Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Getting away from it all by exploring the dunes at Kohler-Andrae State Park
If you don't have time to go all the way up to Door County, one of the best places to kick back, get away from Madison and and escape to another world is to spend an afternoon or a day at Kohler-Andrae State Park on Lake Michigan -- the closest thing we have to an ocean in this part of the world. (If you have time, there's also a campground.) In late summer the water is emminently swimmable, and miles of sandy beach invite long, lazy walks. Let the waters of Lake Michigan lap over your bare feet and watch the shore birds occasionally explode into startled flight.
But that's not all. The Sanderling Nature Center at the north end of the park, staffed by local volunteers, has exhibits about dune preservation and the local flora and fauna. Best of all are the dunes themselves. Miles of boardwalk trail (or what they call "cordwalk" at the park -- wooden planks connected with steel cable that lets them shift with the gradually changing contours of the dunes) rise and fall over the undulating dunes like a vast natural roller coaster.
There are two trails through the shoreline dunes. One goes north and south and runs from the picnic grounds to the nature center, a 1.4-mile round trip. There's also a shorter loop that is 0.6 miles long. On one side is the seemingly limitless expanse of Lake Michigan. The other side is filled with the plant and animal life that make up the wildlife ecology of this unique habitat. White-tailed deer and red fox live in the area, and more than 150 species of birds live in or migrate through Kohler-Andrae (the Lake Michigan shoreline is a migration corridor). More than 400 plant species include specialized plants that grow only in this area. You'll find more than 50 species of trees in the park, including white pine and birch.
And you may get lucky and find sheer magic, like the time a few years ago when we walked the trail in early evening, just before the sun sank behind the dunes. We saw an entire herd of white-tailed deer, chased by their long black shadows across the dunes. They glowed in the golden light and flew across the landscape like spirits.