ON THE TRAIL : All aboard the nature train

Railroad rides begin Saturday at museum.

The first passenger train rides of the season roll Saturday out of the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson.

Why not combine it with a hike or bike ride along the nine-mile, paved North Judson Erie Trail, a former railroad bed that runs between the museum and the town of Bass to the east, all within Starke County? If you can swing it, ride your horse on the sandy dirt trail alongside the multi-use trail.

And imagine how, at its peak, 125 trains would rumble through little North Judson in a day.

My brother John and I biked the flat, straight route last weekend, chugging past woods and open fields but mostly free of housing or farms.

We stepped into the museum and found dozens of historical railroad photos in a cozy little depot building and gift shop. A recently installed model train steamed overhead along the perimeter. Hulking old rail cars sat outside in various stages of restoration. You might duck into one of the workshops to watch volunteers bring them back to life.

Outside, we found prickly pear cactus growing near the tracks. This cactus is low and flat and common in many states, growing in sandy soil like the Indiana Dunes. This cactus is used quite a bit in Latin American cuisine.

"The cactus is wild," says Loretta Kosloske, a volunteer who does the museum's marketing. "The guys would love to see it gone! They mow it, so it stays short. It propagates quickly. ... It has a very pretty yellow flower."

This area is known as the Kankakee Sand Area, with sand that was deposited here by the Kankakee River after the glaciers melted. Martin Lucas, a local wildlife lover who was involved in developing the trail a few years ago, says at least two kinds of lizards come out to warm themselves on the pavement on sunny days. They include the racerunner lizard and a legless variety known as the glass lizard (it looks like a snake but has a narrow, pointed head).

Oddly enough, Lucas says, you'll also find wildflowers called the rattlesnake master and the sweet fern (it looks like a fern, but it isn't).

My brother and I spied a 2-foot snake. To identify it, I took a photo and sent it to Berrien County Parks naturalist Kip Miller. It's a milk snake, and it's nonvenemous, eating small rodents and other snakes. Miller says, "The name comes from the old false belief that they sucked milk from cows -- when in fact they were in barns looking for mice."

This one slithered on the pavement.

You also may see an otter in the Bogus Run, a creek about 1.5 miles east of North Judson, Lucas says.

Prairie flowers here bloom the most in June and in August-September, he says.

Organizers want to extend the trail 61/2 miles eastward to the town of Monterey. They're waiting on the next funding opportunity, said Bruce Fingerhut, a volunteer who serves as caretaker. This summer he hopes to patch up the few spots of buckled pavement, which he believes happened as the peat soil underneath it dried out in last summer's drought.

Find the trail's west end at the museum. Or start at the eastern end; look for a small parking lot along U.S. 35 just south of County Road 800 South, which is just south of Bass Lake.

The museum, at 507 Mulberry St., is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Central time only on Saturdays. Admission is free.

The restored passenger train, including an open-air car, runs on Saturdays with two key routes: 10 miles round-trip to English Lake, taking 45 minutes, and 20 miles to LaCrosse and back, taking about two hours.

There will be a 25 percent discount on fares Saturday and half off for all mothers on May 11, the day before Mother's Day. Normal fares for English Lake are $11 (adult), $9 (ages 6-15) and $5 (ages

1-5). Fares for LaCrosse are $19 (adult), $13 (ages 6-15) and $7 (ages 1-5). Discounts are given for groups of six or more.

For details, history, themed trips and its "guest engineer" program, visit www.hoosiervalley.org or call 574-896-3950.

Reach Joseph Dits at 574-235-6158, jdits@sbtinfo.com or www.facebook.com/tribune.josephdits.

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