The Natural Bloomington Blog



The Glaciated Section: Not much 'nature' left

Think Southern Indiana nature, and the Glaciated Section of the Southwestern Lowlands Natural Region doesn't leap to mind – for good reason. The land is low and flat. And what little nature that's left is mostly healing scars. Of the nine natural areas I've explored, from the Wabash River in West Terre Haute to the Prairie Creek north of Washington, all but two are entirely or partly old coal mines, now owned and managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Even the 2,600-acre Wabashiki Fish & Wildlife Area (FWA) on the Wabash's west bank in Vigo County includes some old strip pits. The Thousand Acre Woods Nature Preserve in Daviess County has never been mined, but Prairie Creek's north and south forks, which converge within its boundaries, both have been ditched for agriculture. The 8,064-acre Goose Pond FWA – the section's ecological gem – is a reconstructed wetland, bisected by a busy state highway.

But in terms of preservation, the Glaciated Section's protected natural areas are as important, if not more so, than their spectacular counterparts to the east. They are also a testament to the role hunting and fishing plays in the state's conservation efforts.


Hornbeam Nature PreserveAfter bidding 29 beginning and advanced reporting students adieu on Thursday, I began work on the final draft of the Guidebook to Southern Indiana Natural Areas. First stop Friday morning – the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves in Indianapolis for a sit-down with Michael A. Homoya, the state's chief botanist/plant ecologist for more than 30 years.

While we had scheduled and rescheduled the meeting several times over the past few months, the timing was perfect. With only one road trip left, I've begun stepping back, crunching numbers and taking a macro view of the project. By month's end, the numbers show, I will have driven 4,000-plus miles to visit 96 properties with a combined acreage of more than 600,000.

It's long been clear that the project's last pass will involve placing and explaining the natural areas within the context of Southern Indiana's six natural regions, as identified 29 years ago in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Sciences. I was hoping Mike, who was lead author on that 1985 paper, would be willing to help fact check my manuscript.


Patoka River - Pike State ForestThe sun disappeared somewhere between the Pike State Forest and Saunders Woods Nature Preserve a few miles east of the Illinois state line, where the Patoka meets the Wabash River at a point known as Hells' neck. But even though the day was dedicated to photography, it was just as well. I still had three more natural areas to shoot the afternoon of Nov. 25. And rushing through the Patoka Valley just felt unnatural.

The 167-mile Patoka's stroll to the Wabash is as slow and twisted as any in the state. Formed some 300,000 years ago by an Ice Age feature known as Glacial Lake Patoka, the river rises on a ridge southeast of Paoli in Orange County, traverses three more counties and meanders in all four directions before blending into the Wabash. On a map, much of its outline looks like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

And that's after a 37-mile stretch was ditched and reduced to 18 miles in the 1920s. Before the Patoka was channelized, experts say, it flowed some 200 miles and was anything but bucolic. As a state geologist put it at the time, west of what is now Pike State Forest lurked "a foul, stinking, rotten river – in summer a solution of decaying vegetable matter … thick enough to bear up small animals."


East Fork White River - Glendale Fish & Wildlife AreaSunshine was a rare commodity the week before Thanksgiving. The gloom sliced deep into plans for a multi-day excursion through Southwest Indiana's White, Patoka and Ohio River Valleys. The intent was to save gas money and spend time with friends I don't see near often enough. But as I told them all week, everything hinged on the sun.

The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, Intellicast and other sunray predictors agreed on one thing for almost a week. The sun would make an extended appearance down in the bottomlands on Tuesday only. So, inspired by low gas prices, cabin fever and holiday time for leisurely visitation, I set course for just the White and Patoka on a sunny Nov. 25 morning, with an invitation to stay with friends that night just north of Patoka Lake.

The first of two potential catastrophes – one personal, one technological, both my fault – passed me a minute, no more than two, after I dropped my 13-year-old border collie Zoe off at my family's place. A personable young Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy turned around to stop me for doing 57 in a 45 (a window I've peered ticket-free through for many decades). He sent me off with a warning and a request to slow down.


Hemlock CliffsFor the first time in 11 weeks, I am caught up on all my various responsibilities, Natural Bloomington work foremost on the list. This morning I edited and posted Photo Albums from last weekend's jaunt to Crawford, Perry and Dubois Counties. Freshly updated are the related sections in the southern Indiana natural area guidebook manuscript.

And with only one more photo excursion left – to the Southwestern Lowlands and Bottomlands – it's liberating to say the guidebook project's travel phase is near the end. The next five months are earmarked for polishing, not road time and expense.

At the same time, it sucks that the guidebook project's travel phase is near the end. It really is about the journey.


Patoka LakeHad anyone told me that Patoka Lake would steal a 225-mile, daylong photo expedition that included adventures at Hemlock Cliffs, Indian and Celina Lakes, and Ferdinand State Forest – or that I would be closer to a bald eagle there than I've been in a quarter century – well, you know.

Perhaps my expectations were tempered, given that I've been to the state's second largest lake multiple times. Hell, I hiked the Tillery Hill area with Protect Our Woods's Bob Klawitter in the early 1990s. And as for bald eagles, I've been closer than most. In the mid-1980s, I dropped fish down a chute to a cage on a remote Lake Monroe bay to feed the first pair to fledge in the state in almost a century.

But I had never been to the Patoka Lake Hiking Area on the 8,800-acre lake's southern shore. I didn't even know there was a "park," as the DNR woman working the office called it. Although it was cloudy and threatening rain, I shot almost as many images there as the other three stops combined, all of which had been all or partly sunny.


Tribbett Woods Nature PreserveI should have known this would be the weekend when I'd hit the Atterbury Fish & Wildlife Area and Pizzo Preserve. They're the last two natural areas on my guidebook list that I could do on a day when I had little time and energy.

Week 10 is by far my busiest of every semester in Ernie Pyle Hall. On two nights last week, 197 journalism students showed me their IDs, signed their names and took my J155 Final Exam. That only happens once a semester, the closest I have to a hell week. And, as noted on a personal Facebook post, this was perhaps my most taxing, as the last test taker this semester was the last of 4,419 students since 2004 – the very last. Kind of emotional.

So, since traveling companion Raina had to be home early Saturday afternoon, we hiked up the ridge from Gross Road for some quick November photos on the Pizzo Preserve above the North Fork of the Salt Creek, 15 minutes due east of my house. After taking Rain home, I drove to Atterbury in Johnson County, which was 105 miles round trip, including time spent driving and exploring.


Pennywort Cliffs Nature PreserveThe corner store manager at the State Road 3 Commiskey turnoff knew exactly where the Wells Woods Nature Preserve was – behind Mrs. Wells's house, she told her staff. The first road past the railroad tracks by the stop sign, per the directions I had, she nodded.

"Don't even act like you're going to pick up a stick," she advised before I headed back west on County Road 850S. When a tree from the woods fell on a house, they wouldn't let the owners have it removed. They had to do it themselves, she continued -- they being the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves, which owns the 20-acre, old-growth flatwoods in Jennings County.

The Wells preserve did indeed loom behind a handful of houses a quarter mile south of Main Street, just as she and the DNR said it would. It was one of three flatwoods preserves on the day's journey through the Southeast Indiana's Bluegrass Natural Region.The fourth was a canyon.


Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife AreaIf there's an ecotourism deity, she was smiling on the Natural Bloomington corner of her domain this past weekend. She not only delivered a 24-seat bus full of guests on Friday – with a waiting list – but arguably the perfect day for our second
Fall Color Ecotour, this year to the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area and Greene-Sullivan State Forest.
And with some help from Monroe County Parks Naturalist Cathy Meyer, who provided binoculars for everyone, this Demeter-like spirit also served up seven pelicans and a northern harrier soaring above the 8,000 acres of reconstructed wetlands south of Linton -- against a perfect fall-blue sky.
Saturday wasn't quite as shiny as I led 14 members of the IU Oxfam Club on a three-hour eco-trek through Eastern Monroe and Western Brown Counties, most of which we spent hiking up to and along a ridge line on the Tecumseh Trail. The colors were muted but still stunning, and the rain held off until we, literally, pulled away from the Crooked Creek trailhead.


Mosquito Creek Nature PreserveAfter 80-plus photo hikes through 69 natural areas over the past year and a half, I've pretty much figured out what to expect when I pack up the old Accord and set out for the Southern Indiana wilds. And as I've been reminded the past two, I dare not presume when the itinerary includes properties owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), like the Harrison County Glades at Mosquito Creek.

While I suspect it's by design, given the TNC's lofty mission to "conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends," they can be well-hidden and unadorned. Let's just say I know from past experience to budget extra time for TNC properties. Even when you find them, it's not always clear that you have.

Mosquito Creek, for example, is as deep as protected property gets in the Highland Rim Natural Region that extends from McCormick's Creek State Park on the West Fork of the White River to the Harrison County Glades just north of the Ohio River. But, while it was obvious which was the Laconia Road the TNC mentions in its online directions to Mosquito Creek, the proprietor at the Laconia corner store gave me a dumb-city-boy stare when I asked if it was -- said she'd never heard of Laconia Road.


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