The Natural Bloomington Blog


Digitally capturing fall color was way down the mission list for last Sunday’s hike on the Hoosier National Forest’s Oriole Trail East. After all, Southern Indiana’s world-famous fall palette migrates from north to south, and the 6.5-mile spur-and-loop trail in northern Perry County is 70 miles south of Bloomington, where the annual autumn display had barely begun.

The primary goal was to explore a series of clearcuts, which the U.S. Forest Service refers to as “Restoring Balance” on an information signs, along the “trail.” I knew from YouTube research that the route followed a logging road, much of which was blanketed with discomforting rocks. Distance hiking therefore was not a priority, as well.

But I was maybe a hundred yards east of the State Road 66 parking lot when a brilliant blue sky conspired with a fiercely clear sun to illuminate a series of iridescent, trailside red hues. Together with deciduous greens transitioning to yellow and the few pines left retaining their evergreen hue, the Oriole East autumn exhibition surprisingly paled before none.


The juxtaposition of my last look at the Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana with Donald Trump’s comments to 60 Minutes on climate change led to an out-of-character heading on a Facebook post on my personal page, which began: Trump is Right.

I began revisiting my Northern Indiana travels when IU Press sent the typeset version of the book for one last review this past week. The 429-page book, not counting the index, is in its final form and will be ready to print when we finish this last pass. It will be released next spring, just in time for hiking season.

The “Rock, Ice and Water” chapter on Northern Indiana’s natural history outlines more than 2.5 billion years of climate change and its impacts on the region’s life and landscape. And Trump couldn’t be any more correct when he acknowledged the climate is warming, but it may change back.


With the Eternal Summer of 2018 seemingly past, the Natural Bloomington focus has shifted, launching the final phase of the Rewilding the Hoosier National Forest coffee table book project—photographing the national forest’s far southern end. Perry County destinations, a few miles upstream from the Ohio River, include Oriole Trail West and East, Mogan Ridge Trail West and East, German Ridge Trail, Tipsaw Trail and others, not to mention as much bushwhacking as time will allow.

Due to this year’s extended heat-and-bug season, this final sprint has felt a long time coming, at least compared with the frenetic travel pace of the past four guidebook years. As newsletter subscribers will attest, Natural Bloomington was largely MIA during the months of August and September: just three Photo Albums, one of them on Sept. 30, and two blog posts, neither of them in September.

The 3.5-mile Fork Ridge Trail in Jackson County was too overgrown on Sept. 16 to be photographically productive, though it was a memorable grandpa experience with Vale. But the purpose of that day trip focused as much on bearing as it did on production. The Forest Service is planning some aggressive logging in the area east of the Hickory Ridge Horse Camp, and getting a feel for the area was also on the day’s agenda.


I’ll admit that, when Indianapolis filmmaker Katelyn Calhoun asked for an interview about the White River, I kind of shrugged. Image-wise, the White pales before the Wabash, in both officialdom and the imagination. Indeed, the White is considered a tributary of the official state river to the north. No songs that I know of have been written about the the White's slippery banks.

On first blush, it didn’t seem Indiana’s second-longest river had factored much into my Natural Bloomington work these past five years. I told Katelyn I’d be glad to talk but wasn’t sure I’d have much to offer. Then I prepped for the interview and reassessed my perception.
Meanwhile, the week just passed also included a morning trip to the 125-acre Haskins Tract in the Hoosier National Forest, celebrated by the U.S. Forest Service as a wildflower haven, with a stop at the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest.


Check inside view of Brooks Cabin off the Rewilding Southern Indiana must-get photo list, thanks to the good folks down at the U.S. Forest Service; ditto soft light on Blackwell Pond. Last week they unlocked the 1870s-era log home, situated in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness on the edge of the pond, for a rainy Tuesday morning photo shoot.

Forest Service officials relocated the two-room-with-a-loft log cabin from the Little Blue River in Crawford County and rebuilt it at the Deam’s welcome center on its far western edge in Monroe County. Along with the Rickenbaugh House on Celina Lake in Perry County, Brooks represents the best examples of nineteenth-century architecture remaining on the 204,000-acre Hoosier National Forest.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a brigade of local laborers hired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, built the pond in the 1930s after quarrying rock there to rebuild local roads, including Dutch Ridge Road (now State Road 446) and Tower Road (now Tower Ridge). In addition to constructing wildlife ponds and openings, replanting trees and building trails, the CCC also built the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, which is on the National Historic Lookout Register.


It took two trips last week to the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower to capture a blue-skied, cloud-filled horizon shot for the natural history chapter of Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest. In between, grandson Vale and I embarked upon a journey south to the Boone Creek Barrens, which, at least in terms of book photos, was unproductive.

The first Hickory Ridge tower jaunt on Sunday produced a couple quick images of the historic Brooks Cabin and a reduced confidence in my weather radar skills. Instead of catching an expected break in the stormy afternoon weather, I spent a futile half hour in the car waiting for an abatement in the rain, which started literally the minute I arrived. The wait did generate an impressionistic wilderness-through-a-rainy-windshield image, reminiscent of Claude Monet’s "Weeping Willow Tree."

Our journey to Boone Creek Barrens on Tuesday was timed to an advertised color explosion from prairie plants that thrive on the thin, dry soils atop bedrock, including blazing stars, rattlesnake master, white wild indigo, hoary puccoon, and downy phlox. A fact sheet said these midsummer beauties were viewable from the road.


I’ve been writing Hoosier National history the past month – pioneer through today – and didn’t shoot a single nature image in June, save for the backyard fawn. Not that there weren’t subjects to shoot – like Carnes Mill and the Rickenbaugh House. A perfect nonstorm developed on Saturday, and granddaughter Raina and I headed to the mill on a bend in the Little Blue River in Crawford County. The 1874 sandstone house was Plan B.

I’m sure we reached the right parking lot for Carnes Mill, but there was no hint of a path through the undergrowth downhill to the river barely visible below. Conflicting GPS readings may have contributed, but I just think it’s a spring or fall hike. So we headed 15 minutes south to the Rickenbaugh House on the Indian-Celina Recreation Area in Perry County.

Here’s an excerpt from the first draft of the Rickenbaugh section of Rewilding Southern Indiana: the Hoosier National Forest. Next up: Brooks Cabin, which was built by Carnes Mill and now graces the visitor center at the Charles C. Deam Wilderness.


A copyedited manuscript in need of final review left no time for nature in the backwoods this past week. But nature’s mom literally brought the wild to my back step, which brought to mind one of the oldest and most emotional environmental issues I’ve ever written about – urban deer.

A mama doe has chosen my garden gate as a safe place for one of her newborn fawns to bed this year. On Thursday, a little speckled one spent 12 hours in a curl 15 feet from the back porch, while mama was off doing what she does in the panoply of deer delights that is the Bryan Park Neighborhood a half mile from Kirkwood Avenue.

That, in turn, afforded an all-day wildlife photo opp unlike any I’ve ever had. As the day progressed, the fawn’s response to a zoom lens-toting biped evolved from motionless ball to acceptance via eye contact, a consent to be photographed in a photog’s worldview. It also conjured up the phrase “rats with hooves.”


I had forgotten about Anne LaBastille, a.k.a. the wilderness woman. I discovered this pioneering, earth-hippie-era teacher, writer, and photographer in the mid-1970s in a magazine article about her life and work in the Adirondack Mountains.

Five years before receiving her doctorate in wildlife ecology from Cornell University in 1969, LaBastille built a cabin on Lake Twitchell deep in the Adirondacks, where she lived, led guided tours, advocated for wildness, and wrote sixteen books over four-plus decades before her death at 75 in 2011. Her signature work is the Woodswoman series: a four-volume set of memoirs of her life in the forest.

During a visit with daughter Jessica in Brooklyn last week, we spent three days driving and hiking to, through, and deep into the Adirondacks, landing some 20 miles east of LaBastille’s homesite. Our itinerary included a stop at the Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain, where an installation honoring the wilderness woman’s contributions features her cabin, which was painstakingly moved and reconstructed.


Explorer René-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle was the first European to reach the Southern Indiana hill country, though his time here was limited to the eastern cusp of the deep V-shaped hills and valleys that today include the Hoosier National Forest.

LaSalle, a Frenchman seeking a water route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, is credited as the first European to reach the Ohio River and Indiana soil in 1669. He led an expedition from Quebec to the river’s headwaters in Western Pennsylvania and then downriver to the Falls of the Ohio at present-day Clarksville. His crew abandoned him at the impassable shallows, leaving LaSalle to briefly explore the alien territory alone.

This deepest-at-the-time penetration into the North American midsection culminated about seventy river miles--thirty overland--east of the Hoosier’s Buzzard Roost Recreation Area.


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