Big Oaks NWF: UXOs, bears and bobcats; Coming soon: Indiana Nature Photography (.com)


Friday’s exploration of Indiana’s largest wildlife refuge illustrated once again the magnificent yet understated diversity of Southern Indiana’s landscape, culture and history – not to mention wilderness experience. Landscape photographer Gary Morrison and I spent a few steamy August hours watching a precautionary video, talking with property managers and naturalists, and photographing the Old Timbers Lake inside the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge just north of Madison.
The 50,000-acre Big Oaks is understated in that its roughly 78 square miles is till plain flatwoods, not the most majestic of landforms. Spanning portions of Jefferson, Ripley and Jennings Counties, the refuge lies in the state’s low-lying Muscatatuck Flats & Canyons Section and features little topography from one corner to the other. It’s the largest wildlife refuge and block of contiguous wild lands in the state and one of the 15 largest national wildlife refuges east of the Mississippi and north of Florida.
The Big Oaks history and experience, however, are anything but subtle.
In my four decades exploring the region, never have I been inside a fenced natural area of any kind, let alone traveled 15 miles – one way – inside barbed wire. Neither have I ever been advised to use my cell phone only on the road for fear of triggering an explosion. Nor have I ever signed a two-page “Acknowledgement of Danger” before setting up camera shop beside a pristine lake.
Big Oaks “overlays” a U.S. Army base that, from the early 1940s to the mid-1990s, served as an ordnance testing facility, which means the military threw, shot and dropped everything from bullets to bombs on the remote, southeastern Indiana landscape. Many munitions are still inside the Big Oaks fence, known in Army vernacular as UXOs -- unexploded ordinance. Hence the need to sign the agreement and watch a safety video.

While the Jefferson Proving Ground sign still stands at the boarded-up U.S. 421 gate, the base has been closed for a couple decades. The Army still owns the refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under a 25-year agreement. The Indiana Air National Guard still drops nonexplosive bombs and strafes an area surrounded by the refuge known as the Jefferson Range.
The Big Oaks mission is to “preserve, conserve, and restore biodiversity and biological integrity” there for present and future generations. And it is home to an impressive array of wildlife, including the federally engendered Indiana bat. The Audubon Society has identified the preserve as a Globally Important Bird Area for the large populations of rare and endangered species that live in or pass through it, including the state-endangered Henslow’s sparrow. More than 200 species nest in or migrate through.
Big Oaks Project Leader Joe Robb told us the Southern Indiana bear that swam across the Ohio from Kentucky a few weeks ago has wandered near the refuge’s northwest section. The woman who checked us in and out said bobcats live inside the fence.
Friday was an unbearably hot and humid, so we limited our activity to driving lakeside off Herron Inlet and Machine Gun Roads and shooting the 165-acre Old Timbers Lake against an April-clouded, blue sky. Here's a Photo Album.

Indiana Nature Photography Workshop Oct. 15
I don’t recall exactly when landscape photographer Gary Morrison and I first discussed offering nature photography workshops together. But our new project Indiana Nature Photography has been one year in the making – as of today (as I write). Our first contact came on Aug. 13, 2015, when Gary pre-ordered a copy of my new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana. I’m sure the subject came up a few days later, when we met for coffee at the Runcible Spoon just off the IU campus in Bloomington.
By the time we took our seats on the Spoon’s porch, we had discovered multiple mutual experiences –  we’re both alumni of IU School of Journalism photography professor Will Counts, for example – as well as passions for both Southern Indiana and nature photography. I’ve lived in the Bloomington hill country for more than four decades and first captured on film the region’s natural beauty in the early 1970s. Gary grew up in Bedford, graduated from IU and retired in Bloomington to pursue his love of landscape photography.
After a year of lunches, discussions, emails and planning, we purchased the domain this summer and will be offering our first workshop on Oct. 15. Details, such as times, places and cost, will be forthcoming. The website will be going public soon.

Photographs: Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, Old Timbers Lake, Ripley County


Follow Us

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Flickr icon
Pinterest icon
RSS icon

Copyright 2013. Site created by Ansette, LLC.   Back to Top

Back to Top