A Magical Bog: Cowles’ Bog Trail

I was reminded by a friend this week about the Cowle’s Bog Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Park. I hiked this trail many years ago with my brother. He’s a wetland biologist, and when he came to visit, this was on his list of “must do” hikes. I have to admit I didn’t know of Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles, the namesake of the trail. But he is apparently one of our early botanists who happened to teach at the University of Chicago and completed much of his field study in this area of Indiana Dunes. He began work in 1899 to get this particular plot of land designated as a National Park, and it finally got designated last year when it was snuck in a legislative package to give the Orange Man his funding for that stupid border wall. I guess there are silver linings to everything.

I didn’t remember much of this trail from my previous visit mainly because my memory doesn’t last that long. So this morning when I was picking a hike for Ashok and I, I chose this one.. It’s very exciting that I’m literally less than an hour away from a National Park. We arrived around 9 AM Indiana time, and the sky was overcast. The temps were comfortably in the 40s, and oddly enough there is no snow anywhere in December.

The first thing I noticed was how close this trail was to Interstate-94 and the train tracks for the Southshore Line and Amtrak.The traffic noise was distractingly loud at first. But eventually the loud unison calls of the Sandhill Cranes caught my attention. I tried to capture the sound for you, but every time I turned on the recorder they stopped. I’ll share the below video so you can hear what they sound like. Their calls are unmistakeable once you know them.

In the winter, the green of the forest fades to the muted colors of decaying leaves, tree trunks and brown and withering grasses. It may sound like it’s dull, but I find the textures and the coordinated earthy hues gorgeous. Tree trunks’ gnarly variations take center stage, and grasses swirl in oceans of silvery fronds. The occasional red berries pop in comparison.

We walked through the bog (which I read was really a fen) and then into the forest. With the leaves gone, we were able to see wetlands surrounding us everywhere. There were lots of birds and a few squirrels running around. Eventually the forest turned into sand dunes, and we hiked up and down some really steep dunes before ending up on the beach. The water was so still today. It was warm by the lake, and I took off my coat while Ashok took a dip. A group of conservationists chatted with us, and we turned to circle back to the trailhead.

At one point in the forest, we came upon an area with cattails stretching for as far as I could see. I stopped to take it in. A gentle breeze wafted through the cattails, causing just the slightest movement. I lifted my chin while the breeze tickled my face. Helloooooo…. We are here, I felt my ancestors say. I imagined the weight of centuries of transformation. The bog is a shock absorber for the storms off Lake Michigan, providing shelter and safety for fragile wildlife. To my right a drying swamp sucked in water and nutrients. It lies ready for the winter storms to come in the next few months. Trees, naked and dormant, stand ready for the onslaught. There is nothing new here. I breathed in the remnants of millions of years of life. These places transform and change exponentially. If only humans could learn and evolve like that.

We walked back to the trailhead, and the Sandhill Cranes bugled their good-byes. On the drive out, a family of Canada geese marched through the bog. “Oh I wish I’d seen the cranes,” I whispered to Ashok.

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