Never follow frozen footprints. Photo by author
To borrow the words of singer/songwriter Bob Seger, I had grown tired of my own voice.
That was the only possible reason to explain why I found myself standing in slush, sliding down a steep hillside wondering if the plunge would stop before I reached the edge of a moderate-sized cliff.
Fortunately, for my medical insurance carrier, it did.
Big Walnut Preserve Huge, Almost Unknown
The scene of our adventures was the large but relatively obscure nature area known as the Big Walnut Preserve. This nearly 2700-acre area protects the Putnam County ecosystem of the Big Walnut Creek watershed in west-central Indiana.
The preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy and co-managed with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Animal life and spring wildflowers are abundant. However, our visit was in the middle of Indiana's "Mud Season."
The hike was an impromptu effort to shake off the lingering shards of winter sloth after months of lousy weather and even uglier temperatures. I had not really been outdoors for recreational purposes since the beginning of the year and it was high time to get out and see the countryside.
I choose this area as I had not visited for many years, since the boundaries had rapidly expanded with the help of The Nature Conservancy during the 1990’s. Now, the nature preserve is a huge block of protected woodlands centered on the crossing of U.S. 36 and Big Walnut creek.
The primary selling points of the area are deep ravines oriented east and west, providing a long series of cool habitats where plants such as eastern hemlock and Canada yew flourish. The area was designated a national natural landmark in 1968 due to the plant diversity.
There are two trails in the area, the oldest traveling through the original state-owned land, the 128-acre Ruth and Oscar Hall Woods Nature Preserve. The second Tall Timbers trail, a one-mile loop opened in 2002, travels through the newer northern section. Hikers should keep in mind that both trails tend to be wet.
Dismounting from our vehicle at Ruth and Oscar Hall Woods, we saddled up with daypack, camera and hiking stick. While entering the wood we had the sniggling feeling that that the day might not be as carefree as previously hoped.
It is funny how the mind can be so selectively perceptive. As I drove around, taking in the sights, enjoying the four covered bridges of the area and the overall scenic beauty, I hadn’t realized how much white remained inside the woods themselves. Sheltered from the almost-warm January sunshine by the bare tree canopy, there was considerably more snow in places than I had realized.
Most calamities start out slowly and build until they have reached a full-blown state of crisis. This little adventure turned out the same way: the melting snow grew deeper and deeper until I was slogging along in occasional eight-inch-deep patches of wet, slushy, wet, cold and wet granulated ice. By that time it seemed more prudent to continue onward rather than backtrack but as with all calamities, that decision seemed less and less wise with each step. Yet I continued onward.
The trail through the nature preserve would undoubtedly prove mildly entertaining if you are not slipping and sliding through calf-deep ice crystals. As I moved downward toward creek level, there was a brief magic moment when I simultaneously spied a bluebird, a squirrel, a woodpecker of indeterminate species along with two deer that I had rudely interrupted as they enjoyed a sunny siesta on a nearby warm hillside.
The trail passed a small cabin of unknown vintage and finally went down a set of steps to creek level. The Big Walnut is a mid-sized rocky stream that reflected the blue of the cloudless sky as it slogged beneath the feet of hibernating trees that were covered with the rotting corpse of snow. The whole experience would have been more sublime if not for the noise of passing traffic on nearby U.S 36.
The trail wound around the floodplain forest and then ascended the ridge via another set of steps. This is where the story became mildly interesting for Yours Truly. Stupidly following old footprints, I apparently took the ‘scenic route’ rather than the actual trail. At one point, I was wondering about the old, odd sliding tracks in the snow when I realized that I too was moving down the hillside with growing speed.
This realization did wonders for my heart rate and I scrabbled back up to higher ground after what seemed like a week or two but was probably only a few seconds. As I was alone in the chill, it was late afternoon, the ground was covered with snow and the hillside drop was about 80 feet, I was more than a little concerned that a broken leg would make the adventure much more thought provoking and perhaps newsworthy that I had originally intended.
Fortunately, by the time I returned to my SUV, panting, soaked, sweating yet cold, I was no longer was tired of my own voice.
In fact, it was too hoarse to say anything after that little hillside adventure.
Big Walnut Preserve information from The Nature Conservancy