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Pokagon State Park in Steuben County, Indiana, boasts scream-inducing toboggan run

Eyster Photo

Bike the trails at Pokagon State Park in Steuben County, Indiana.
Eyster Photo Bike the trails at Pokagon State Park in Steuben County, Indiana.
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The drive seemed endless. We’d attended a wedding in New Hampshire and faced a 1,200-mile slog back to Cedar Rapids. Interstate highways may be fast and efficient but usually are drearily boring.

While breezing past Toledo, Ohio, we began searching for a place to pitch our tent an hour or two ahead of us. Our Indiana map showed 1,260-acre Pokagon State Park only a few miles south of Interstate 80 and nearly hugging the Ohio line. Soon we were off the highway lounging in camping chairs beside our tent and enjoying a cool breeze off Lake James on a scorching July afternoon. Later we peered into the lake’s clear water and walked past a curious structure before dining in the Park’s Potawatomi Inn lakeside dining room.

Serendipity happens. We had sought only a safe, quiet safe place to overnight but discovered a delightful state park in an area of northeast Indiana studded with lakes, diverse natural areas and abundant visitor amenities. Before leaving, we knew we had to return during winter to test that odd structure. We also realized the role ancient and new ice played in our visits.

Just before Christmas we returned. We love tenting, but in December we spent the night in a comfortable room in Potawatomi Inn overlooking Lake James. We were in easy walking distance of the dining area, trails, nature center and that curious structure. Other Steuben County attractions were minutes away.

Like many Iowans, we have relatives and friends near the East Coast and end up visiting several times a year. Sometimes we fly, but more often we follow Interstate 80’s concrete ribbon — the 1,000 miles between Iowa City and New York City. Through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio the road bisects mostly farmland except for the sometimes harrowing urban passage south of Chicago.

We’ve done the drive in one 18-hour marathon, but more commonly take two days and sometimes we stretch it to three. That gives a chance to enjoy a highway respite and visit unusual places we’d otherwise clip by at 70 mph. Our Christmas trip to New Jersey was punctuated by a delightful stay exploring Pokagon State Park and nearby sites in Steuben County, Indiana.

As we stepped outside the inn after dinner, piercing, thrilling screams filled the air. Soon we discovered why, and a half-hour later we were the screamers. The curious structure we’d seen in July is one of the world’s fastest toboggan runs. Joining a throng of people, we rented a toboggan and lugged it up a stairway to the top of the launch tower. As we waited our turn, several toboggan loads of people zipped past us, occupants screaming with delight. Soon park staff positioned our sled on steel rollers and held it back with a board thrust between two of them. Once we’d climbed aboard, listened to the safety spiel, got tucked in securely and grabbed handholds, the staff yanked out the board, tipped the rollers, and plunged us down the icy track. There was no turning back. We were committed.

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Trackside trees blurred by as we roared downhill at nearly 40 mph. Although the track is well tended and safe, we felt like we were about to be ejected to the moon as we careened up and down over humps and bumps of ice. Altogether we dropped 90 feet.

Twenty seconds and over a quarter of a mile later, our toboggan slowed as ice gave way to concrete. Finally, rubber mats gently stopped our harrowing ride. Breathless, we rolled off the toboggan and hauled it to the side. Moments after we pulled the sled off the rubber mats another toboggan started downward, occupants screaming with delight — and a bit of terror — all the way.

It’s all about ice. Glaciers that melted some 11,000 years ago dumped piles of stony debris geologists call till or drift. It’s what created the hill and bumps along the toboggan run and nearby Lake James. Modern ice, created by refrigeration coils on the chutes, enabled us to have a thrilling 20-second ride. We trooped up the hill for another thrill.

Around 90,000 riders enjoy the ride every winter. Its refrigerated icy chutes are the centerpiece of Pokagon State Park’s winter activities. For $13 an hour, visitors rent a toboggan and usually can make two or three descents in that time.

“The original run was created by workers of the old Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. They built it for their own use during long winters but soon people began visiting the park to enjoy the ride. Today it’s an Indiana winter tradition,” said Ted Bohman, park manager.

When first built, the run took a sharp turn toward the lake, but later it was straightened to increase speed, and a 20-foot launch tower was built to really get toboggans zipping downhill. Later the tower was extended to 30 feet. That, combined with the natural downward topography and an icy track, accelerates toboggans almost instantly after launching.

The toboggan run is open from about Thanksgiving through February each year. Its refrigeration coils keep the track icy, so riding is possible even during warm winter days. It operates Friday evenings, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. In a nearby warming hut sledders munch hot dogs and sip cocoa. A crackling wood fire adds cheer and warmth on dark wintry nights.

Pokagon State Park and its famed toboggan ride are about 400 miles east of Iowa’s Corridor and three miles south of Interstate 80, known locally as the Indiana Turnpike. Because it’s only minutes south of the interstate, travelers can pause on their journey long enough to ride a toboggan, hike or bike trails, enjoy a meal at the Potawatomi Inn and then get back on the road. Even better is spending a day or two in the park and exploring Steuben County.

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Last July, we pitched our tent in the campground, which has both primitive and electric sites, and hiked a few of the trails. On our recent winter visit, we stayed at the inn and spent a half day exploring the area. We also took in a presentation on red foxes led by naturalist Nicole Ball, who began with Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Crow.”

Electric sites fill completely during the summer, so making a reservation is essential. However, non-electric tent sites usually are available without a reservation on weekdays, according to Bohman. They fill on weekends and holidays.

When we arrived a few days before Christmas, the inn was festively decorated. Spending the holiday at the inn or nearby cabins is a tradition for many Indiana families who enjoy ice skating, hiking, naturalist programs and meals and searching the inn for “Tony Toboggan,” a small statue. Staff members present the finder with a reward.

Glacial lakes

“Steuben County’s unusual topography was created about 14,000 years ago when glaciers retreated from Indiana. As they melted, massive chunks of ice remained embedded in the ground. Eventually, these also melted, forming kettle hole lakes,” said Phil Bloom, a good friend who is an Indiana native.

Like West Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa, Indiana’s glacial lakes have small drainages, reducing nutrient inflow and maintaining clear water.

Many of the lakes are deep and stretch in a band from about north central Indiana northeastward until ending in Michigan.

Few travelers would ever imagine that Indiana has glacial lakes, but 101 of them are in Steuben County alone.

Drivers passing through on the interstate would hardly know deep clear lakes are abundant in this flat country — few are visible from the highway.

One of the largest, Lake James, borders Pokagon State Park and is 86 feet deep. Nearby Crooked, Gage, Pleasant, Clear and Snow lakes are all at least 70 feet deep and harbor largemouth bass, bluegills, northern pike and crappies. The lakes are popular boating and fishing sites.

Pokagon State Park is named for Leopold Pokagon, a chief of the Potawatomi Tribe.

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The tribe’s name means “Those Who Tend the Fire,” and thousands of members once lived in the Great Lakes Region.

According to their “grandfather teachings,” members are urged to practice wisdom, respect, love, honesty, humility, bravery and truth for each other and all creation. Unfortunately, the tribe was forced to move to Oklahoma, where many members still live. Some remain in Indiana.

During our stay in Steuben County, we toured Trine State Recreation Area just east of Pokagon State Park.

It’s a jumble of hills, marshes and lakes formed by the retreating glacier. Gentian Lake is the first of the Seven Sisters Lake Chain that extends through the site. It’s wilder and more rustic than the nearby state park and offers unusual plants and wildlife. A few simple cabins are available for rent on the lake’s shore.

Steuben County is named for Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian Army who met Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Franklin helped him reach America, where von Steuben wintered at Valley Forge with the Continental Army and introduced modern and effective military training to raw troops. (Locals pronounce their county’s name STEW BEN as if it were two words.)

Some of the county’s 101 natural lakes are private but many have public access. Best known is Lake James. One of nature’s most curious animals, freshwater jellyfish, live in some of the county’s lakes. They look much like ocean jellyfish but are only the size of a dime.

Area attractions

Although Steuben County offers fascinating natural history, it also has other attractions to welcome visitors.

Outlet Shopps at Fremont is just outside Pokagon State Park. It features dozens of stores selling name-brand merchandise at discounts of up to 70 percent. There’s also an ice cream and craft beer trail for folks interested in sampling local products.

Indiana was settled earlier than Iowa, and many historic buildings dating from the settlement era can be viewed in Angola a few miles south of Pokagon State Park.

Numerous motels and restaurants are in the area. Some eateries offer lakeside views.

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Shopping, history, lakes, hiking, bicycling and a heart-stopping toboggan run all are in proximity in Steuben County, Indiana. All create an outstanding break from a long drive on the interstate.

If you go

Like many popular parks, Pokagon State Park campgrounds fill nearly every summer day — with one exception. When traveling we don’t always know in advance where we will want to camp that evening, so we don’t make a reservation. Campsites that fill quickly have electric and sometimes sewer and internet service.

But most state and national parks have traditional sites that were once standard. These have a picnic table, firepit and place to pitch a tent. No electricity or internet is available, and restrooms usually are a short walk away. Many parks lack funds to upgrade these with modern amenities. Often when all electrified sites are filled, there’s space left in these so-called “primitive” campsites.

For more information, contact the Steuben County Tourism Bureau at (260) 665-5386 or lakes101.org.

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