Just After Sunset

Just After Sunset

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon, we noticed some beautiful colors in the sky - almost certain there would be a dramatic sunset that evening, we stopped and watched. Almost every minute, the sky was completely different than before. The windy conditions moved the clouds across the sky quickly, so we never knew exactly what would happen next.

A lot of times, the sky turns out more colorful and dramatic in the minutes after sunset, and this was true this evening. The bottom of the distant clouds were illuminated by the sun, while the clouds away from the horizon were beginning to become dark. This created some drama over the lake as our summer day came to a close.


I had to check the records this morning, I was certain we weren't ready for the 17 year cicada here in the Chicago area. I looked outside to find several cicadas emerging or the "shells" of their former selves prior to molting.  I continued to look around and found hundreds in other parts of my yard, including rows of the empty shells on my apple tree.

Cicada Shells

The always seem to be either on vertical surfaces or under the low, large branches of trees. I think the critters climb out of the ground, and up whatever surface is nearby. Because tree branches extend outward from the trunk, the cicadas just keep climbing until they're upside down. Some fall to the ground to molt, and others cling as best they can to the bark.

Emerging Cicada

I usually find the empty shells and the adult cicada somewhere nearby. They emerge, then dry off and fly away.  Today, I found a few in the process of emerging. It's an interesting process, and looks quite a bit alien up close.

Adult Cicada

The adult cicadas have red eyes, just like the 17 year periodical cicada, but they seem a bit smaller. It seems this year there is supposed to be a large number of cicadas - someone keeps track of these things! The 17 year cicadas are expected to emerge in 2024 - I've been waiting since 2007.

The Peaceful Moon

The Peaceful Moon

Last night's moon looked rather peaceful in the clear May sky. With all of the unrest here on our planet, it is reassuring to look skyward to see something familiar and stable in our midst. The moon is in the Waxing gibbous phase, on it's way to June 5th's full moon. 

Reflective Stream

Reflective Stream

Warm, sunny mornings along the Lake Michigan shore often remind me more of a tropical environment than a Midwest one. The blues and greens common to the waters of Lake Michigan are amplified in the morning sunlight; combine them with the steep wooded dunes on either side of the steam, and you feel as if you were thousands of miles from Chicago

It's also difficult to imagine this place is so close to a major metropolitan area home to millions of people (of course during this pandemic, even downtown Chicago is deserted), and only a few miles from a city of 31,000.  Yet, walking here I feel removed from all of that, and I actually am.  Occasionally, I hear a train, or airplane, but the dunes do a great deal to shield out the noise from civilization. And at night, the skyline of Chicago, which can often be seen 45 miles across the lake, is a silent gem on the horizon.

The Indiana Dunes National Park is growing in popularity, even before it was a national park. Visiting a few of the more "hidden" areas makes me wonder why it isn't even more popular. But then again down inside, I hope nobody else discovers these places - I'd like to keep them all to myself.


Rolled Up

Each Spring, the plant life of the Indiana Dunes National Park begins to emerge after a long winter absence. I look forward to the changes seen at this time, especially in the wetlands in Cowles Bog. While the area is known as Cowles Bog, it's not a bog at all, it's an area of wooded dunes and it includes a large wetland - part of the Great Marsh of the National Park. The Great Marsh is a wetland about nine miles long by a quarter mile wide, on the leeward side of the dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan. While a lot of the marsh has been filled in or drained, much of it still exists.


Following the emergence of skunk cabbage, these ferns seem to be the the next interesting plant to begin poking through the wet soil. As they begin sprouting, the ferns produce a fiddlehead about the size of a nickel. They slowly unfurl over the next couple of weeks into ferns almost two feet in length.

An interesting thing about the fiddleheads I found, is that inside the round head, you can see tiny leaves that look exactly like the mature fern leaf. And as they unfold, these leaves grow into the individual parts of each fern leaf. They each seem to unroll just as the entire leaf unrolled from the fiddlehead.


The Dunes Wrapped in Fog

Distant Fog

I don't happen to visit the Indiana Dunes too often when it's foggy, but when I do, it's a completely different atmosphere.  On some occasions, it was so foggy, it was difficult to navigate the dunes - obviously easy to follow the trails, but not so easy to figure out where you were, and which trail you need to take.  This is also when you can only hear Lake Michigan, you can't see anything over the edge of the dune, it's almost as though you are thousands of feet above the earth.

Dune Fog

On this morning, the fog wasn't so dense, but it did add a bit of ambience (some spell it ambiance) to the hike. Knowing the area quite well, I was interested in reaching certain points in the hike, just to see how different things looked in the morning fog. The only thing I was hoping for was the sun breaking through the fog, but that was not to be.  Nothing beats seeing the fog burning off slowly with the increasing sunlight.

Foggy Horizon

A slightly rough Lake Michigan can be seen in the distance, churned up by the high winds of the previous day. It's quite interesting to me how Lake Michigan can be a monster with 15 foot waves one day, then a day or two later, it's calm as glass.  The calm waters generally happen when there is a slight breeze blowing from the shore toward the water - on those days, I'm sure it's wavy across the lake in Wisconsin.

Pear Tree Blossoms

Pear Blossom

We know for sure it's spring when our pear tree blossoms in April.  It may still be cold and windy, but spring is here for sure.  In years when the temperatures climb early, it often gets very cold again in March, this can kill off the buds that formed in the warm spell. This usually results in a very few pear blossoms. This was true last year, and we're always quite disappointed, and a bit concerned that the tree won't survive the winter. So far, it's always pulled through- even in years with no blossoms.

Pear Blossom Group

In a normal year, the branches of the tree are covered in white blossoms. The blossoms form in groups about the size of a baseball, and only last about a week.  Once they begin to drop off, the grass will be covered in small white petals, and it will for a time, look like snow.

Pear trees have a distinct fragrance, it's not appealing like crab apple trees, but it does remind me of springtime growing up -  my friend Ken had a huge pear tree in his backyard in Chicago.

Viburnum Buds

Viburnum Buds

Spring is finally here, even though some recent weather didn't feel very spring-like. Second only to our azaleas, the viburnum blossoms in late April, filling the yard with a sweet fragrance. While the soon to be blossoms are white/pink, the buds are vivid red. The group of buds here are about the size of a US half dollar coin, so each of the buds are quite small.

When looking at the image in full view, you can see the tiny hairs on the leaves - this explains why viburnum leaves stick to gloves and clothing.

The image here is a composite of seven individual photos, taken at slightly different focal distances. The idea is to achieve an image with all of the important elements in focus. This is impossible to achieve using a macro lens due to its shallow depth of field, so taking multiple photos of the same object at different distances allows one to stack the images together to obtain an image with the subject in focus.

A difficult thing about focus stacking is the mystery of the entire process. You don't know how things will look until you finish stacking; you can't double check things to make sure things are going to work out. However, that also creates a nice surprise when things work out.

Above Kintzle Ditch

Following Kintzle Ditch

Being one of my favorite places in the park, Kintzle Ditch has always intrigued me. Even though this area changes daily, I'm always looking for a different perspective for photography. The top of the dune is accessible without climbing up the loose sand, but the hard packed, well traveled trail is hidden from most, and requires a bit of hiking.

Once on top, the view of Lake Michigan is beautiful, and the Chicago skyline can be seen on clear days. The view down to the creek and beach is also perfect. From this perspective, the tannin in the creek water can be seen flowing into the lake, a dark trail of water flows with the current and the waves.

 Kintzle Ditch From Above

Unusual to almost anytime except the summer, were the three other people walking down by the creek. Even if the beach has quite a few visitors, this area is relatively out of the way and empty. The figures give some scale to the dunes, without them, it's difficult to determine just how tall they are.

The erosion of the dune is evident where the creek hits the beach. The dunes have collapsed over the last five years or so. The full grown trees have fallen into Lake Michigan as well, they can be seen down the shore a bit.

The Dunes Around Kintzle Ditch

Kintzle Ditch Panorama

A favorite spot of mine to visit along the Lake Michigan shore is the division between two beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Between Central Beach and Mt. Baldy is a small stream known as Kintzle Ditch. This stream flows between two rather tall dunes and into Lake Michigan and like almost every other point on these beaches, it changes daily.

The wind and waves move the sands on the beach, often altering the direction the stream empties.  Sometimes it flows straight into the lake, and other times it takes a long, meandering path left or right - often hundreds of feet to either side of the path between the dunes.

The Beach at Kintzle Ditch

Over the past few years, the dunes here have been eroded by the high waters of Lake Michigan; they appear much different than they were just five years ago. The beach is submerged most of the time, and the waves hit the foot of the dunes quite often now, preventing the possibility of hiking the beach at times of high water.

Of course, this action also erodes the foot of the dunes, undercutting them, and causing large portions of the dune to collapse into the lake- trees and all. This is all the process of wind and waves, yet it's sometimes sad to see the forested dunes fall into the water over time.

Rugged Dune

Rugged Dune

Hiking through the dunes can be quite challenging if the trails are soft sand and up steep hills, but imagine walking through areas with no trails. The rolling sand and multitude of grasses and shrubs seen here, gives an indication of the terrain one would need to cross if wandering off trail.  While certainly not the most difficult obstacles, encountering these one after another for miles would certainly wear on the legs.

This vantage point is from a trail, because the Indiana Dunes National Park does not allow off-trial hiking, but I have decided to "bushwhack" in other parks that allow it.  It's a lot more difficult that it appears, especially when doing so in the wooded dunes. Downed trees, branches, and thorny vines are everywhere, either blocking your way, or grabbing your clothing, stopping you every 10 feet or so. Add the soft sand and hills, and you have a real workout on your hands. 

I remember attempting to follow a creek from a lake to a road I knew was 1/2 mile away.  Because of the steep bank along the creek, I had to climb up to the top of the dunes, and follow the creek from the top of the hills all the way back to the road.  The obstacles I spoke of earlier prevented me from making a quick trip - in fact, the 1/2 mile took me almost an hour, and cost me a jacket and a pair of pants because they were both ripped by the thorny vines that lined the forest floor.

While I actually prefer blazing my own trails in search of things relatively few bother to find, I do enjoy the maintained trails and paths along the Indiana Dunes.

Discovery of a Pond

Discovering the Pond

On our last hike before the covid-19 stay at home orders by the Illinois and Indiana governors, we happened upon a rather large interdunal pond.  I've been on this trail quite a few times over the years, and knew about the large pond, but never knew it could be seen from this side while staying on the trail system.

A couple hundred meters from the beach, the dunes change from bare sand, to marram grass covered, then to conifer forest. This area has one of the most expansive stands of Jack Pine forest in the park - at least publicly accessible. As we walked through the dimly lit path, the under-story plants changed quit a bit.  No longer marram grass, but plenty of moss, and a variety of small evergreen flowering plants that looked much like holly. I believe this is Oregon Grape, a plant that is not native to the area, but seems to thrive in the Jack Pine conifer stands here at the Indiana Dunes National Park. In spring, the plants display yellow flowers; I hope to get back in time to see them bloom.

Still very early in the Spring, we did however, see a few water birds in the area taking advantage of the still waters. I suspect this is about the time when the turtles and frogs emerge from their hibernation.

From a Distance

From A Distance

I'm always intrigued when I see the skyline of Chicago from across Lake Michigan. It looks so peaceful from this distance, yet there are so many things going on in and around those buildings.  Certain atmospheric conditions allow us to see the skyline very clearly on certain days - I wonder if this is due to a cold front passing through, or the fact that there is less pollution in the sky due to the stay at home orders.

The buildings can be seen quite clearly, even though they have a purple haze to them due to the atmosphere. On this day, we could see the entire shore, not just the tall buildings.

This photo is from West Beach, so it's a bit closer to Chicago than Mt. Baldy- the furthest beach up the shoreline. I would estimate this is looking 25 miles across the lake (Mt. Baldy is 37 miles across the water).

West Beach Pond

West Beach Pond Just before reaching the beach from the parking area of the West Beach access, you encounter a small interdunal pond - a pond formed between dunes. This particular pond is just on the leeward side of the foredune, the first dune inland from the beach. In spring and summer, I've seen wading birds taking advantage of the easy pickings around this shallow body of water. Currently, it's still a bit too early to see them, but I did encounter my first snowy egret of the season yesterday.

 West Beach is a rather unique place. Part of the Indiana Dunes National Park, this access point allows visitors to see dune progression in it's entirety, in a very short space. Taking the mile long dune succession trail, takes you from beach, to marram grass covered foredune, to conifer forest, to oak savanna, and all of the stages in between.

 In the summer, this is a popular swimming destination with ample parking, a bathhouse with concessions and life guards. I generally visit in the cold months when I'm practically the only person in the park.

 It's hard to imagine that just 30 miles across Lake Michigan is one of the largest cities in the country. On clear days, you can see the Chicago skyline from almost any beach in the Indiana Dunes National Park, and even a better view if you're able to climb to the top of one of the dunes.

Calmness Near Chaos

Calmness Near Chaos Nature and wildlife continue without pause at this peaceful interdunal pond in Northwest Indiana. The Covid-19 pandemic is touching almost everyone in some way, yet nature here is as beautiful as ever, unaffected by the chaos just miles away. Illinois is under a "Shelter in place" order to prevent the spread of the virus. Many other states are too, as well as several countries hit hard by the corona virus. Even though a shelter in place order is in affect, people may venture out for necessities such as groceries, medication, hardware, and even take-out food. More importantly, people may go on walks and hikes, providing they do so in a safe manner - not in groups and keeping a safe distance from others. Without this, I think people would feel the stay home order considerably more. I feel hiking in nature is a necessity. I was very happy to discover the Indiana Dunes National Park was still open for hiking. I mean, why not? The buildings and restrooms are all locked, and the welcome center is closed as well. So we brought a few snacks and drinks and headed out for some fresh air and exercise. While I am accustomed to hiking these trails alone, sometimes never seeing another visitor on winter hikes, I was surprised to see about six other people on this trip. I generally say hello to everyone I encounter on my hikes, but this day was a bit different. I still said hello, but the interaction between people was much more friendly than usual. I think seeing another person made them feel a bit more normal in these times, and yes, there's another person with the same idea of getting out of the house while they still can! Who knows how long this virus will keep us from our normal activities, but I will certainly continue hiking safely until I'm ill, or until ordered not to.

Through the Trees

Through the Trees

Hiking through the Orland Grassland on a warm, late winter afternoon showed some small remnants of winter, but the hope of spring was in the air. The golden hues of the sunlight on the matted down tall grass of the prairie reminded me that spring is only a few short days away. Some of these oak trees still had leaves left over from last year - it's pretty common to see this, but it still surprises me every time I see it. Richer green colors should begin to appear once the weather warms up; I've already heard the calls of some spring birds that arrived early. The Sandhill Cranes can be heard flying high above this grassland on their way to spend a day or two in northern Indiana (a well known stop on their long migration). Thousands congregate in marshes and plowed farm fields each March, and I make certain to witness their displays of dancing each spring. I'm hoping for a big turnout when I visit over the next couple of weeks.

Thawing Pond

Thawing Pond

Some early spring-like weather came upon us on the first of March, perfect for a hike through the restored prairie. Following the removal of miles of clay drain tiles, this former farmland is returning to it's more natural state of a prairie and wetland. Small ponds dot the landscape, and they are just beginning to thaw in these warm temperatures.

The Orland Grassland has several miles of paved trails, and another few miles of mowed grass trails. I prefer the grass trails, but they are only open to hikers from October to May.  Once the ground nesting birds return, these trails are off limits.

The grass trails take you away from most man-made things, although because of the proximity to cities, you never quite get away from everything. At times you can't see any homes or electrical towers in the distance, but you always hear the nearby highways.  The grassland is almost two miles long by a mile wide, so plenty of green space, but you often see the reminders of civilization on the horizon.

Because of the recent thaw, the grass trails were quite wet and soggy, most likely the reason I was the only person on them. Suits me just fine.

Burning Through the Fog

Burning Through The Fog

Wildcat Den State Park is a lesser known park in eastern Iowa, just a few miles from the Mississippi River in Muscatine County. The trails here wind through some rock faces up to 75 feet tall, and through lush wooded terrain. A few of the rock faces are part of canyons which include some waterfalls - especially in wet weather.

Hiking these trails gives one the feeling of being very far removed from everyday life, yet civilization is just a few miles away. Several historic structures are on the property as well - in particular the Pine Creek Grist Mill. Built in 1848, the mill still operates for certain occasions in warmer months.

The sandstone cliffs here are typical of the driftless area of this part of the country. Driftless area were not affected by the last glaciation, so the rock remains as it was prior to the last ice age.

About a three hour drive from the Chicago area, Wildcat Den State Park is well worth the trip. And while you're visiting, take a quick ride north to Maquoketa Caves State Park for some small cave exploration.

The Foredune in Winter

The Foredune

The first dune you encounter as you move from the body of water inland is called the foredune. Generally lower in height and filled with grasses, these can be interesting places to explore. With the recent high water levels of Lake Michigan, and constant erosion, many of these dunes have washed into the lake, leaving the taller dunes directly on the beach. But this one remains for now.

What's a bit more unique about this foredune is the interdunal pond directly behind it.  This may not be unusual in a geologic sense, but at the Indiana Dunes National Park, I've only encountered a few.

In winter, these ponds freeze over and provide a contrast to the warmer looking marram grasses and sand of the surrounding dunes.

Changing Textures

A bit away from the foredune, ice was just forming on the rivers and lakes inland. The change in textures can be seen here, from liquid water, to crystallizing water, to ice, then to snow covered ice. The crystal textures can be seen in the water if you look closely.

Golden Horizon

Glowing Horizon

While changes in the landscape often take weeks, months, or even years, dramatic changes can occur quite quickly - especially when it comes to the sky and light. Hiking through Miller Woods takes a bit of time, and in the time it takes to traverse a dune or to travel from one dune to another, the mood of the sky can change drastically. 

The thinner clouds were a few miles away, toward the horizon, so as the sun attempted to make an appearance, it was only able to penetrate the thin clouds far away.  The horizon was bathed in golden light, making the hike to the beach a bit more magical.