The Natural Bloomington Blog


The woman working at the Jackson-Washington State Forest office wasn't surprised when I told her its website doesn't provide a property map. The 18,000-acre forest, she explained, is the region's "best-kept secret." When I asked if the vistas were its top attraction, she thought for a moment and said no, the camping is.

Camping is indeed a draw in this area of Jackson and Washington Counties. The state forest has 56 primitive campsites on its northern tracts by Brownstown, with backpacking allowed in the Backcountry Area some 20 miles to the south. In between, the Starve Hollow State Recreation Area is built around 165 campsites and a 145-acre lake with swimming beach.

The Backcountry Area includes a section of Indiana's longest hiking path, the 58-mile Knobstone Trail. But Google the Jackson-Washington Backcountry, and you'll see the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also keeps it a secret, referring only to the eight-mile Backcountry Trail. Through the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA) you'll learn the DNR is planning to log it.


As I plotted a six-mile hike through the Orange County wildness this past week, I knew following the footsteps of early 19th century free black men and women would be an arduous task. If it weren't, the trek to the Lick Creek African American Settlement would be a bit of a letdown. Let's just say the 90-degree-plus temps fit my vision perfectly.

Tuesday was decision day at IU Press on my Guidebook to Southern Indiana Natural Areas proposal. I figured a day spent in the Hoosier National Forest photographing Wesley Chapel Gulf and hiking the Lick Creek Trail would keep me preoccupied mentally and spawn some appropriate karma as well.

Had I known the experience would end with me staggering out of the woods, dehydrated, knocking on strangers' doors, begging for help, I would have reconsidered my plan. Well, the plan worked perfectly. It was my execution that failed.


Perusing the Hoosier National Forest website this past week, I was struck by how lasting the impact has been from the clearcutting wars of the 1980s – and reminded of just how important it is.

As a staff writer at the Bloomington Herald-Telphone/Herald-Times, I covered the debate over the U.S. Forest Service's 1985 plan to clearcut 81 percent of the Hoosier, which, after seven years of political struggle, ended up eliminating logging there for a decade or two. Today, the agency acknowledges that timber is harvested in the 202,000-acre Hoosier. But preserving its natural and cultural resources certainly reads as the agency's top priority. And thus far, I've heard little from people in the know to convince me otherwise.

From the forested ridges and ravines of the Brown County Hills, through the gulfs and caves of the Mitchell Karst Plain, to the barrens overlooking the Ohio River on the Crawford Uplands, the biodiversity held therein is indeed awe-inspiring. And, comprising roughly half of all public lands in Indiana, the Hoosier also assumes a prominent role as a refuge for regional and global biodiversity.


It's been 20 years since I flew south from the Bloomington airport. But I still remember the wooded hills, expanding as far as I could see, made it feel like we were flying over jungle, like the view from the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower on steroids.

The forested hill country from here to the Ohio River is indeed among the most verdant landscapes east of the Mississippi River. But it's a century or more past virgin and a fraction of what it was before the first European arrived in 1673, when pristine forest covered almost 90 percent of the state – 19 million acres.

Today, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says 21 percent of the state is forest-covered and that only a few stands are virgin – "untouched by human presence or unnatural disturbance." Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest near Paoli and Donaldson's Woods near Mitchell are two of the largest.

Green's Bluff Nature Preserve is one of those places where, no matter how spectacular I remember it, my memories are always relegated to the level of understatement. The old grist mill is always bigger than I recall. The limestone bluff across the Raccoon Creek must be taller than the seventy-five feet I found on a random web site. The view is eyelevel with sycamore tops on the other side. And the bluff towers above them.
Green’s Bluff is a remote, upland-ravine forest community a few miles south of McCormick's Creek State Park and north of the now-infamous Porter Ridge, site of the cable TV reality show of the same name. The precipitous, sandstone bluff overlooks the Raccoon about five miles upstream from its union with the West Fork of the White River.
Traversing its scenic, 563 acres entails descending a narrow, damp ridge and ascending a steep, rocky, hemlock-covered slope and cliff with karst features and a great blue heron rookery nearby. Just about all the web sites on Green's Bluff call it one of the most scenic nature preserves in the state, which means it's one of the most scenic places in the entire state.

Weekends may not be the time for a solitary, natural experience at McCormick's Creek State Park. The historic land's geologic wonder and natural beauty – including canyons, caves, waterfalls, sinkholes, towering hardwoods and wildflowers – are on full display regardless of the day. But last Saturday, for example, signs prohibiting roadside parking were obscured by cars parked on the roadside at the waterfalls and Wolf Cave trailheads.
And, to be diplomatic, many of those packing the roads and trails weren't there to contemplate nature's majesty, at least not in the post-Earth Day sense. They were in their own ways, which is what state parks are for, places for the public to experience nature. And in that way, the Hoosier kids who raced the trails shrieking exemplify a human relationship with the parkland that predates the Europeans' arrival more than five centuries ago.
McCormick's Creek, with limited exceptions, has always been a place where humans visited and communed with nature, not where they lived or worked.

I couldn't begin to report everything that has happened since I last committed words to screen for this blog. It's been a month. And a lot has happened. So I'm going to jump to May 3, the official beginning of Natural Bloomington's second calendar year, and look forward and back. I promise to keep it short.

Not surprisingly, Nature Photography has emerged as the predominant element in Natural Bloomington's first year in operation. I've been a photographer for far longer than I've been writing. it comes easier.  And it's the theme for our next ecotour on May 17 – an excursion to the Brown County hinterlands with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Blair.

Since I led a couple Chinese students on Natural Bloomington's first ecotour on May 5, 2013, I have published 700-plus photographs in 37 Photo Albums from 22 Southern Indiana natural areas, from Beanblossom Creek to the Ohio River. I've also presented slide shows/talks to two ecotourism classes at IU, the Endwright Center in Ellettsville and the Bloomington Press Club in the IMU Sycamore Room.

So it is fitting that our first ecotour of Year 2 – the May 3 Hoosier National History Ecotour – produced our first photo album of our guests' work on the Natural Bloomington Facebook page. And next is the first of what I hope will be a series of Nature Photography Ecotours.


The Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve was abuzz last Monday afternoon with the sounds of spring peepers, chorus and wood frogs, crickets, and other swamp critters. But aside from a young, snowy-chested, red-headed woodpecker that watched me change lenses and fled the instant I turned its direction, there wasn't much color in the northern Monroe County floodplain forest.

But even muted, this 700-plus acre wetland has pictorial allure. In addition to a photo album, I posted on Facebook an image of its elevated, 2.5-mile boardwalk trail that loops through the marshland, and a gallery owner in Nashville asked permission to paint it. Sometimes an image just "clicks," he said, "and I see it on canvas."

The Beanblossom Bottoms Environmental Education Trail skims over the heart of this Sycamore Land Trust sanctuary – the 336-acre Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, so designated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). An adjacent 78 acres on the north comprises the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge: Restle Unit, named after former owner Barbara Restle, who donated it in 1993.


From a bankside perch on the Fourteenmile Creek a few hundred yards upstream from the Ohio River, a question leaps to mind. What does the Charlestown State Park brochure mean when it says, "During the periods when the water level is increasing, Fourteenmile Creek actually appears to be flowing in reverse"?

From the overlook on Trail 5, the brochure's description of Fourteenmile as a "ribbon lake rather than as a flowing stream" was apt. And from the temporarily closed Portersville Bridge down in the valley, its glowing green waters did indeed appear to be running upstream, away from the swollen Ohio.

When the park ranger calls about other matters, I'm going to ask if the water is in fact running up instead of down, or if it only appears to.


Early March may not be the optimum time for a photo hike up the Tecumseh Trail to Gorley Ridge. Aside from the dried, golden leaves clinging to baby beech trees along the trail, there's little to excite those of us who view the world in 35mm oblongs, at least not on an overcast afternoon.
But winter's tail end does confirm the notion that the Back Country Area of Morgan-Monroe State Forest (MMSF) is aptly designated. Views through bare trees along this stretch of the 42-mile hiking trail reveal a landscape of deep, forested ridges and open understory reminiscent of Nebo Ridge and the Charles Deam Wilderness Area, which are archetypal backwoods around here.
And two trips I made there last week offered proof that the Back Country satisfies its mission, as presented by a 1981 Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) news release: "We’re extremely pleased to provide this new area for persons who enjoy the rugged, primitive areas remaining in Indiana."


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