On the Wabash River, the Sugar Creek and the Tippecanoe, too

The Black Rock Nature Preserve was the most disappointing of the nine natural areas we explored during a three-day, two-night camping trip in the Wabash River Valley last week. The history-rich site of a 100-foot bluff of black rock bluff overlooking the Indiana state river southeast of Lafayette was easily the most anticipated of the journey, which began on the Lower Sugar Creek in Parke County and ended on the Tippecanoe River in Pulaski County.

My disillusion, however, was based on selfish expectations and not nature. In fact, the promontory used as a lookout by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet in the early 1800s, was as magnificent as billed. Trees did obscure what in winter and early spring is a view unlike any other a hundred miles or more up or downriver – the primary source of my frustration. Multiple technology fumbles also contributed to my mood at Black Rock, learning experiences I’ve resolved for future trips.

Indeed, that brief stop did produce the first Wabash siting of the year, not to mention several of my favorite images from the week. And that’s saying something, considering we had near perfect weather, and I posted Photo Albums with more than 125 images, culled from three to four times that many originals.

The Wabash Valley – lush bottoms, rare barrens and prairies

We – granddaughter Raina and I – began the 400-plus-mile trip at the Mossy Point Nature Preserve, where we were met and led from a high, dry ridge into a wet, creekside ravine by perhaps the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen. The Central Indiana Land Trust site on the Lower Sugar Creek four or so miles from its mouth at the Wabash is a Dedicated State Nature Preserve. Elsewhere, Mossy Point, which has no marked trails, supports mature stands of the state watch-listed eastern hemlock on rocky points that drop to the creek.

From there we followed the compass northeast to Black Rock and three other NICHES Land Trust sites -- also state dedicated -- that protect some of the state’s most threatened ecosystems, including globally rare sand barrens, rare-in-the-Midwest siltstone barrens, sandstone barrens, prairie and savanna, along with high-quality oak woodlands, sandstone bedrock exposures, sandstone cliffs with rock shelters, seep springs, floodplain forest, wooded slopes and old fields.I had hoped to reach the river from the adjacent, 300-acre Weiler-Leopold and Black Rock Barrens Nature Preserves, both of which have substantial shoreline. But, like Mossy Point, the lowlands were simply too overgrown to negotiate. We hiked the loop at Weiler-Leopold (named in part after Aldo Leopold’s son A. Carl) and as far into the basin as we could at Black Rock.

The Granville Sand Nature Preserve, which, along with the adjacent, NICHES-owned Roy Whistler Wildlife Area, preserves 80 acres of restored barrens-prairie-savanna and represents one of the best remaining examples of the long-vanished ecosystem that existed in pre-European settlement times.

Prophetstown State Park – restored prairie, Indiana history

We set camp at Prophetstown State Park, Indiana’s newest state park, which features more than 900 acres of restored prairie reminiscent of Indiana’s pre-1800s landscape at the merger of the Tippecanoe River the Wabash River. A storm blew our tent stakes out of the ground. The wetlands and river trails were indeed wet.

We didn’t find the unmarked Prophetstown Fen Nature Preserve, which protects one of Central Indiana’s largest and highest quality fens – peat-forming wetlands that receive nutrients from sources other than precipitation. This one features calcium-rich groundwater that seeps downhill from a slope.

We also explored the recreated Woodland Indian Village, located just east of the historic Battle of Tippecanoe site, where American Gen. William Henry Harrison delivered Tecumseh’s decisive defeat in 1811. Aware that The Prophet had scouts watching the river at Black Rock, he routed his troops overland and surprised the Shawnee.

The Tippecanoe Valley – rare grasslands, flooded riverine environs

From Prophetstown we pursued the Tippecanoe through West-central Indiana’s former prairie lands to the Tippecanoe River State Park, with a stop at the Spinn Prairie Nature Preserve, a 29-acre Nature Conservancy in White County.

Spinn Prairie, another Dedicated State Nature Preserve, protects a rare remnant of the tallgrass prairie that in presettlement times occupied 2 million acres of Indiana west of the Illinois State Line from the Valparaiso moraines south a hundred miles to Terre Haute. The Dedicated State Nature Preserve, which is surrounded by farmland and light industry and is wedged in between a highway-railroad corridor and a county road, supports three rare species: state-restricted northern catalpa and Wolf spikerush, and watchlisted short-point flatsedge.

The 2,785-acre Tippecanoe River State Park borders seven miles of the Tippecanoe River and protects a variety of habitats, including oak forests, pine plantations, abandoned fields, prairies, river bluffs, marshes, small sand dunes, and the river. The park is largely undeveloped—no inn or swimming pool.

Within Tippecanoe River State Park’s boundaries are two Dedicated State Nature Preserves – Sandhill Nature Preserve and Tippecanoe River Nature Preserve – that harbor seven endangered, threatened, and rare plants. Trails to both, however, were unpassable due to water.

The park’s fire tower and restored wetland were both accessible and photogenic.

Our last stop at the Berns-Meyer Nature Preserve was cut short due to an abundance of poison ivy and an unprepared, overly sensitive 13 year old. This 20-acre Dedicated State Nature Preserve is mostly mixed, moderately moist woodland that harbors six rare plant species.

Photographs: Top to bottom: Black Rock Nature Preserve; Mossy Point Nature Preserve; Prophetstown State Park; Tippecanoe River State Park; Tippecanoe River State Park.


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