This past week, on a fairly warm February Friday, I planned to go to explore the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, near the Illinois town of Danville. Needless to say, I stayed up too late Thursday night and sought out quality hiking a little closer to home. Within about an hour, I brainstormed the outlines of a trip to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and within 75 minutes of leaving my front door, was parking at my first stop for the day, Cowles Bog.
Cowles Bog, actually a slightly alkaline fen, takes its name from the botanist Henry Cowles, who studied plant life and succession extensively at the Indiana Dunes, postulating that much of the area would eventually transition to a beech-maple climax forest.
I, probably correctly, assume that Mr. Cowles would outwit me instantly in a match of botanical wits–but that didn’t stop me from feelin’ some type of way for this site. The usual oaky woodland of the Chicago area is here, although undoubtedly not with the white or burr oaks more common in my neck of the woods. More exciting, though, is the plant life I saw here that I almost never see in Chicagoland. Jack pine, ferns, a representative of yucca, winterberry holly, paper birch, and blueberries all abound here, as well as yellow birch and (I believe) beech and hop hornbeam trees. Animal life on this dreary day did lack, but I heard my first sandhill cranes in several months.
Oh, is this post about a hike, too? I hiked 4.7 miles in a little over two and a half hours–I would give this three hours. I also give this hike four stars. Hilly, hard, sandy, well-drained from a severe rainstorm event earlier in the week, this hike was incredible, with a secluded beach punctuating the hike. The only downside was the power plant next door, but I found the juxtaposition more fascinating than anything. On a clear day, you can see the skyline of Chicago from the beach, too–today was not the day for it.
After the wild success of the Cowles Bog hike, I stopped near the Bailly homestead historic site. I parked at the Bailly contact site, and hiked (this is more of a walk) in a counter clockwise fashion, checking out the historically accurate Chellberg farm buildings–and chickens! (brought to teach kids about food production), before descending into a ravine system on (yet another) really cool boardwalk.
The boardwalk, giving a picturesque view of a now-tiny stream running through, had recently been submerged in at least one spot.
Walking across the street to see the Bailly cemetery, the trail got a little soupy for the first time, but not so bad as to stop or really slow me en route to what turned out to be a huge tomb! The size of the tomb was foreshadowed by a (probably) pre European settlement oak on the left of the trail, maybe 500 feet before the tomb.
Retracing steps back, and then taking a right to get towards the Little Calumet River (the reason for this site being a historic treasure), the trail becomes more unattractive as it rounds a restoration site in progress and an environmental learning center–seriously, a lot of this forest is cut down, to let sunlight in–cool to see, in a way, but with nothing growing yet on the forest fllor, it looked like an incomplete picture. One highlight was a huuuuge beech tree growing at some point on the left side of the trail. Eventually, you come around and the trail becomes a slightly muddy but pleasant nature walk before popping out at ANOTHER boardwalk, this time almost a quarter of a mile, through a marshy riparian section of the Little Calumet. This boardwalk had also been clearly submerged, with lots of dead logs on top of the bridge and water rippling just below the 2x4s.
After the boardwalk adventure ends, you cross the Little Calumet proper, although on this day there was no telling the difference, really.
Crossing the bridge and hopping up onto a ridgetop savanna, you soon cross into a recently burned prairie restoration, Mnoke prairie, and then intersect with a paved bike path that crosses the river again and brings you to the Bailly homestead, a national historic landmark. I found it worth contemplating the CHANGE of the past few centuries, before getting in my car and zooming to a visitor’s center……I give this hike 3 stars–mildly interesting, lots of variation, but very flat overall. I finished the 3.8 mile circuit in just under two hours.