactured settings most of us inhabit. I hike for these moments of perceptual shock when natural color bombards the back of my retina and bursts the dull patterns of my mind.

I half thought of walking down this straight path to see where it led. But I wanted to follow this Miller Beach Trail.  

The trail weaves by several marshes, nestled between the old dunes.  Some a few acres, some opening out into shallow ponds surrounded by grasses and cattails, where I startled a couple of blue herons and noticed gold finches and other migrants but I couldn’t ID them. I was still, as usual, too much in a hurry. How many little marshes are out here?  I followed the trail up a small dune and then down, and through the foliage, I caught a glimpse of a rich, ultramarine blue. The Lake? Already? No, it was one of the several lagoons particular to this unique dune and marsh landscape. It’s not small, maybe 10 acres, and completely surrounded by trees.  I stopped and for a moment, I had to remember, that I was at the Dunes and Gary was a few miles to the south and west. I crossed a newly built little wooden foot bridge that protects the wetlands and connects the western lagoon to the eastern one, where I could see some of the homes in Miller Beach.  

I climbed around another dune and there was another shallower pond with a horseshoe set of dunes towering over it. And around its edge, my first industrial sight, marring the landscape: what a mess, trees half chopped down, branches piled up in the water, damming up the water’s natural flow, ah, the old beaver had been hard at work. And there, too, is a flock of ducks, wood ducks with their clean forest green markings.  

 I wasn’t even close to the beach and I’d walked at least a mile. So of course, I climbed the dune, at a pitch that made me have to hold on to tufts of purplish blue stem grasses. Dune hiking is not for the unsteady or the impatient, I always have to remember. So I angled up to make it easier, but I still fell back and nearly tumbled back on my ass into the water.  One thing, though, about dune hiking you can’t ever really get hurt, unless fall into a patch of cockleburs or poison ivy.

On top, I finally got a glimpse of the lake, but I still had another half mile to the beach. To the right is unfortunately the sign of the sad history of the area, an unnatural plateau, bulldozed sand mixed in with the waste of years of steel production. The natural undulation of the dune procession is gone.  I moved on though I’m on my own, as there’s no real trail to follow. Ahead I saw the remains of a fence, buried up to its barbed wire, by the moving dunes of the past ten to twenty years. I push through brush, golden rod, aster, little blue steam, with a few old stunted black oaks sticking out of the sand.  There is something arresting to these old dead trees littering the dunes, charred black against the sallow sand, sand cherries, spreading wild grape and grasses hanging on the slopes.  Death turned into sculptural relics.  I spotted some pink ribbons and followed them.  It’s a surreal landscape, these dunes of Lake Michigan and the multiple environments that survive here. Nowhere else in the world can one find this unique mix of North America’s diverse environments, prairie, wetlands, woodlands, desert, boreal remnants of the ice age.  

I stepped over the fence. One more dip around a hybrid cattail clogged marshy area and I could see the lake and the rolling foredunes before it. The foredunes are young and form a swale that parallels the beach, all filled with grasses and golden rod. The little valley extends at least a mile right and left, and at the western end, there it is the grand mountain of industrial Gary—the chimney stacks and behemoth metal barn that comprises Gary’s integrated steel works. Out into the lake a long spit juts out into lake, and then further west the silhouette of gargantuan Arcelor Mittal and other US Steel plants, British Petroleum’s largest Midwestern refinery and all the rest of it. It’s always dramatic, and unsettling, no matter how many times you hike at the Dunes. You know it’s coming even as you get lost in the surreal dunes, marshes, woodlands, and ponds, there they are—the other half of the Lake Shore. And then, of course, there was Chicago, almost an afterthought, a thin shadow in the distance, a ghost of the great city, that disappeared as I climbed to the last dune ridge lined with youthful sycamore.  And then, I landed on a wide clean empty beach that stretched to the spit and back northeast to Miller Beach, a good mile or more of empty smooth sand.

I stopped to stare and admire the expanse of the lake and its beach. Surveying the lake and the open sky always stuns my mind for a few moments. I don’t know why. I live by the lake, in Rogers Park, there’s rarely a day that doesn’t go by and I don’t find myself on the beach there, walking, swimming, running, stopping and staring out. But when you hike up and over dunes for a couple of hours, there’s always a surprise at how magnificent the lake really is. Why is this? Why do we need to earn it first on foot, moving from the old dunes to new, walking through history as recorded in these changing ecologies?