The Natural Bloomington Blog


When Linda Oblack and I finished our first conversation about a guidebook on Southern Indiana natural areas, the IU Press sponsoring editor said she'd give me some time to think about it. My response: "I've been thinking about this one for 40 years." The next day I had a preliminary outline and a list of nearly 150 dedicated natural areas south of I-70.
To be perfectly clear, there's no deal here. A lot has to happen before A Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas (working title) hits any bookstore shelves. Lots of others have to sign off. But if they do, it would be the fourth in the genre that Linda has edited in press's Indiana Natural Science series. She's done one on the Knobstone Trail, another on Indiana's caves and karst, with another in the works on Goose Pond.



While rearranging my old house for a remodeling project, I dug out a box containing the first environmental writing project I ever undertook, circa 1980. The handwritten, discolored label on the front of a tattered, faded-red folder reads: Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area on the first line and Hoosier National Forest on the next. In between a box identifies the contents as Research. Inside, three-ring fasteners secure 45 typewritten pages.
The box contains research for my 1985 final masters project at the IU School of Journalism: Clearcutting the Hoosier National Forest: Professional Forestry or Panacea? Its contents include newspaper and magazine articles; interview transcriptions; the original text of my masters project; multi-inch-thick Hoosier forest management plans; even correspondence with my academic advisor.
Thirty years after I penned those words – literally, the first drafts were long-hand – I am still focused on the Hoosier. Next May, we are organizing a series of events called Hoosier National Forest Awareness Month as Natural Bloomington's first project for 2014.

Something just felt right about my first successful Facebook post beginning "Griffy Lake is a lake again." I saw the 109-acre lake was back on someone else's Facebook post, drove out there on Dec. 30 and shot a quick Natural Bloomington photo album to document the rejuvenation.
It's not that I'm new to social media. I've been plugged in since a couple summer interns set up accounts for me on Facebook and Myspace, back when the latter was still the SM network of choice. But for multiple reasons, I have never really engaged – until now. As 2014 dawns, Natural Bloomington has active, albeit nascent, presences on FacebookPinterest and Instagram, with more coming soon.

I don't recall what I was prattling on about when I led my neo-local guests a few miles out of our way along the back roads of Owen County on the shiny, frigid afternoon of Nov. 24. I'm sure it wasn't that ecotourism's conservation mission was one thing that attracted me to the field.
But that was one of the reasons I led Miles and Amara Lovato on a detour around a busted bridge a few miles west of Spencer. We were on our way to a meeting of the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA), where we wanted to spread the word about Natural Bloomington' mission and reconnect with people I've known for 30-plus years but rarely see.

As Southern Indiana's radiant fall eco-scape fades and descends to the forest floor, Natural Bloomington Ecotours' first three seasons draw to a close. Which has me simultaneously looking back and ahead.
To memorialize the past seven months, I created a new photo album called Natural Bloomington Ecotours Guest List - 2013, featuring images of most, if not all, of the three dozen guests and friends who have experienced Southern Indiana's arresting natural beauties and unexpected histories with me. Who knows, it may still grow before the year is out.

As group of guests from the Endwright Center and I rode, walked and talked our way through an Oct. 18 Fall Color Ecotour, I thought of my friend Elaine. She, her friend Amy and their sons joined me on a hike to the Waldrip Cabin in the Hoosier National Forest back in August, when the latest trip was in the early planning stages. She said it sounded like a "Sunday drive in the country."
And so it was. Chauffeured by Rural Transit driver Lisa, Endwright Executive Director Jaime Sweany and five center regulars – Betty, Betty, Roberta, Connie and John – joined me for a 4½-hour excursion through the back roads of Eastern Monroe and Western Brown County, exalting in the first glimpses of this year's annual fall color eruption.

If I controlled the stars, the Visit Bloomington staff would not have been my first group of English-speaking strangers to lead on an ecotour. But I don't. And never mind that thus far all my official ecotour guests spoke Mandarin Chinese as their native language. When the head of the agency in charge of promoting area tourism asks to book an ecotour, you're not going to say, "Let me polish my act first."

So, on Sept. 20, Visit Bloomington Executive Director Mike McAfee and seven members of his team joined me for a 3½-hour journey alongside Leonard Spring waterfalls and the Lake Monroe shoreline, through federally protected wilderness and urban, old-growth forest, for a real-deal Natural Bloomington ecotour.

Due to time constraints and the afternoon's ever-unfolding weather conditions, I cut one hike from the itinerary and shortened another. My first-draft monologues drifted into stream of consciousness at times and probably lasted too long at others. But I felt the trip served Mike's expressed purpose – to give his staff first-hand experience with a Natural Bloomington ecotour, so they can better promote them to future visitors.


The aftermath of my last few summer trips to the woods promises to enhance the ecstasy that is autumn in Southern Indiana. I'm still itching from my failure to defend against bugs on a trek to the Hoosier National Forest a month ago. And while sweat isn't that big of a price to pay for a stroll around the Crooked Creek Marshes with herons and the evening sun, it's not ideal. It's worth it. But it's not optimal.

Soon, instead of walking south to the marshes from the Crooked Creek Ramp in Brown County, I can tramp east into the Panther Creek Valley, without choosing between insect repellent and another invasion of crawlies – visible and invisible. Panther Valley is one of the region's most pristine. My photo archives include 35mm slides of the sky shot from inside a creek-side sycamore there that had been hollowed out by lightning.

Fall's arrival also marks the end of Natural Bloomington's first two seasons and a time to look to the future.


Back in the early 1990s, the Waldrip cabin was still solid enough to explore. I remember climbing the stairs and finding newspapers from the '20s embedded in the two-story structure's upstairs walls. I had heard that early construction used newsprint for insulation but had never seen it before. My buddy Dave, a car nut, recalls an ad for a 1927 Model T.

In the early 2000s, the old homestead on a ridge top overlooking Lake Monroe – the Salt Creek Valley in 1927 – served as a paintball battleground. Bright, primary color paint splotches defaced the cabin's walls outside and in. Similarly bespattered plywood defense shields ringed the yard.

On October 18, when I led a friend, her friend and their sons on a hike to the former home of the Waldrip family, all paintball damage was gone. But the structure was so dilapidated that it could collapse at any minute. Teena Ligman from the U.S. Forest Service says people have pulled logs from the walls to use for firewood. She leads a wildflower hike there in the spring and says a black vulture nests in the attic and hisses at her blossom-loving wanderers.


The North Fork wildlife refuge has long topped my list of natural areas to explore, right up there with the Charles Deam Wilderness Area, Waldrip Ridge and Browning Mountain. This remote, riparian, wildlife haven is a mere three turns and 15 minutes from my Bryan Park home. And for me, at least, it's always been a power spot. Things happen there that happen no where else.
August isn't my favorite time of year to tramp along the North Fork Salt Creek on the far northern reaches of Lake Monroe. It's overgrown and buggy. But due to a time crunch and an unseasonably comfortable, late-summer day on Aug. 10, my granddaughter Raina and I decided to take a photo hike there, the calendar notwithstanding.
Before we reached the refuge's parking area on what is technically still Friendship Road, power did indeed reveal itself. As I slowly navigated the high spots on the now-rutted path to the creek bank, a fox took a quick left into the brush, stopping long enough for us to catch a good look. I'd never seen a fox in the wild.


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