Friday, July 18, 2003
Day Hiking for the Michiana Soul
My wife and I are day hikers. Although there’s something to be said for leisurely short walks and also for week-long backpacking treks into deep wilderness, I’m an advocate of day hikes—walks that last all afternoon or most of a day and end with a car ride home or back to a motel room. We prefer to eat our dinner at a restaurant and to sleep indoors. But we still seek an encounter with nature, and a day hike is long enough that we can still get deep into the woods, where we’re more likely to see a moose or a bear. When planning a trip, we look for parks with 10-15-mile loop trails through the woods or along a canyon, up and down a small mountain or around a lake.
Day hikers are a dying breed. My wife and I know this because we rarely encounter anyone on the longer trails. This has been true in the Everglades, on Florida’s Merritt Island, in parks along Lake Michigan and above Lake Superior, in the Catskills, in the Adirondacks, along the Maine coast and on all but the most famous scenic trails of Acadia National Park, on the trails of the Hoosier National Forest, at Algonquin in Ontario, and elsewhere. Busloads of people take to the short scenic trails, the half-mile loops and boardwalks. But unless there are campsites along the trail, we hardly see anyone on our day hikes.
The solitude suits us fine. On the trail we lose track of our mundane worries. Almost all of our vacations have been hiking trips. The highlight of our honeymoon was our time hiking up and down the ancient footpaths of the Greek island of Samos.
Back home, we long again for vacation. We used to keep our spirits afloat by going to Indiana Dunes on a weekend or by strolling around the gardens of Fernwood. Then, just two years ago, we discovered Potato Creek State Park. A few miles east of the town of North Liberty, Potato Creek has almost 4000 acres crisscrossed with hiking, biking, and bridle trails. By combining trails 1, 2, and 4 you can take a six-and-a-half mile hike which, allowing a little time for bird watching, takes three hours to complete. Not a whole day, but a good morning or afternoon. Beginning just north of the Nature Center, you can walk straight to the northern reaches of trail #1 and then across to trail #2, which climbs to Vargo Hill, the park’s highest point at a dizzying 875 feet—actually not very high, but plenty high for northern Indiana. Once you’ve crossed a little stream and turned onto trail #4, you begin to get lake views.
The park contains Worster Lake, the swampy northeast end of which serves as a de facto waterbird sanctuary. Ospreys nest on a platform, and on the shore below you’ll see a pair of swans with their cygnets. Quite a few Canada geese wheel around the lake, honking to one another before alighting on the water like skiers. An assortment of herons pose in the shallows. Sometimes a few cormorants are hanging around. Some of the more unusual birds we’ve seen along the trails include hummingbirds, indigo buntings, towhees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, great crested flycatchers, and Baltimore orioles.
We’ve often seen deer at close range, raccoons, woodchucks, and various other small mammals. You won’t see a bear or a moose, but the woods are governed by that characteristic hermetic logic that all healthy forests have, a logic that defeats your wisdom and a beauty that cancels your pride. Each tree is an elegant sentence whose good sense shines from every leaf. The sun is there, too, if you are lucky. A scent of every flower and fragrant tree trails in the breeze.
Add a picnic, and that’s a vacation in one afternoon at Potato Creek State Park.