Meet Susan Mihalo! Susan is nearly a life-long resident of NWI and is passionate about its natural resources and in particular the Indiana Dunes and the Dune and Swale Complex of Lake County. She is currently a Conservation Coordinator for TNC, serves on the board of directors of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and is a past-president of Save the Dunes.
What brought you to the dunes? One of my fondest memories as a child was visiting the Prairie Club compound in Sawyer, MI, which is nestled in beautiful wooded dunes. At Munster High School I took a Project Biology Class that compared ecological succession between the Dunes and the Florida Keys, and that really piqued my interest. That is also where I met my future husband, Mark, and we knew we would be drawn there someday. Fortunately the right circumstances allowed it to happen, and I feel so fortunate and blessed to be here.
How long did you live here? We’ve lived in the Dunes for 28 years.
What is your favorite thing to do in the area? To hike and look at wildflowers, and to also share it with others, which I can fortunately do sometimes on my job as a Conservation Coordinator at The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
Tell us a secret about the dunes There are more species of orchids in the Dunes than can be found in the state of Hawaii. There is a book, Orchids of Indiana by Michael Homoya, that shows there is a big variety across the state as well. Right now you might find autumn coral-root orchid at the Indiana Dunes State Park It’s small but beautiful (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corallorhiza_odontorhiza). One of my personal favorites, although it is apparently sort of common, is the grass pink orchid because it’s up-side-down and tricks bees into landing on it, only to be flipped over, adhering pollen on its back like a tiny backpack.
Give us your top three “hidden treasures” (restaurant, shop, trail, beach, event…really anything!)
a) The newer Miller Woods trail to the beach is outstanding, especially when the lupine is blooming in May.
b) The dune and swale habitat of Lake County which is where much of my work at TNC centers upon. There are less than 17,000 acres of this type of habitat left on the planet. Lands in the area include DuPont Natural Area, the Beemsterboer Tract, Seidner Dune and Swale, Miller Woods and other properties saved by TNC and our many partners like IDNR, Shirley Henze Land Trust (SHLT), Lake County Parks, Save the Dunes, and the National Park Service (NPS). When combined with remediation and restoration work on the Grand Calumet River just about completed between Cline and Kennedy Avenues, more than 300 contiguous acres has been restored for future generations of humans and wildlife. That’s pretty awesome! You can see some of this from the toll road going eastbound.
c) Volunteers make a BIG difference in the Dunes and are treasured by all. For example, more than 500 people participate in cleaning up Indiana’s shoreline each September (September 19, 2015) as part of the Adopt-a-Beach event, sponsored by the Alliance for the Great Lakes. That’s a lot of volunteers making a difference, especially when combined with the fact that this same event is going on worldwide that very same day.
What would you like to teach people about the dunes? That they can make a difference in helping the Dunes. One way is to participate in citizen science programs. As part of my job and current chair of the Indiana Coastal Cooperative Weed Management Area, I’ll be working with other NGOs and NPS to develop and launch a citizen science program that helps people to learn about certain invasive species that are or could be potentially bad for the Dunes and its unique biodiversity. The program will also teach people where to make a report (https://www.eddmaps.org/indiana/) if they find a particular species. An example of a really bad invasive is the black swallow-wort vine. It not only drives out native species but also attracts monarch butterflies to lay eggs on it. Well, when those caterpillars hatch and eat the leaves, they all die. 100 percent! A small invasion was found just outside of Ogden Dunes several years ago (and was controlled, thank goodness). I hope people will want to participate in training starting next year so we can help keep invasives like that from getting established in the Dunes. If you aren’t interested in that there are other things like bird (NPS in conjunction with Audubon), butterfly (TNC), and frog-call (SHLT) counting programs that give scientists valuable data.
Anything else? Let’s never forget how special the Dunes are and how hard and long many people advocated for them. Many forces, geological, climatic and ecological, came together at various points in time to create this really unique landscape that is more than a beach. Enjoy the beaches, dunes, wetlands, birds, flowers and insects like butterflies, but please also consider doing your part to save them for future generations. Get involved and/or support organizations like TNC, Save the Dunes, SHLT and the Dunes Learning Center, as well as the Alliance for the Great Lakes.