Have Train, Will Travel
Sunday, July 01, 2007
by Carol LaChapelle
You may have heard it before: “We’d like to visit nature, but we live in the city and don’t have a car. It’s just too far away.”
Is this the hard reality or a myth in need of debunking?
As one car-free nature writer relates, public transit can help even city dwellers reach wild places great and small.
Since ditching my VW 20 years ago, my primary means of travel into the Chicago Wilderness has been public transportation. I’ve used it all — buses, el trains, and commuter trains, including the South Shore Line to Indiana. There are certain tradeoffs to getting around this way: it takes some planning, a bit of research, and some extra time; you may have to put up with delayed trains or the occasional boorish passenger. But for those willing to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, the benefits are sizeable, especially to the environment — and to the growing number of nature-loving urbanites who decide to go carless themselves.
One of those benefits is the chance to sit and relax while someone else does the driving, to read, have a snack, or just stare out the window. Last fall, while riding the South Shore Line commuter train to the Indiana Dunes on a lovely Sunday morning, I caught up on my Annie Dillard, a writer who reminds us that we don’t need to travel great distances to experience the wild in our daily lives.
I caught the train at Michigan and Van Buren, one of two South Shore stops in downtown Chicago, and spent some of the hour-plus ride looking over the maps I’d downloaded from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Web site.
After departing the train at the Dune Park stop, I made the 15-minute walk up the road to the park entrance, paid the $2 entrance fee, and got a map of the 2,182-acre “amazingly unique Hoosier landscape” that borders Lake Michigan. The preserve is a windswept place where visitors can hike up dunes hundreds of feet tall, stroll through oak woodlands, and hear the waves on the beach.
Since I only had two hours for this visit (I’d recommend at least three), I headed for the four hiking trails near the nature center, and took the one leading to the bird observation tower. But soon I strayed, and, in doing so, had a surprise encounter with a quivering doe, just the two of us off the beaten path. I had become a bit lost, studying my map, and when I looked back up, there she was, standing silently in the oblique sunlight, more apparition than flesh-and-blood animal.
The famous South Shore Line poster series from the 1920s urging Chicagoans to visit the dunes by rail is a good hint that the area has been historically well-connected to public transit — and it still is. The train is easy to access downtown and runs every two hours on weekends and holidays. Three South Shore stops access the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The Dune Park stop is less than a mile from the entrance to the Indiana Dunes State Park.
Spring Brook Nature Center
When I found out that Spring Brook Nature Center
was just blocks from the Metra stop in the western suburb of Itasca, I knew I wanted to get out there. I finally made it, on a glorious Friday last October, when the Chicago–Elgin trains run conveniently on the hour. I wasn’t alone in taking the day off; the press of people at Union Station at midday made me ever more anxious to get into the peace of nature.
The trip took about 45 minutes, and this time I decided to read less and stare out the window more. As with too many of our modern suburban landscapes, this one was littered with industrial parks, junk yards, sprawling car lots, and gas stations. All the more reason, then, to immerse myself in some much-needed natural beauty.
Just blocks from the Itasca train stop, the nature center seemed isolated enough from nearby Irving Park Road and the upscale houses at its entrance. In only 65 acres (“The biggest little nature center in the western suburbs,” according to director Fred Maier), the place features modest bits of prairie, woodland, marsh, and arboretum, each landscape merging into the other via a circuit of woodchip trails and eco-friendly boardwalks. Many creatures find purchase here: beaver, herons, warblers, hawks, chorus frogs, and snapping turtles. Native bluegills, pumpkin seed fish, and gold shiners swim in Springbrook Creek.
But as much as I was enjoying my walk in this fine place, I couldn’t help but notice the steady thrum of traffic along I-290, the expressway bordering the nature center. I realized then that one of my major reasons for visiting these places is for their silence. Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately; I go to stop the yammering of my own kind and in my own head. And even though Thoreau’s Walden Pond in 1853 may have had the occasional interruption of a train, it always gave way to nature’s subtler sounds again. To give Spring Brook back its silence is in itself an argument for more public transportation.
I ended my visit to Spring Brook with a quiet moment in the Donna Meyers Memorial Garden. There, among the blazing star, Indian grass, and wild bergamot, I considered the challenge of trying to save these lovely natural places from the relentless cult(ure) of the automobile.
Bunker Hill Forest Preserve
For my next foray into the wilds of Chicago, I chose an oft-recommended destination, Bunker Hill Forest Preserve
, part of the extensive Cook County Forest Preserves on the northwestern edge of the city. This savanna is but a small part of the prairie and woodlands that stretch from Foster Avenue to the Chicago Botanic Garden and into Northbrook.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and I’d ventured out reluctantly, knowing I’d meet up with some leftover holiday shoppers at Union Station, all eagerly in search of iPods, DVDs, and TVs. Just as eagerly, I headed in the opposite direction, aboard the 12:35 p.m. train to Edgebrook, to see what creatures might be venturing forth in the forest preserves.
According to my RTA map, the preserve was just a short walk from the station at Devon and Lehigh. But when I got off the train, I headed south instead of due west on Devon. Within a few blocks, though, I realized my mistake.
Easily remedied. I righted myself and within minutes entered the preserve on the northwest corner of Devon and Caldwell, then started chatting up my fellow walkers along the paved trail.
It was John walking his mongrel hound who aimed me in the right direction. “I’ve seen more wildlife in this place than when I lived in Alaska,” he said, nodding to his left. “A 14-point buck, beaver, some turtles. You’ll see. Just walk down there along the river.” That would be the North Branch of the 150-mile Chicago River, home to some 70 fish species, aquatic reptiles, and mammals, and flyway for both migrating and resident birds.
Not far along the water’s bank, I crouched on a precipitous incline. I was looking for signs of some underwater creature about to surface, when, as if in a dream, an impossibly large great blue heron (how does it keep itself aloft?) swooped by, right over my unsuspecting self and up the river. Inspired by the heron, I set off along the river too, across the meadow and deeper into the woods. It didn’t take me long to get lost, turned around, even a bit apprehensive. It was dusk, I was alone, and I could neither retrace my steps nor orient myself without that river. So I kept going forward, staying close to the water’s edge, believing that the river would surely lead me home.
As well it did. I shortly found my way out of the preserve, then onto the #84 Peterson bus. An advantage of having gone the wrong way at the start of my visit was finding this bus stop just two blocks away. The bus took me due east to the Bryn Mawr stop on the red line, then north to Evanston. I was happy to know about the #84 for my next romp in these woodlands and prairies. Even an old hand like myself has more to learn about getting around by public transit.
I’m often pleasantly surprised by what I find by chance, like the time I stumbled onto a great little hiking trail along the Fox River when taking the train to my dentist in Geneva. I wouldn’t have seen it had I been driving a car. In nature exploration, it’s often chance — helped out by simply having the freedom to look away from the road—that yields the greatest finds.
If my years of transit have taught me anything, it’s that public transportation to natural areas is a real option, and often preferable to traveling by car. I use transit to visit the Magic Hedge at Montrose Point and North Park Village Nature Center at Peterson and Pulaski, but the choices are many (see map). For the most part, the trips are safe, convenient, affordable, and accessible — both from downtown stations and when jumping on along particular routes.
Still, service to certain natural areas is less than ideal. For instance, I’d like to get out to the 15,000-acre Palos Forest Preserve, but the train runs only on a Monday-Friday rush hour schedule — and in the reverse direction. And even if trains do run to a given site, the stop may be too far from the entrance, or require two more buses to reach it.
Nature preserves, too, might improve their accessibility for transit riders. Many preserve staff I contacted in advance of my visit didn’t know how far away the train stops were, or how to direct me from them.
“It’s up to all of us who need and love these natural places, car owners or no, to help promote and develop the infrastructure by which nature and cities can live together…”
In January, for instance, I took the Metra north to Zion for a first-time visit to Illinois Beach State Park, an area rich in dunes, prairie, marshes, woodland, and trails for hiking and biking. I walked half an hour from the train stop, down busy Sheridan Road, past a stream of mini malls and fast food joints, just to enter the park at Wadsworth Road, the main entrance to the south end, which was clearly designed for cars, not pedestrians. At that point I was still another 20 minutes away from the hiking trails — not the best start for my visit. The silver lining, however, came when park staff informed me that I could have stepped onto a bike trail just south of the station — they said they’d put up new signs alerting visitors who arrive this way.
It’s up to all of us who need and love these natural places, car owners or no, to help promote the infrastructure by which nature and cities can coexist, especially connecting city dwellers to nearby places of wilderness and personal renewal. Those who regularly choose public transportation to explore Chicago Wilderness are demonstrating the need for more of it. Preserve visitors who leave cars at home are reducing the pressure to use precious acres of natural land for parking lots.
Of course, there are many don’t-miss preserves that are simply too remote for even the mighty railroad or bus to reach, and I have relied on friends with cars to get there. But each time I use public transportation, I can relax and enjoy the ride, read some good nature writing, and keep my own nature journals. Best of all, I arrive at my favorite preserves refreshed and ready to get the most out of my visit.
The North Central Line heads north toward the Prairie Crossing train station in Libertyville, Illinois. From here it’s just a short walk to the Liberty Prairie Reserve, a complex of residences and thousands of acres of preserved public and private lands.f
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