The Natural Bloomington Blog


While not much has happened naturewise since Gary and I returned from the Ohio River waterfalls nearly three weeks ago, I captured a handful of nature shots during a Fathers Day Family Hike at Spring Mill State Park last Sunday and posted a small Photo Album. And, culminating with a return to the Indianapolis Coliseum for an afternoon of Compassion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Saturday, life off trail has been among the more eventful in recent memory.

Spring Mill wasn't a Photo Hike per se, but I put the fam cam to good use during hikes through the Donaldson's Woods Nature Preserve and along the waterfall below Hamer Cave just upstream from the Pioneer Village. Donaldson's Woods may be only the third largest stand of virgin woods in Indiana, but I think it's the most impressive. And like the other two biggies -- Wesselman's Woods in Evansville and Pioneer Mothers a half hour south just outside Paoli -- it sports a colorful history.

The woods was known as Shawnee Cottage when the wealthy, eccentric Scotsman named George Donaldson, who was bribed out of prison by his father and put on a ship to America in the 1860s, landed in Lawrence County. That he was imprisoned and his father paid his way out is historical fact. That he was jailed for murder is a legend unproved. (I once wrote a story on Donaldson's life forTraces, the Indiana Historical Society's magazine.)


I made a note to revisit the Hanover College campus back in October 2014 when I was in Jefferson County researching the Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana. I literally drove in along the aptly named Scenic Drive, made a loop, drove out and headed west to the Pennywort Cliffs Nature Preserve. The campus, with its scenic overlooks on the Ohio River, was magical on that perfect autumn day. But I had no time to explore. Pennywort was the last of four natural area explorations on the travelogue.

So when my friend and landscape photographer Gary Morrison suggested last week that we pursue some waterfalls down on the Ohio, including Horseshoe Falls on the Hanover campus, I was eager and cleared the day.

We couldn't find our first option, Fremont Falls, which, at 108 feet, is reputed to be state's tallest -- a claim that is in dispute. So, I wasn't disappointed when we turned to option 2, the Horseshoe Falls on the Hanover campus. It turns out there are at least three entrances to the college, two of which we used and are not scenic at all.


Surrounded by the lush environs of the Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, I expected any revelations or insights from Saturday's hike with a group of Indianapolis Sierrans to come from the marshy flatlands off the 2.5-mile boardwalk or the forest canopy. The Sycamore Land Trust property is, after all, bottomland forest. And it is late spring.

Given the amount of time I spend exploring nature's nuance, group hikes are opportunities for me to talk to other nature lovers, particularly if I'm not the leader and don't have to keep everyone from getting lost. And aside from shooting a blue flag iris alongside one of the trail's many bridges, that's pretty much what I did Saturday morning -- talk wth and focus on images of the hike's 21 guests for the summer Indiana Sierran newsletter I'm wrapping up this week.

If indeed a magic moment were to occur in the sky, I expected it would be a bald eagle or two soaring overhead, given that the last stop was the preserve's observation deck that overlooks an eagle's nest. Clouds are cool but not often revelatory. But I have to say a lenticular cloud sighting captured the day's magic-moment award.


After a dismal gray week spent poring over dismal data on Indiana State Forest logging, I was more than primed for a quick trek to a wildlife pond in the Deam Wilderness when the first blade of sun pierced Saturday afternoon's cloud cover. I had just finished a first-draft story on the cheerless numbers and cleaned the camera gear when I set sight on a secluded parking spot near the Grubb Ridge Trail that cuts a mile or so off the hike from the nearest trailhead.

This portion of Grubb is a multi-use path just west of the Blackwell Horse Camp and, after a week of rain, I knew it would be a slog in places. And since such conditions are not conducive to shooting close ups of the wood sorrels, two-flowered Cynthias, fleabanes and fungi that occasionally spot the trailside edge, knees and elbows weren't on the program.

Wildlife pond reflections topped the photographic agenda, closely followed by more practice audio recording the natural sounds that serenade every wilderness hiker through the Deam. This one involved a directional mic to eliminate my heavy breathing and increasing the audio levels to capture stronger avian sounds from the canopy.


Southern Indiana's deep woods have evolved into a lush, green mass this time of year. So, as I drove along Tower Ridge Road to the Martin Hollow Trailhead under a brilliant, mid-day sun on Friday, my photographic plan was to keep an eye on the sky, watchful for the visual interplay of canopy, sky and cloud.

The woods had indeed turned a dense shamrock green along the three-mile trail in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness. For the first time this year I picked up trailside sticks to clear spider webs that span the sometimes overgrown path, which begins at the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower and bears west to Grubb Ridge, crossing Tower Ridge en route. And after what seemed like an eternity of steady rain, the trail itself featured extended stretches of pure muck that required a wide-straddle balancing act to traverse.

My perseverance and skyward gaze paid off, as the day's Photo Album illustrates. But, as is always the case, downed trees and combinations of sun and soil offered up isolated patches where wildflowers thrive on or near the forest floor.


While I should have known better, suffice it say I wasn't 100 percent confident that Saturday's Hoosier Chaper Sierra Club hike I led through the Orange County woods was going to be the extraordinary experience it turned out to be. Not many folks had signed on for the latest Hoosier National Awareness hike. Some canceled. Others got misdirected or caught in I-69 construction / IU graduation traffic. Until Friday evening, weather forecasts ranged from 20-100 percent rain.

No details, but coming off one of my roughest weeks in decades, I knew that hiking through the old-growth Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest and hanging with my friends Andy Mahler and Linda Lee at their Lazy Black Bear homestead was the therapy I needed. But when I walked into the Lost River Market & Deli in downtown Paoli and saw Bill Hayden, who I've known for the same 30 years as Andy and Linda and haven't seen since he move to Clarksville several years ago, I knew I'd started rebounding.

I can't say the outing was the best Sierra Club hike or Natural Bloomington Ecotour yet. That would be like ranking my children. And I have, if you'll recall, led through the Southern Indiana wilds a busload of visually impaired guests, busloads of active adults (f.k.a. seniors), carloads of Chinese students, the Hoosier Supervisor, even a pair of grandparents and visiting granddaughters, etc. But it's up there, for sure. For damn sure.


The retired side of my semi-retired life reascends Thursday afternoon, after I present my semester recap / class farewell talk, the very last in Ernie Pyle Hall on the IU campus. I've spent parts of 25 years learning, guest speaking and teaching in that building. It'll be a bittersweet moment, that's for certain.

So, with my workload already fading -- from here on I'm just critiquing student websites and short videos -- I am at long last turning the bulk of my attention back to my nature work.

Since I began shooting video in January, I've harbored repressed visions of videotaping a sunset over the Hoosier horizon from the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower. On Saturday night, I headed southeast from Bloomington to release them. Plan B was to capture some late evening light on the Martin Hollow Trail, which tracks west just below the tower.


Any time you feel Southern Indiana's lack of mountains, oceans, ancient forests or major rivers relegates it to second-class status in the cosmos of natural beauty, take a hike on Nebo Ridge. Or, better yet, show someone from a far-off destination that boasts all those natural wonders some of ours. You'll gain perspective.

I had the opportunity to do both in the past week and posted photo albums from each on the Natural Bloomington Photo Album page.


When I interviewed former Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Claude Ferguson back in the mid-1980s, I left with one of the most memorable quotes I ever gathered. The subject was the 1985 U.S. Forest Service plan to clearcut 81 percent of the state’s only national forest. Under that forest-management vision, plots up to 30 acres in size would be routinely stripped bare of all vegetation into the 22nd century.

I sat with Claude on the porch of his Bedford home as an environmental reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone covering the 1985 plan and as a grad student writing my final masters project about it for the IU School of Journalism. Clearcutting, he told me, essentially required little more expertise than drawing lines on a map.

“It makes it easy to go for coffee,” he said. “But it’s not forestry.”


In any given March, Miller Ridge in Brown County is remote, high, relatively dry and, like forestlands across Southern Indiana, displays the first signs of re-awakening woodland life -- greenbriar, lichens and wildflowers, for starters. Towering 300 feet above the Crooked and Panther Creek Valleys, it's also a good workout.

This March, Miller was the perfect place to experiment with my new photo system. I used Saturday's three-hour trek along the Tecumseh Trail on the 900-foot elevation ridge as an opportunity to shoot closeups with my macro lens. The blossoming toothworts, phlox and beauties of spring that spot the warming forest floor, on both the ridge tops and the valley floors, served as the experimental subjects.


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