Want to turn off your mind? Find a wild beach.
Chicago would not be what it is without Lake Michigan. For me, it would quite possibly not be livable.
But even though the big lake blows cool breezes, widens the horizon and softens the edges of our hyper-urban landscape, it’s nearly impossible to find a slice of truly wild beach without driving to Indiana or Wisconsin. Most of the city’s lakefront is rimmed with stacked stone, and designated beaches are tended, maintained and generally crowded. In other sections, private property —industry on the south side, residential on the north— descends as close as permitted to the lake’s edge with limited, if any, access for a would be beach explorer.
So I wasn’t expecting to find a wild beach when last week I set out on my bike to check out the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve in Highland Park. I’d planned my day to go a certain way. With my work schedule, I find that detailed planning is essential for any kind of meaningful getaway. Without planning I fear I’d fritter away any time off on household tasks, errands, or simply thinking about what I should DO next.
So I planned to bike about 15 miles from my house* to the Lakeshore Preserve, and, since the trails there are not very long, I thought I’d also check out the adjacent Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve to make sure I got in a full afternoon of biking, hiking and enjoyment of nature!
After a hot morning getting there on my bike, the winding trail leading into the Lakeshore Preserve provided pleasant relief from the sun, as it ducked under the tree canopy and curved closer to the lake. Almost the entire length of the bluff-top paved trail offers views of the water through the filter of foliage, native flowers and grasses. The trail comes to an end at the long stairway leading to the beach. I locked my bike to one of the racks provided, traded my biking shoes for sandals (see? planning!), grabbed my lunch and walked down. I intended to have my food, take a quick peek down the beach, and head back up and on to visit the Forest Preserve. Honestly, I also had a hankering for an iced coffee, and resorted to checking my phone to map out the logistics of going back up to the Starbucks on Sheridan Rd, before resuming my planned nature exploration.
This was still all going through my head as I walked down the stairs to the beach. Except for one woman taking her exercise by trotting up and down the steps, the beach was deserted. I found a perch on a fallen log, had my lunch with my feet dangling in the waves, and contemplated what to do next. The pull of the iced cold-brew was strong, and I thought I’d just finish my lunch and head back up. Surely, the 1.5 mile ride would be no big deal. I’d still get back in plenty of time to visit the birding trail in the forest preserve.
The waves splashed into my lap, their cooling waves worked magic, and the beach called.
I threw my sandals under a bush, and headed south wading through the waves over the pebbly bottom. The afternoon was only getting hotter, and since there was literally no one around, I considered simply diving into the waves, but in the end I was content wading in thigh-deep —shorts and all— and letting the water evaporate off my body as I slowly made my way along the shore.
And gradually, mercifully, the thoughts of doing something else, planning the rest of my afternoon, trying to predict, to know what would happen next —even the thoughts of the iced coffee— all of it fell away, and the only thing I was aware of was the stones rolling around my feet with the rhythm of the waves. I moved slowly, stooping down at times to pick out stones of different colors that caught my eye, and letting them drop back in the waves, noting how their colors and character changed when they went from dry to wet, not even aware when my conscious mind shifted from planning and deciding, to simply being.
* You can adjust the length of the ride by choosing different starting points along the North Branch Trail. From my home in Glenview the ride is about 15 miles one way. I headed out on the NBT toward the Botanic Garden, and took the lovely new connector trail that runs alongside Lake Cook Road to the Robert McClory Bike Trail. From there, you can follow the slightly annoying designated bike trail, or hop on St. Johns Ave: either way, it’s a pretty straight shot to Fort Sheridan, where you’ll find access to the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve along Patten Rd.
I can’t resist mentioning that the preserve borders possibly the ugliest housing development I have ever seen, shockingly unimaginative in its lack of design and lazy in execution, utilizing a combination of finishes apparently chosen to deliberately offend anyone’s sense of aesthetics. I wondered how such a blemish on the landscape could come to be, especially alongside the breathtakingly beautiful, lovingly restored natural area.