I have distant and unusual ties to the Indiana Dunes. One could argue that my very existence hinged on a missed travel connection in July of 1915, a connection to these same dunes on the Lake Michigan shore.
“On a warm July morning in 1915, a mother was planning to take her two children on an excursion, by boat, from its berth in the Chicago River near Clark Street to the Indiana sand dunes. The occasion was the annual picnic for employees and families of the Western Electric Company of Cicero. Either this mother was late for the boarding of the boat, or a last minute change was made in her plans – the details are lost to time – but the connection was not made. If it had been, the chances are very high that I would not exist. The ‘mother’ became my Polish Busha, the five year old boy grew up to become my father …. The fateful boat was the Eastland, which rolled over under the weight of the many excited passengers crowding onto its decks early that summer day. In doing so, it drowned 812 [sic] men, women, and children, and, but for a lapse in time or circumstance, most certainly my future.”
~ Gerald Mion
The voice above is my father’s, taken from his memoirs, unfinished and unpublished at the time of his death in 2009. He never related this story in life, and it was profoundly eerie to find this in his writings – and to discover a moment in time when a simple lateness may have secured my father’s existence, and with his, mine. I have frequently been late for one thing or another – to what life-altering effect?
I arrived at Indiana Dunes State Park around 12:47pm, neither late nor early, as I was driving back to the east coast and was on no particular schedule. After paying the entrance fee, I parked at the nature center, which was open, despite many park offices being closed due to COVID 19 virus. Despite the outbreak, the parking lot was full.
The trailhead, adjacent to the nature center, was marked, “Trails 8, 9, and 10″. From there, the trail climbed gently up a heavily wooded dune. I was looking for Trail 10, but somehow veered onto Trail 8, climbing a steep sandy dune before realizing my mistake. I hate climbing sand dunes. I retraced my steps, found the right trail, and headed east into a forest of hardwood. The trail was soft and smooth, the sun was out, and the temperature was in the high thirties. It was a beautiful day for a hike.
To my left, tall, tree-covered dunes separated Trail 10 from the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and to my right was a swamp, thick with gray-brown shrubbery. All around were rolling hills. From far off in the swamp issued a mournful cooing sound that, whether bird or amphibian, I could not distinguish. Boardwalk traversed the muddier parts of the swamp, and the dunes towered seventy or eighty feet over my head as the trail transitioned from packed sand to soft hummus. The surrounding forest was increasingly dotted with evergreens; red-tailed squirrels played in the trees and darted across the trail.
A short time later, a narrow boardwalk wound through the marsh with water to each side. I was back in the swamp. Red speckled eastern skunk cabbage pushed up through the pack of leaves, and there, in startling contrast to the brown and gray shrubs that flanked the trail, stood dogwood saplings with bright red bark.
Upon leaving the swamp, I passed into a section of the densest woods I had yet encountered. Although the map told me I was weaving in and amongst sand dunes, Trail 10 looked ever more like a woodland path as I worked my way north towards the Lake Michigan shore. There was little to suggest that I was mere yards from one of America’s largest lakes.
At just over three miles, I came to a junction. Turning right, I found myself face-to-face with a chain-link fence and locked gate, the East State Park Boundary Road just beyond. I had intended to cut across to the Dune Ridge Trail, a trail that climbs Gleason Heights and, according to my research, offered a stellar view of the surrounding wetlands. What my decidedly incomplete research hadn’t revealed was that the Dune Ridge Trail was not in the state park, but in an area that I believed to be part of the newly created Indiana Dunes National Park. Scanning to the right of the locked gate, I saw a chink in the fence.
I glanced shiftily in all directions before squeezing my six-foot-one frame through the three-foot high split. Once through, I straightened up, doing my best to look casual, whistling nonchalantly, hands in my pockets – because that’s what normal people do when standing alone by a road in the middle of the woods. Especially when they are absolutely not up to something. I glanced up and down the boundary road. There was no one around to accept my America the Beautiful park pass. Typical, I thought. I’ve recently visited several national parks that were free or, that for some other equally lame reason, weren’t interested in my full-color, hard-plastic, eighty-dollar, all-access, VIP park pass. Of course, I had just gained entry by awkwardly clambering through a broken fence like an escapee from the local penitentiary. But still.
A few yards to the south lay the Dune Ridge. This trail offered some elevation as I trod sandy switchbacks to the top of Gleason Heights. Soon, I reached the ridge with its sweeping views of the wetlands to the east. I could see vast expanses of reeds interlaced with open water. Frogs croaked in a semi-melodic call-and-response that echoed across the dunes. Behind me, through the trees (and a break in the dunes) were the green-blue waters of Lake Michigan.
Continuing on, the trail wound down the dune and back to East State Park Boundary Road. I slipped through the chink in the fence and rejoined Trail 10. My outlaw detour had added three-quarters of a mile and a dash of adventure.
A few hundred yards further, and I was climbing up and over the dunes. I could hear the roar of Lake Michigan; soon it began to flash through the trees. A steady breeze whipped through the forest. I topped the dunes and immediately began to descend to the beach.
I’m generally not fond of hiking on beach. It’s not that I don’t like the crash of the waves or the sunshine; it’s more about the sand … and often the wind. With the temperature in the thirties, I was concerned that the wind, so frequent on Lake Michigan, would be uncomfortable. Fortunately on the southern shore that day there was only the lightest of breezes – and it was at my back for this two-mile section.
I walked close to the water where the sand was firmest. In the hazy afternoon sun the waters of Lake Michigan took on a steely greyish-green color as it churned, crashing gently onto the shore, its froth quickly melting away into the sand. Great patches of stone, rounded and smooth from their time tumbling in the lake, embellished the beach, often glittering like jewels in the afternoon sun. On the beach, I passed numerous others, many of whom I assumed were just out for a stroll. Every one kept an appropriate distance while remaining every bit a cordial as one expects in the Midwest.
So what was the downside? Unfortunately the view in either direction from the Indiana Dunes is of industry. Factories with smokestacks belching smoke sully the lakefront to the west and there are what look like warehouses to the east. This should absolutely not dissuade you from visiting – it is a minor drawback and easily ignored. More pleasantly, across the southern tip of the lake, the majestic Chicago skyline shimmered in the haze.
I had done my time on the beach. It was now time to turn inland and climb some dunes. I hate climbing dunes. Nonetheless, I was going to climb three of them. On purpose. Why, you ask? Because they’re there – It’s what the BIT in BIT|Hiker stands for. But also because there’s this thing at the Indiana Dunes called the “Three-Dune Challenge”. The word challenge is a trigger for me. Additionally, Lisa and I were in this park three years prior and we only hiked two out of the three dunes in the Three Dune Challenge.
I huffed and puffed my way up Mount Tom, the first of the three. It was essentially straight up from beach to peak.
I hope this letter finds you well. I have been hiking in your state parks and felt obligated to make you aware of a mechanism frequently used on hiking trails throughout the country and around the world.
Switchback /ˈswɪtʃbæk/ noun: When a trail zig-zags back-and-forth up a very steep section of terrain, i.e. an enormous sand dune. This adds distance to the route, but results in a shallower grade and is a whole lot easier than struggling straight up a !$#@!!#! pile of soft, shifting silt!
I hope you find this information useful. Thank you for your attention.
A hiker who hates, hates, hates climbing sand dunes
I slid backwards six inches for every eighteen-inch step I took. For some completely unknown reason, it doesn’t look as bad in the pictures. I swear it took at least a hundred times the effort for every foot of elevation gain on soft sand as it did on dirt. Or maybe three times. Just trust me – it’s harder. Eventually, I gained the top and stood, wheezing for a minute, before snapping some pictures of the view, which was impressive even if it did look toward Gary, home of America’s smoke-belching industry.
Leaving Tom, I plunked down about a hundred wooden stairs only to immediately begin climbing Mount Holden. Holden was the another straight-uphill trudge, although when I reached the top, the view was a little nicer. Mount Holden looked directly out over the now aquamarine waters of Lake Michigan. Each of these summits boasted a large and colorful sign reminding me that there are three (count ‘em, three) dunes in the Three Dune Challenge. I sighed and headed back down a second enormous mound of sand.
Climbing Mount Jackson was a little easier than the previous two. A little. It was still uphill on sand. When I gained the summit, I was wheezing only slightly less than I had been on Tom and Holden. The view here was to the east and very little industry could be seen. Mostly it looked over acres and acres of wetlands and forest. The lake was visible in the distance.
My third and final descent was a series of gradual switchbacks. Of course it wasn’t. The trail went straight down Mount Jackson. I moon-walked down the soft, sandy path, taking enormous leaping strides, sliding eight or ten inches with every footfall. This descent was fun. When I reached the bottom, I took a short connector trail over to Trail 7, which made a beeline for the nature center.
Indiana Dunes State Park is a great place to visit, summer or winter. One of the reasons Lisa and I only hiked two dunes a few years ago was because of the heat. It was mid-day in late June, so if you plan on visiting in the summer expect to swelter. My late-winter visit was colder and browner, but still great hiking. The park offers a lot of variety: woods, wetlands, beach and some pretty impressive dunes. Trails crisscross the entire park. If you’re in the area, give it a look-see, and enjoy this beautiful reserve. I have no idea whether or not my great-grandmother ever visited the Indiana Dunes, but she did not do so on July 24, 1915. If you enjoyed this post you owe it to Busha. ♦
For more information on the Eastland Disaster see The Eastland Disaster Historical Society
Date: March 15, 2020
Location: Indiana Dunes State Park, IN
Trailhead: 41.659364, -87.049916
Distance: 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 323 feet