I chose the Big Walnut Nature Preserve for the unofficial start of a new book project for a variety of reasons, not the least being its status as a registered National Natural Landmark (NNL), which means it contains “outstanding biological and geological resources.” It’s also a Dedicated State Nature Preserve, which means it’s protected against development in perpetuity.
“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,” says the Park Service, which has designated 30 NNLs in the state.
I’m not a soil expert by any stretch. But I am inclined to accept the judgment of The Nature Conservancy, which owns the 2,6897-acre preserve north of Bainbridge and calls it “a dazzling scenic area situated among the rolling hills and steep ravines of Big Walnut Creek Valley.”
Late September probably isn’t the best time to grab my LowePro filled with Nikon gear and trek through a deep-woods environment like Big Walnut and the nearby Hall Woods Nature Preserve. The forest doesn’t sport a lot of color and contrast, and the canopies are closed pretty tight. But I’ve long believed that conditions do not dictate when it comes to photography. Eye and technique do.
And anywhere there’s light and water, there’s hope. Both preserves have trails to the Big Walnut Creek. I captured the photo at the top just upstream from a feeder at Big Walnut Preserve, where the mouth was wide enough that the canopy illuminated the surface with the emerald green of the surrounding old growth forest — Fortune Woods, I believe.
And there is likely to be light and some color beside a wide, fast-flowing creek like Big Walnut, like the sunflowers above basking in the light on the Big Walnut.
Among the natural wonders at Big Walnut are the largest known hemlock trees in Indiana. But, as I would learn during and after my hike, they are visible only from the water and not from the Tall Timbers Trail, 1.9-mile loop that traverses a dramatic ridge with majestic ravines with a spur to the creek. The trail passes through the 120-acre, old-growth Fortune Woods.
The 94-acre Hall Woods, owned by DNR Nature Preserves and also part of the Big Walnut NNL, likewise borders the creek and features a loop trail along the moist, upland and bottomland forests with stunning ravines and creekside sights and sounds.
Deep forest in late summer, especially a wet one like 2016, still feature a wide variety of fungi on the forest floor, dead and live trees. On the way back up the loop trail I came across some yellow-tinged shrooms, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen before.
And sometimes, when you’re in about as deep and wild as it gets in Indiana, you come across surprises that you couldn’t imagine.
Often those surprises are structures of some kind, usually old and in some degree of decay or disrepair. Among my favorites is a late-1800s cabin in the Hoosier National Forest that today is unfit for human exploration and home to a family of black vultures. In the 1990s, I climbed the stairs to the second floor and read the ads on newspapers applied to the walls for insulation. But that’s a story for other times and places.
The Hall Woods loop trail features one of the best-kept log cabins I’ve ever encountered, even in restored pioneer villages.
After failing to see any hemlocks at Big Walnut, I figured I couldn’t miss them at Hemlock Ridge, which is a mere 39-acre Central Indiana Land Trust site with “a stand of hemlock with views overlooking Big Walnut Creek,” according to the Division of Nature Preserves.
But alas, when the trail enters the preserve, it’s through a meadow that was so overgrown that the path disappeared. I simply wasn’t willing to risk biting-bug exposure walking through waist-to-armpit-high vegetation — mostly goldenrod — on a high-80s day in mid-September.
As much as I’d love to go back, I don’t see myself there anytime in the next couple years, so I have to live with the only image I captured.
The trail is just to the right of the fence post.