The Chicago skyline can be seen on clear days from the dunes at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's West Beach, almost 30 miles across the lake. The dune succession trail leads hikers from the beach, through grassland, conifer forest, and hardwood forest, all in about a mile. One of the few places this complete succession can be seen in such a short distance.
Pretty much sums up what I had to put up with while photographing the St. Joseph, Michigan lighthouse this evening. Snow squalls blew in frequently, driven by high winds off of Lake Michigan. My lens hood acted like a funnel, gathering the snow against the lens.
At times, the outer light was completely obstructed by the snow, and once or twice the dunes in the foreground were nearly invisible, covered by blowing snow.
Walking out to the outer light was the plan, but for obvious reasons, not really possible.
This is Spring?
Even though most of the snow and ice melted over the past week, deep in the shady canyons of Starved Rock State Park, ice and snow remained. French Canyon in particular, was quite difficult to access, yet, Tom R. and I managed to navigate the glazed canyon floor. Usually, I walk with one foot on each side of the flowing water, and make my way up to the main waterfall. That was impossible on this day, so clinging to a single wall was the only way to keep from slipping and falling.
In the summer, Kintzele Ditch marks the halfway point of many hikes. It's a shallow creek that empties into Lake Michigan, and can be crossed easily in normal weather. In the winter, unless you don't mind immersing your feet in 33 degree water, the creek becomes a destination and turn-around point.
We decided not to proceed across the creek on this day, figuring a mile walk with wet feet in 20 degree temperatures would be uncomfortable.
We climbed to the very top of the tallest dune in the area, to get a better view of the ice on Lake Michigan. The ice stretches for miles along the shore, but what proved to be more interesting was the view up. A deep blue sky and trees reaching for it, kept me entertained as the kids jumped around the snow on the dune.
It's March, and the days are warming a bit- that means the sap is running! It's Maple Sugar Time. Maple sap begins to run when the daytime temperatures are above freezing, and the night temperatures drop below freezing.
Walking around the Chelberg Farm this time of year, one gets a sense of how things were in the 1930's, when the Chelberg's began gathering sap to make maple syrup to sell in Chicago. The woods were full of maple trees, and with a bit of hard work, the sap could be gathered, refined, and sold for a late winter profit.
Maple syrup is strictly a North American product. More specifically, it's naturally limited to the region east of the Mississippi River, north of the Ohio River, and into Canada.
The process has been modernized, but syrup making began with the native Americans. They placed hot rocks into wooden bowls filled with sap. The water boiled out and what remained was pure maple syrup. Today, in commercial syrup production, plastic pipes and stainless steel evaporators are used to gather and reduce the sap.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's Chelberg Farm demonstrates the maple sugaring process each March during Maple Sugar Days. They explain and demonstrate how the native Americans refined the sap, as well as the more modern, 1930's methods.
Still using galvanized buckets hung from cast spiles, they gather sap from numerous sugar maple trees on the property. The sap is then transferred to the the original "sugar shack" where it is warmed over a wood-fired evaporator. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
An interesting thing to note is the glass jug hanging over the evaporator. Being March, it's rather cold outside, and in the sugar shack. Pouring hot maple syrup into a cold glass jug will cause the jug to shatter instantly. Heating the jug above the evaporator makes the glass warm enough to prevent it from breaking.
Unfortunately, they can't sell the syrup they produce, but it's certainly worth a trip to the national park to watch the process.
One of the great things about the winter at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore -aside from the ice formations - is the fact that you're almost always alone. Occasionally we see others, but it's rare. And quite often, when I visit by myself, I don't see anyone for miles around.
Summers are usually very busy, but when I arrive before 7am, I'm also alone, watching nature wake up to another day.
Looking a lot more like the Arctic Ocean, Lake Michigan has its share of drift ice this year. While it appears to be quite solid, the drift ice is comprised of small pieces of ice "drifting" along on the surface of the lake. It's difficult to see, but a time-lapse image would show movement in almost every direction.
Apparently, the winds have been blowing from the Northwest, pushing all the ice toward the southeastern shore of the Great Lake.