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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Good Going
In the war between wind and land at Indiana Dunes, Mt. Baldy is a bully.
by Elisa Freeling

"The almost fluid hills of the dune country...formed a strange, tormented battleground where the wind and the root were ever at war."
— Edwin Way Teale, Dune Boy, 1943

In the war between wind and land at Indiana Dunes, Mt. Baldy is a bully. Siding with the wind, the biggest moving dune at the national lakeshore turns on forests it once harbored in its lee, entombing them, then callously rolling on. In its wake it leaves ghost trees — still standing, dead but not decomposed.

Cottonwoods defy the dune: A small-seeming specimen living on a dune may be 50 feet tall, with most of its height hidden under the sand. When its limbs are enshrouded by sand, they shoot down roots; roots laid bare sprout stems and leaves. But even the toughest trees are no match for this "live" dune; 120-foot-high Mt. Baldy skulks inland, five feet every year.

Farther from Lake Michigan's troublemaking gusts, the duneland becomes more amicable, so much so that its 15,000 acres host a wider variety of plants — some 1,500 species — than most parks many times its size. Climatic collisions of long ago led to strange bedfellows today: Prickly pear cactus cozies up to arctic bearberry; southern dogwoods bloom just down the dune from northern jack pines.

A 14,000-year-old bog, created by a hunk of ice abandoned by a shrinking glacier, holds curious crowds of meat-eating plants and delicate orchids. During the glacier's slow melt-and-retreat, Lake Michigan expanded and contracted, forming some half-dozen shorelines — today's beaches, dunes, and wetlands. The jack pines, for instance, here many miles south of their range, are remnants of that arctic age, but find the conditions of life in exposed dunes just as good as tundra.

Such a hodgepodge of habitats thrives despite the Indiana Dunes' uber-urban setting: Gary flanks its west side, Michigan City its east, and Chicago lies a half hour away. Urbanites flock to the oasis to spy birds like great blue herons and eastern wood-pewees, climb dunes (only where allowed), and swim in Lake Michigan's warmest waters. On shoreline walks, moist crystals of quartz crunched underfoot create a musical tone; the city dwellers are sweetly serenaded by the sand.

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