The Natural Bloomington Blog


It’s been two decades since my last hike up the Browning Hill in SoBro – Southern Brown County to non-natives. So, a trek to the top of the state’s 53rd highest point was long past due when I set the GPS on Saturday for what Google Maps calls “Browning Mountain: Indiana’s Stonehenge.”

And while the timing and conditions were near-perfect this time, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar from the last. The 1996 excursion to this Hoosier National Forest ridge top occurred in early spring. The creative medium was black-and-white film. And, let’s just say, love permeated the atmosphere alongside the peak’s spectacular and mysterious nature. The photographic mission then was more memorial than artistic.

This late-fall trip was all mission, marking a return to work on an upcoming coffee-table book called Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest. Not to mention a likewise overdue return to the trail. It’s been 2 1/2 months since an actual photo hike appeared in prose or picture on the Natural Bloomington website. The only love this time involved the work.


The biannual sandhill crane migrations through Indiana attract a variety of superlative descriptors from those who pay attention.

Majestic and surreal are how The IndyChannel described flocks of these long-legged, knock-kneed waterbirds at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in October – “like a scene from a from a wildlife documentary.” Prehistoric appears three times in a piece on the 2011 spring transplantation in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

The DNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, which is charged with managing Jasper-Pulaski reserve’s 8,142 acres, says the fall and spring sandhill passages are among “Indiana’s greatest wildlife spectacles.” The National Audubon Society says: “Virtually the entire eastern population of this subspecies stages at this site during fall migration.”


The normal midterm teaching glut combined with a variety of personal and professional issues to force a six-week respite from nature work here at Natural Bloomington. While much-needed, it’s a hiatus that will at last come to an end next week. At a minimum, I will hike Browning Mountain in the Hoosier National Forest.

Weather permitting, however, I’ll photographically engage a few thousand sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area. Upwards of 10,000 of these magnificently winged creatures, a State Species of Special Concern, stopover at Northwest Indiana natural area’s marshlands on their winter migrations south from Central Wisconsin. The latest count puts their J-P numbers at roughly 5,600, with a peak expected in late November.

I have Monday phone call scheduled with folks at the IDNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife for permission to gain closer access than the public viewing tower, which still offers superb views. If the current weather forecast doesn’t hold – what are the odds? – I will plan for Thanksgiving week.


If the past couple of weeks are any indication, the Natural Bloomington compass has resumed its natural southern pull. Three new photo albums posted in the past couple weeks document two hikes through Hoosier National Forest’s backcountry and brushes with Forest Supervisor Mike Chaveas and prehistoric Native Americans who lived in the woods 700 or so years ago.

On Sept. 16, I led an intrepid group of wilderness champions on our third annual Sierra Club hike with Hoosier Supervisor Mike Chaveas. This year’s trek took us a couple miles into Nebo Ridge, one of the Hoosier’s most rugged and remote areas in southeast Brown County, and the same two miles back out.

Eight days earlier, I bushwhacked through the Charles C. Deam Wilderness with an ad hoc cadre of rock lovers along the Mt. Carmel Fault just south of Monroe Lake. The next day, en route to a high school marching band competition in Salem, we took a short stroll along the Lick Creek in the Hoosier, past the remains of a walled, 14th century Indian village.


An unplanned, two-week break from the keyboard – inspired by an exhausting summer, a new car, a new semester and other distractions – is not tantamount to a vacation. Just a slower pace and lower profile.

A decision to add three more natural areas to the Northern Indiana guidebook led landscape photographer Gary R. Morrison and I to Muncie on Aug. 25 to explore and shoot wetland, woods, prairie, and the White River West Fork at sites owned and/or managed by the Red-tail Land Conservancy: Hughes Nature Preserve, John M. Craddock Wetland Nature Preserve and Red-tail Nature Preserve – as well as the White River, which bisects the first two.

Also during this keyboard hiatus, I had the honor of meeting and talking to a diverse variety of book and nature lovers at IU Press’s second annual Quarry Festival of Books on the IU campus and planted the seed for a new book project with the working title A Guide to Natural Areas on the Ohio River.


What’s left on the Northern Indiana guidebook project requires nothing more than a computer, a circumstance that, like the journey itself, has powerful upsides to balance the downs –  perspective, to name but one. For example, exploring the Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area as one of six natural areas in a single day – one of 14 in three days – leaves little time to reflect upon its once-dominant ecosystem that has nearly vanished.

Before the Americans finished channelizing and straightening the Kankakee River in the early 20th century, swamp occupied nearly a million acres of Northwest Indiana from the Illinois State Line to Michigan City. Officially known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh (or Grand Kankakee Swamp), this vast mass of saturated landscape was also known as the Everglades of the North, even though it was the biggest wetland in North America.

In the early 1800s, navigating the Kankakee River – the great marsh’s liquid spine – required more than 2,000 turns on a 240-mile journey from its source five miles southwest of South Bend to the Illinois State Line. By 1917, the Kankakee’s Indiana path to the Illinois River had been ditched, straightened and shortened to 85 miles, the grand swamp converted to agriculture and industrial-urban areas.


With the Northern Indiana guidebook travel and photography phases complete, it’s transition time at Natural Bloomington. Attention is turning back south to the Hoosier National Forest.

Thirteen new Photo Albums from the last road trip to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Northwest Indiana’s moraine country are now posted, featuring the sandy region’s natural features beyond the dunes: the forests, the wetlands and the prairies. Write-ups on more than 120 preserves, parks and wildlife areas are in third (and last) draft edit, right on the 75,000-word target.

Coming next is an exploration of cultural and historic sites in the Hoosier National Forest, some of which are listed on the U.S. Forest Service’s Special Places list. Images from most are already in the photo archive: Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest, Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, Lick Creek African American Settlement, Mano Point, Rickenbaugh House, Buzzard Roost, Hemlock Cliffs and Buffalo Trace.


So, barreling through rush hour and construction on Interstate 80/94 between Gary and Hobart, via Hammond, isn’t the way I envisioned the last leg of my Natural Indiana guidebook journey. Neither was photographing a Queen Anne’s lace with an egret calling overhead, while the PA of an industrial packaging plant reverberated from across a chain-link fence.

But ending it in Indiana dune country always was the plan. Aside from the hill country I’ve lived in for 45 years, of the 12 Indiana natural regions explored in the past four years, the dunes were most familiar. And in every relevant way – history, nature, geography, demography – the Hoosier sand hills are one of the nation’s most spectacular natural environments and conservation stories.

"To the Midwest," Carl Sandburg wrote in 1958, the Lake Michigan dunes are what "the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity."


With only three days of travel remaining on the Northern Indiana leg of a four-year journey through natural Indiana, I’m transitioning to a more reflective view of the project, starting with some numbers.

For example, the most common rejoinder I’ve received to the notion of a guide to Northern Indiana natural areas has been, “Are there any?” Well, I could tell tales of camping at and/or exploring several locations in the book that date back more than three decades. My first camping trip ever was a Boy Scout outing at Turkey Run State Park in the 1960s. So, I’m not surprised that there will be more natural areas in this book (125 +/-) than in its Southern Indiana counterpart (119).

But, as I realized returning from a three-day venture through the Grand Prairie Natural Region last week, in Northern Indiana I’m experiencing nature, not wilderness. At 15,000 acres, the Dunes National Lakeshore is the largest refuge north of I-70; the Southern Indiana book features 11 that are bigger than the Lakeshore. The Hoosier National Forest’s 202,000 acres are more than the northern sites combined.


When French explorers first set foot in contemporary Indiana in the late 1670s, the state was almost 90 percent forest, from the southernmost shore of the Lake Michigan to the Ohio River. Tallgrass prairie comprised the bulk of what wasn’t deep green.

The iconic Great Plains that – along with magnificent bison herds – blanketed the nation’s midsection from the Rocky Mountains east reached its easternmost point in a narrow swath of land that today borders Indiana's northwestern border with Illinois. The tallgrass – one of three basic prairie types, along with mixed-grass and shortgrass – dominated a hundred miles of landscape from the Kankakee River basin near Rensselaer to the Wabash River Valley north of Terre Haute.

But after two centuries of agricultural drainage and urbanization, Indiana’s Grand Prairie today is the most altered natural region in the state. Only miniscule remnants of the original exist, mostly along railroad tracks and around pioneer cemeteries. But there are places, like The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands, where prairie retains a hold on the land – and where bison roam free for the first time in nearly 200 years.


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