The Natural Bloomington Blog


If the past couple of weeks are any indication, the Natural Bloomington compass has resumed its natural southern pull. Three new photo albums posted in the past couple weeks document two hikes through Hoosier National Forest’s backcountry and brushes with Forest Supervisor Mike Chaveas and prehistoric Native Americans who lived in the woods 700 or so years ago.

On Sept. 16, I led an intrepid group of wilderness champions on our third annual Sierra Club hike with Hoosier Supervisor Mike Chaveas. This year’s trek took us a couple miles into Nebo Ridge, one of the Hoosier’s most rugged and remote areas in southeast Brown County, and the same two miles back out.

Eight days earlier, I bushwhacked through the Charles C. Deam Wilderness with an ad hoc cadre of rock lovers along the Mt. Carmel Fault just south of Monroe Lake. The next day, en route to a high school marching band competition in Salem, we took a short stroll along the Lick Creek in the Hoosier, past the remains of a walled, 14th century Indian village.


An unplanned, two-week break from the keyboard – inspired by an exhausting summer, a new car, a new semester and other distractions – is not tantamount to a vacation. Just a slower pace and lower profile.

A decision to add three more natural areas to the Northern Indiana guidebook led landscape photographer Gary R. Morrison and I to Muncie on Aug. 25 to explore and shoot wetland, woods, prairie, and the White River West Fork at sites owned and/or managed by the Red-tail Land Conservancy: Hughes Nature Preserve, John M. Craddock Wetland Nature Preserve and Red-tail Nature Preserve – as well as the White River, which bisects the first two.

Also during this keyboard hiatus, I had the honor of meeting and talking to a diverse variety of book and nature lovers at IU Press’s second annual Quarry Festival of Books on the IU campus and planted the seed for a new book project with the working title A Guide to Natural Areas on the Ohio River.


What’s left on the Northern Indiana guidebook project requires nothing more than a computer, a circumstance that, like the journey itself, has powerful upsides to balance the downs –  perspective, to name but one. For example, exploring the Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area as one of six natural areas in a single day – one of 14 in three days – leaves little time to reflect upon its once-dominant ecosystem that has nearly vanished.

Before the Americans finished channelizing and straightening the Kankakee River in the early 20th century, swamp occupied nearly a million acres of Northwest Indiana from the Illinois State Line to Michigan City. Officially known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh (or Grand Kankakee Swamp), this vast mass of saturated landscape was also known as the Everglades of the North, even though it was the biggest wetland in North America.

In the early 1800s, navigating the Kankakee River – the great marsh’s liquid spine – required more than 2,000 turns on a 240-mile journey from its source five miles southwest of South Bend to the Illinois State Line. By 1917, the Kankakee’s Indiana path to the Illinois River had been ditched, straightened and shortened to 85 miles, the grand swamp converted to agriculture and industrial-urban areas.


With the Northern Indiana guidebook travel and photography phases complete, it’s transition time at Natural Bloomington. Attention is turning back south to the Hoosier National Forest.

Thirteen new Photo Albums from the last road trip to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Northwest Indiana’s moraine country are now posted, featuring the sandy region’s natural features beyond the dunes: the forests, the wetlands and the prairies. Write-ups on more than 120 preserves, parks and wildlife areas are in third (and last) draft edit, right on the 75,000-word target.

Coming next is an exploration of cultural and historic sites in the Hoosier National Forest, some of which are listed on the U.S. Forest Service’s Special Places list. Images from most are already in the photo archive: Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest, Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower, Lick Creek African American Settlement, Mano Point, Rickenbaugh House, Buzzard Roost, Hemlock Cliffs and Buffalo Trace.


So, barreling through rush hour and construction on Interstate 80/94 between Gary and Hobart, via Hammond, isn’t the way I envisioned the last leg of my Natural Indiana guidebook journey. Neither was photographing a Queen Anne’s lace with an egret calling overhead, while the PA of an industrial packaging plant reverberated from across a chain-link fence.

But ending it in Indiana dune country always was the plan. Aside from the hill country I’ve lived in for 45 years, of the 12 Indiana natural regions explored in the past four years, the dunes were most familiar. And in every relevant way – history, nature, geography, demography – the Hoosier sand hills are one of the nation’s most spectacular natural environments and conservation stories.

"To the Midwest," Carl Sandburg wrote in 1958, the Lake Michigan dunes are what "the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity."


With only three days of travel remaining on the Northern Indiana leg of a four-year journey through natural Indiana, I’m transitioning to a more reflective view of the project, starting with some numbers.

For example, the most common rejoinder I’ve received to the notion of a guide to Northern Indiana natural areas has been, “Are there any?” Well, I could tell tales of camping at and/or exploring several locations in the book that date back more than three decades. My first camping trip ever was a Boy Scout outing at Turkey Run State Park in the 1960s. So, I’m not surprised that there will be more natural areas in this book (125 +/-) than in its Southern Indiana counterpart (119).

But, as I realized returning from a three-day venture through the Grand Prairie Natural Region last week, in Northern Indiana I’m experiencing nature, not wilderness. At 15,000 acres, the Dunes National Lakeshore is the largest refuge north of I-70; the Southern Indiana book features 11 that are bigger than the Lakeshore. The Hoosier National Forest’s 202,000 acres are more than the northern sites combined.


When French explorers first set foot in contemporary Indiana in the late 1670s, the state was almost 90 percent forest, from the southernmost shore of the Lake Michigan to the Ohio River. Tallgrass prairie comprised the bulk of what wasn’t deep green.

The iconic Great Plains that – along with magnificent bison herds – blanketed the nation’s midsection from the Rocky Mountains east reached its easternmost point in a narrow swath of land that today borders Indiana's northwestern border with Illinois. The tallgrass – one of three basic prairie types, along with mixed-grass and shortgrass – dominated a hundred miles of landscape from the Kankakee River basin near Rensselaer to the Wabash River Valley north of Terre Haute.

But after two centuries of agricultural drainage and urbanization, Indiana’s Grand Prairie today is the most altered natural region in the state. Only miniscule remnants of the original exist, mostly along railroad tracks and around pioneer cemeteries. But there are places, like The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands, where prairie retains a hold on the land – and where bison roam free for the first time in nearly 200 years.


After 30-plus years as a professional writer/photographer, I have a handle on what I’m capable of on deadline. And I have to confess, when I was approached by IU Press about a Northern Indiana guidebook last Labor Day, I never envisioned writing another 400-pager in less than a year. I wouldn’t have dared predict that two-thirds of it would be photographed and written in second draft in 10 months.

I guess I didn’t appreciate the impact that accrued efficiencies would have when writing a second book from the same template. I hit both of those milestones this past week – a 74,000-word first draft on 127 natural areas north of I-70, 78 of them explored to one level or another and expanded upon in the text. With the Index, Species List and Glossary also done, all that’s missing is the introduction and foreword.

Done also means processing more than 1,300 images captured at 28 natural areas during our recent three-day camping trip to Northeast Indiana – and posting 27 Photo Albums on the Natural Bloomington Nature Photography page. The Little Cedar Creek Nature Preserve north of Fort Wayne is closed while efforts to combat invasive species are ongoing.


I anticipated our arrival at the Dustin Nature Preserve as much as any of the 200-plus Indiana natural areas I’ve explored in the past four years. The Huntertown couple were pioneers in the environmental movement that swept Indiana and the nation in the 1960s and 70s. I profiled Tom in my 1996 book Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana and spent a weekend at their home north of Fort Wayne, photographing Tom and the Cedar Creek in the valley below.

The Dustins were founding members of ACRES Land Trust, the second-oldest nonprofit land conservation organization in Indiana. Their home is now the group’s headquarters and is surrounded by the Dustin and two other preserves. So parking outside the rustic, cedar-and-stone structure with its low, sloping roof brought back a torrent of memories. Jane died in 2003, Tom in 2004.

And, of the countless impressions I have from exploring nearly four dozen natural areas in Northeast Indiana during the month of June, the most vivid involve ACRES properties, which number 30 – to date.


The Spring Lake Woods and Bog Nature Preserve offered a peak into the Natural Bloomington future last week. A half dozen sites in the Central Till Plain Natural Region remain unexplored before the Northern Lakes Natural Region phase begins. But Spring Lake is the first of 37 natural lake areas on the itinerary.

The Spring Lake preserve protects a thousand shoreline feet on Lake Everett – Allen County’s only natural lake – and was one of the 16 natural areas I hiked and photographed for the Northern Indiana guidebook last week. The others followed the Wabash River and its watershed from Peru to Fort Wayne.

And while the range of images captured were as diverse as the places explored – a dozen Dedicated State Nature Preserves, three State Lakes, and two State Parks – this adventure stands out for the critters that presented themselves along the way.


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