The Natural Bloomington Blog


To better reflect the organic, evolving nature of the Natural Bloomington project, I’ve begun evolving the focus from Ecotours and More to the More, specifically Indiana Eco-Travel. Indeed, I just finished tweaking the website to de-emphasize [not delete] the ecotourism aspect of the mission and emphasize the eco-travel, through image and prose, of course.

In reality, this announcement is belated and recognizes a shift that occurred a while ago. I certainly will continue leading ecotours upon request. But the core of my work the next couple years will be, as it has been this past year, solo adventures. I only led two ecotours in 2016.



Summit Lake State ParkI’ve been planning to focus more on birds as I explore natural Northern Indiana. And November is peak bird season at Summit Lake State Park, which, along with its Nature Area, are well-known stopovers on migratory bird flights. But I knew I was underequipped for a bird expedition there last Monday.

I’ve only dabbled in avian photography, albeit with surprising results, so I have little technique. And my 70-300 zoom lens wasn’t up to the task. (As part of the bird plan, I had a camera store friend in Indy on the lookout for the one I needed.) But I figured with sun, sky, clouds and 800 acres of water, a trip to rural Henry County would be productive, bird-ready or not.

So, after capturing the previsualized waterscapes from a couple lakeshores inside the park, we drove outside to the Nature Area, which is separated by a county road and requires permission to explore. Just as I spotted a well-used parking area on the preserve’s southern perimeter, Raina saw the bald eagle roosting in a roadside tree, overlooking the 2,680-acre state park’s 800-acre lake of the same name.


Eagle Creek Park, ranked by Wikipedia as the 18th largest urban park in the nation, may be named after the creek turned 1,400-acre-reservoir that borders its western perimeter. And it is promoted as a place to “run, sail, bike and hike,” not to mention negotiate “treetop adventures” with 39 tree crossings and five zip lines. Its world-class rowing course was built for the 1987 Pan Am games.

But while all of that might raise the specter of developed recreation, the northwest Indianapolis park’s dominant theme is preservation – especially birdlife. A broad chunk of the reservoir’s northern edge is a boat-free bird sanctuary. Rising above its eastern shore is an ornithology center with indoor and outdoor viewing areas.

Nearly 4,000 of Eagle Creek’s 5,300 acres are forested, with minimal clearing for playgrounds and such. East of the water lies the 42-acre Spring Pond Nature Preserve. Across the bay, the 297-acre Eagle’s Crest Nature Preserve occupies the park’s northwest side. Campgrounds and RVs are nonexistent.


Our Friday morning exploration of the 1,744-acre Fort Harrison State Park in northeast Indianapolis was bound for nostalgia. My connections to the place date back a half century to elementary school, when my mother worked there. Passing the Finance Center on the way to park gate did indeed release a flood of childhood memories. And I did regale landscape photographer Gary Morrison with dusty recollections of MPs and other youthful fort adventures.

But our mission was to explore and photograph two of Fort Harrison’s Dedicated State Nature Preserves – Warbler Woods and Lawrence Creek – on what the park map calls “the last forested corner left in Marion County.”

And as a small Fort Harrison State Park-Warbler Woods Photo Album shows, despite the late-autumn date, the trail through Warbler Woods, flanked by the Fall Creek on the north and backlit by a radiant sun on the south, offered a palette of fall yellow and summer green. About a half mile up the road, the Lawrence Creek Nature Preserve, however, was nearly devoid of color, and we quickly turned back.


An argument can be made that, while Turkey Run State Park may not have been Indiana’s first, it ranks as the most spectacular. Col. Richard Lieber, a.k.a. the Father of Indiana State Parks, wanted its canyon land to be No. 1. And during this 100th anniversary of the state park system, Purdue University Press chose to publish a coffee table book devoted to the Parke County reserve with the subtitle: A Celebration of Indiana’s Second State Park in Photographs and Words.

I wouldn’t for a second disagree with the case for Turkey Run. The narrow, stark sandstone gorges in the Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve – lined with ferns, hydrangeas, and native hemlock trees – are unsurpassed in their distinct natural beauty, based on my decades of Indiana nature travels, anyway.

But from granddaughter Raina and my experience last Sunday, Shades State Park and its Pine Hills Nature Preserve a few miles up the Sugar Creek would edge Turkey Run out of the top spot if ranking nature preserves were any more reasonable than ranking grandchildren. That may, however, reflect my bias toward the less-developed Shades – and the fact that Pine Hills was Indiana’s first Dedicated State Nature Preserve.


Given the slow pace of fall color change here in Southern Indiana, I was more than ready to wander West-Central Indiana on Oct. 22 in search of images for my Northern Indiana guidebook project and, hopefully, revel in some of the familiar reds, oranges, yellows and golds Indiana autumn is world-famous for. It was, after all, a picture-perfect Sunday autumn afternoon.

I got what I needed in terms of book images from the Jackson-Schnyder Nature Preserve near Terre Haute and the Raccoon State Recreation Area (SRA) to the east in the rolling Parke County farmland near Rockville. 

But during a heavily wooded drive from Bloomington to Terre Haute, I saw one tree with color, in Bowling Green, and it didn’t exactly shimmer. I found only one with an electric yellow hue at Jackson-Schnyder, a 15-acre preserve in Vigo County. On a rugged, two-mile hike on the 4,065-acre Raccoon, brilliant, backlit colors were at a minimum.


No time for exploring this past week, which I spent working on a slide show about Southern Indiana's natural legacy for a presentation Thursday evening at the Wylie House Museum.

Sponsored by Wylie and IU Press, the hourlong conversation about my Natural Bloomington journey will begin at 7 p.m. at the home of IU's first president on the corner of Second and Lincoln Streets in Bloomington.

I'll talk for 20 minutes about a lifelong odyssey with photography and nature and the latest chapter -- A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana;  present a 20-minute slide show on the land itself; and answer questions for 20 minutes. More of less.


When The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) marketing director told me the Fern Cliff Nature Preserve is his favorite, I knew I was in for a stirring photo hike. It helped that he confirmed a trail does indeed wind through the 150-acre Putnam County site. The Indiana Division of Nature Preserve's website says there isn't one. TNC's website says only that a trail exists.

While the Dedicated State Nature Preserve would have been more inspiring were I a botanist -- TNC calls it a "floral paradise" -- this sandstone marvel proved worthy of both its National Natural Landmark (NNL) status and the focus demanded by its rugged landscape. The terrain is treacherously precipitous. A trailside sign warns of "dangerous cliffs."  

Botanically speaking, Fern Cliff's sheer sandstone cliffs and moist, upland and lowland forests are literally dripping with ferns, mosses and liverworts unique to this part of the planet. Like that of the nearby Big Walnut Preserve, its NNL status means the preserve has "outstanding biological and geological resources."


With the caveat that nothing is official and details need to be worked out, I am officially working on two new book projects.

The first, a Northern Indiana companion to A Guide to Southern Indiana Natural Areas, is a "no-brainer," in the words of one key player. I began working on the other, a coffee table book on the Hoosier National Forest, as I was finishing the last one.

I'm in talks with IU Press on those two, as well as contributing to a third, which isn't my idea, so I'll not go into detail. But I'm excited to be involved in the preliminary discussions.


That the Big Walnut Creek Valley is a natural wonder is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Park Service designated 502 acres of it a National Natural Landmark (NNL) nearly a half century ago. By its 1968 designation, that means Big Walnut contains "outstanding biological and geological resources."

"The site contains one of the few stands in Indiana where beech, sugar maple, and tulip poplar grow on alluvial Genesee soil and includes relict species of a postglacial forest that occupied the area 5,000 to 6,000 years ago," the Park Service says.

And the recognition doesn't end there. Last Wednesday, I hiked through two Dedicated State Nature Preserves -- Big Walnut/Tall Timbers Trail Unit and Hall Woods -- and alongside a bean field to find a third -- the Hemlock Ridge Nature Preserve -- too overgrown to negotiate. The three are located along a six-mile stretch of the Big Walnut on either side of Bainbridge, a one-light town west of Danville with a population smaller than its zip code, 736 and 765.


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