The Natural Bloomington Blog


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.

An electric blue sky and October temperatures clearly signaled July 24 as a Natural Bloomington kind of day. But my visions of hiking on the Nebo Ridge Hiking Trail in the Hoosier National Forest soon evaporated, as those are also ideal conditions for overdue upkeep on my old house on Bloomington's near-southside. By late afternoon, plans to drive through Brown County State Park to Story and on to the Nebo trail had devolved into a quick trip to the park.
Which was fine. I've only been to our biggest and oldest state park once since I started shooting digital photography eight years ago. And that day's focus had been portraiture, not landscape photography. Hence, the Natural Bloomington Brown County State Park Photo Album held only one image.
Besides, since Nebo played a pivotal role in Indiana forest history, I should go there with someone who knows the place. I have a guy in mind.

As if on cue, an email from retired professor, journalist, activist and friend Carol Polsgrove arrived in my inbox after my last message to the Natural Bloomington mailing list. For the environmental education side of the project, she suggested a focus on the impact roads have on the natural balance. They facilitate the predatory dispositions of cowbirds, for example, which lay their eggs in other birds' nests. Paul Erhlich and colleagues at Stanford University call them "parasitic."

Carol also recommended I develop a Lake Monroe tour that would emphasize its history, ecological impacts, problems, etc. At that very moment, almost literally, I was launching the next phase of the project: revisions based on the feedback, research, interviews and experiences thus far. I've subsequently mapped out four new ecotours, with varying lengths and themes. The first one I created was called the Lake Monroe Watershed Tour


The term ecotourism really wasn't part of my lexicon when I initially thought about leading environmental tours in and around Bloomington. It was 2004 when I asked a friend if he thought people would be interested in tours of natural areas and toxic waste sites. His answer was unambiguous. Natural areas, yes. Superfund sites, no.

It's not that I hadn't heard of the ecotourism movement. In its contemporary sense, it's been around, in name or spirit, since the dawn of my environmental awareness in the 1970s. Some trace its genesis to Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville's historic journey to America in 1831, when his desire to venture into the wilderness – just out of curiosity – stunned his Michigan Territory hosts.


When my old friend and colleague Dave Nord suggested I include the Latimer Woods on my list of Natural Bloomington old-growth forest destinations, I had conflicted feelings. I knew the retired journalism professor was not misusing the term old-growth.
Back in the mid-1980s he graded my final masters project – Clearcutting the Hoosier National Forest: Professional Forestry or Panacea? Today he's a volunteer who picks up trash, pulls invasive species and otherwise stewards the 10-acre woodland on Bloomington's east side.


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