Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hickory Ridge Tower; A Questionable Climb

Just a few miles further up the ridgetop hugging Tower Ridge Rd from the Blackwell Horse Camp sits the 110 foot tall Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower.

This particular fire-watch tower was built in 1936 for a cost of about $1000 and by 1953 was one of 8 in the area and about 5000 nearly identical towers across the nation, though by 1964 it cost just shy of $10,000 to build one.

For several days I had been contemplating riding the Quad-B the 5.5 miles up the road to check it out. 

There's a trail of about the same length paralleling the road from the horse-camp to the tower but, while biking is allowed I would need a permit, and frankly an 11 mile hike (No permit required for hiking) there and back to see the tower just wasn’t – well, I just wasn’t feeling it!

To avoid the need for a permit all I had to do was ride the Quad-B to the the campground entrance, hang a left on Tower Ridge, and start pedaling, but on my way back from hiking Whitetail, since I was already in The Van, I decided to bypass the campground and just drive on up to the tower instead. (Nice how well that worked out isn’t it!)

There was virtually no traffic on the narrow gravel road but it was a little after noon on a Saturday and the area is criss-crossed by trails. Along the way I passed the Grubb Ridge Trailhead which looked to be pretty well packed with cars.

In fact the base of the Hickory Ridge Tower is also a trailhead for several trails, not to mention a relatively short hike down to an old cemetery, so the tiny parking area there was pretty crowded as well, but I managed to find a spot to slip The Svelte Little Van into, though all the sunny spots were already taken so I had to settle for shade. (When you live on solar you pay attention to things like that.)

Most of the occupants of the cars must have been out on the trails, but I had just finished a hike and had come here for the tower experience.

Considering our nanny-state's liability concerns as well as budget constraints, I thought I would be coming to look at the tower from the wrong side of fences and locks so wasn’t expecting that last little line on the lower right of the sign.

Now to the sensible that reads as a warning, but – well – yeah, you know where this is going. . .

9 landings, 133 steps, and 110 feet up to a little box just barely large enough to lay down in!

How could I say no?!

Weellll. . . Partway way up that question changed to what the hell was I thinking!!

The steps were no big deal, I’ve climbed worse, you just take them slow and steady, but remember that $1000 price-tag to build this thing? Well I’m here to tell you, it was so damn cheap because this thing is SpindlY; with a capital S capital Y!!

I had covered about 2/3rds of the climb and was doing fine, but then I did something wrong which set up a harmonic wobble in the entire tower that was suddenly attempting to throw me off! I had to stop where I was and hang on tight until it finally died down.

OK, that’s enough to make a guy reevaluate the decision that put him up here in the first place!

It didn’t help that now I was reminded of reading that long-time tower watchman Raymond Axsom was pretty scared the time the tower got struck by lightning, but the time he was really scared was when a sudden storm blew in and the tower was whipping around so bad all he could do was wrap his arms and legs around the steps he had been caught out on and hang on.

But, then again, I already had all those steps behind me and when I, very slowly, tilted my head back until I was looking straight up I could see that there were only three more landings to go!

Back in the day there were no yellow railings here in the tower,

Stolen photo. The alidade in the Hickory Ridge Tower has long since been removed.

just a hinged trap door that didn’t interfere with the alidade used to vector in on fires.

I don't mind the railings!

In the early days of this tower there were some 80 farms and homesteads around it, but the vast majority of those have been reclaimed by the forest now

along with several small communities such as Yellowstone, Maumee, and Elkinsville.

My stay in the tower was cut short by a quad of young people crowding in behind me about 15 minutes after I got up there.

Two young couples, one of the most dangerous demographics, what with the males egging each other on as they try to impress the females, who, at this age (Mid 20's) still love the attention and are encouraging the boys with giggling glee.

I bailed out, OK, more like carefully eased on out, and left them to their post, but only just, adolescent mating rituals.

Once I got my feet back on solid ground I went in search of any signs of the garage, which wasn’t hard to find since the foundation had been solidly built,

and the house that used to go along with the tower.

Both can be seen in the 1951 photo on the bottom left of the sign now at the base of the tower. (Visible in the fourth image from the top of this entry.) The house is easy to see in the photo and the garage, or work/storage shed, is just peeking through the trees there across from the house.

Once I found the foundations, which in the case of the house was more like a full basement, I was already at the beginning of the 5 mile Sycamore Trail, (Hike only) with it's one-mile side trip to Terrill Ridge, the high point in the wilderness.

Hummm, another ambitious hike today, or head back to camp and catch up on my magazines while sitting in the shade with ice-cold water and some crackers & hummus ???

Oh hell! I’ll just save Sycamore Trail for next time. . .

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

They Grow So Fast!

As if I’m the first one that’s ever noticed that!

I took this photo of a doe that’s brought her new fawn down to the bird-feeders to sample a little corn and deer-feed in mid-May of this year. At first the little one was very skittish about coming so close but my good looks and irresistible charm soon overcame that. (Along with a healthy dose of deer-feed which the little one seems to prefer over corn.)

Three and a half months and 1146 photos later (Not all of deer!!) I took this shot of the same doe-fawn pair in pretty much the same spot during the first few days of September.

The not-so-small fawn had just run down the steep bank off to the left and, at full speed, headbutted the fawn right in the udder with a hefty thwack. She’s a better parent than I would be, standing quietly and enduring this abuse.

The reddish color of fresh-fawn has faded almost to the same tawny brown as mom and the fawn’s spots have started to fade.  This is particularly noticeable along the neck.

And here’s the same fawn a few days ago (mid-October) The spots are history and we can see by the fresh new nubbins on his head that he is definitely a he.

It’s rutting season and mom will soon be breaking the pair-bond between them to get on about the business of incubating and raising another little one, but with his notched ear it will still be easy to keep track of this not-so-little-one.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Indiana DNR’s Whitetail Trail

When I hiked the Pate Hollow Trail yesterday I ran across this sign just a few dozen steps from the trailhead pointing to yet another trail on the left. Oddly, the big map at the trailhead shows nothing of this Whitetail Trail,

yet the paper maps printed by the USDA for the National Forest’s Pates Hollow Trail does show this three mile long lollypop trail down there on Indiana DNR lands. (The IDNR land is dark grey and the NF is light grey.)

Since it’s hard to see the way they printed it, here I’ve highlighted the Whitetail Trail in green.

My GPS track of the Whitetail Trail highlighted in blue. That's a portion of my Pate Hollow Trail track at the top

But while the USDA interpretation of the Pate Hollow Trail matches my GPS track pretty closely, the same can’t be said for their interpretation of the IDNR Whitetail Trail, but no big deal, with the exception of one spot which I’ll get to in a moment, the trail isn’t all that difficult to stick to,

even though it clearly does not get the same amount of traffic as the, frankly, slightly more interesting, Pate Hollow Trail.

Since hurricane Harvey is still demanding I keep away from home, when I got up this morning (Aug 26) I decided I might as well go back up the road to the trailhead and check out Whitetail.

While still in the same hardwood forest as the Pate Hollow trail, Whitetail had a lot less up and down, or hollow and ridge, to it and I only end up climbing, then descending again, a mere 570 feet over the three miles.

Initially the trail, weaving in and out of the woods, sticks pretty close to the entry road for the Paynetown State Recreation Area.

It’s a Saturday (And Harvey is finally coming ashore after fooling the weather-geeks who thought it would come knocking a full 16 hours earlier.) and the State Recreation Area with its picnic areas, beach and boat-launch/docks must be popular because there’s a steady stream of vehicles pulling up to the pay station.

The trail is clearly not so popular and I have it to myself all morning.  Cool!

Eventually the trail comes to the edge of this large, and completely empty, parking lot which I assume is an overflow for those extra busy weekends when thing get insane and it would probably have been more enjoyable to stay home and work in the yard instead.

Here’s where I have to do some intuitive interpretation  to stay on-trail. My paper map shows the trail continuing along near the main road at this point, but on the actual ground there’s no indication of any trail whatsoever.

In the distance however, I can see what looks like a trailhead sign at the far end of that parking area, so I head that way.

But it’s not a trailhead sign at all,

though it is kind of interesting and I’m tempted to climb into that big ol’ sandbox and do a little fossil hunting myself.  (OK, I check, and since there's no one around to see, I do climb in and dig around for a few minutes. Even though I studied the fossil pictures on the sign I still probably wouldn’t know a fossil from a rock, and I'm pretty sure my digging method, shoving dirt around with my boot, isn't archaeologist-approved. In the end I don’t find any, fossils that is, though there are plenty of rocks, at least I think they're all rocks.)

When I finish playing in the sand there's still nothing around to indicate where the trail went, but behind the sign, and around a locked vehicle gate, there's a rough track and since it's going away from the road, I follow it, trail or not.

I not sure I’m actually on the trail at this point but I catch a glimpse of what looks like big propane tanks through the brush and decide to explore what just might be the remains of a residence back in there.

Turns out it was more of a dumping ground for old bits of boat docks,

presumably old bits of boat dock belonging to the State,

though, according to my GPS, this is getting awfully close to National Forest land.

At any rate, it entertains me for a while as I poke through the old equipment and try to figure out how it was all used. (I finally decide that the tanks embedded in concrete were the old supply tanks for the fuel dock.)

After I finish poking through the trash I finally find an indication of a trail nearby, though this is the first I’m hearing of a Bluebird Trail.

I know from personal experience how difficult cutting new trails can be and I can’t help but wonder where Mark Pemberton is now because I'd like to thank him. Assuming Mark was 16 or 17 at the time he did this trail he would be near my daughter’s age.

Well I don’t know if he ever comes out here and hikes his trail anymore, but I’m going to.

Partway up Mark’s Bluebird Trail, and firmly back in National Forest land according to my GPS, I pause for the cause.

Using a convenient log to prop up my backback, which is going to make a comfortable backrest, and the heavy folded shirt I have in the pack (Now sitting on the log behind.) as a seat cushion, I make myself a sweet little nest.

If you look close at my GPS track (The third image from the top of this post.) you can see that, purely by coincidence, yesterday's lunch-stop, that short little out-and-back 'coma' off the un-highlighted GPS track of yesterday, is within shouting distance of today's (That pointy tip at the top of the highlighted GPS track) In on-the-ground terms, yesterdays lunch was on top of the ridge to the left in this photo above.

But coincidence to not, today's spot is just as perfect for snacking and solitary contemplation.

But even in the best of circumstances I can take just so much contemplation before I’m repeating myself, or facing uncomfortable truths, so it’s back to the trail, which soon dips back into State land.

Well, back on the trail for a little while anyway.

Because it isn’t long before I spot glimpses of something lurking in the trees up on top of a ridge over to my left.

Making sure to keep an eye on my back-trail so I can get back to the real trail once I’m done exploring, I wander off up-ridge to discover this 150,000 gallon water tank.

It was put here in 1967, presumably to service the State Recreation Area since that’s what’s downhill of it, but it’s hard to tell if the tank is still in use or not. I try banging on it from ground level up to as high as I can reach to see if there is water in it, but it sounds the same all the way up to me so I just don’t know.

Although, if it is still in use it certainly could use a little loving care!!

But used or abandoned, the tank makes for an interesting side trip and another excuse for some more of that solitary contemplation.

But too much of a good thing and all that, so from here it’s back to the trail, then the trailhead, then back to the campsite where I’ll while away another pleasant, sunny afternoon as Harvey lashes viciously at the homestead a thousand miles away. . .

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hardin Ridge Recreation Area

Just north of Tower Ridge RD., west of SR 446, is the Hoosier NF Hardin Ridge Recreation Area.

On my way back to camp after hiking the Pate Hollow Trail I decided to stick my nose in and check it out.

I was not impressed.

As I drove up I was confronted with an elaborate three-lane, two-bay, two-kiosk entry gate that seemed more fitting for a military base than a National Forest. Not that I didn’t expect something there, since most NF recreation areas are fee-entry, I just didn’t expect all this!

But never mind, I ease on up to the day-use lane with geezer-card smuggly in hand, only to find out that my coveted card (The pre August-2017 $10 version ) only covered half the $5 entry fee.

Well crap! If I’da known that I probably would’a just skipped the place, (Not that I’m cheap or anything. It’s the principal of farming out our so-called public lands to for-profit concessionaires that are intent on squeezing every last dollar out of us just so we can use our own lands that I object to. OK, and I am a little cheap. . .) but since I was there and a car had just crowded up behind me, I grudgingly paid and drove on in, primarily to check out the 200 campsites spread across 6 loops, as well as the one-mile Ted T. Turtle Interpretive Trail. (No, really! That was the guy's name!)

According to the official web site reservations are required for campsites, (For a $10 fee per reservation. Remember the concessionaire wants his money!) but when I talked to the host at the Eads loop he said that 50% of the sites on all 6 loops are reserve only and the other 50% are first-come, at least for now.

The campsites are a mix of no-hookup ($20), electric ($27), and electric-water ($27 - $30) sites. Having a pass cuts the cost by half. All the loops have flush or vault toilets but no showers. (For $20 at most Texas State Park campsites you get a water-electric site with flush toilets and hot showers.)

If you are an off-season camper (Oct – mid Apr) you can get a break by staying at the Southern Point Loop (The only loop open in the off season.) for $5 a night, half that with a pass. This loop has only non-electric sites, there will be no water available, and only the vault toilets will be open. (But then again you can stay at the horse camp a few miles away for free and get the same amenities as well as clear access to solar. . .)

If you are dependent on solar you are going to want an electric site as all the campsites are shaded. The Eads Loop allows 4 hours per day of generator time between 0700 and 2200. Fortunately that’s the only loop where generators are allowed so it isn’t too difficult to get away from the racket of those addicted to their coffee-makers.

Typical campsite. The next site is just out of the frame to left or right.

All the sites are pretty typical of NF developed campgrounds with more privacy and space than commercial campgrounds but less than many boondocking sites, especially if it gets as full as the campground host indicated. (Remember, there’s 200 campsites here and the place is only a couple hours from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville, not to mention that the college town of Bloomington is literally just up the road.)

Also typical of NF campgrounds, most of the sites are best suited for tent to modest sized RV’s and getting level on many of them will be a challenge.

There are two trails listed in the recreation area but since the  Hardin Ridge Trail is little more than an unpaved sidewalk snaking along the Ridge Rd connecting the camping loops to the day-use area I find it difficult to actually consider it a trail.

The other one isn’t so bad though because it is a true interpretive trail with real signs along the way discussing the history, geology and environment. That’s the Ted T. Turtle trail. To pick it up park at the amphitheater about half way along the Ridge Rd then walk around to the back or north side near the picnic pavilion.

From there the out and back trail, initially paved for a little bit with some steps to help with the slope, follows one of the hollows down to the lake.

But I suspect the main draw of the Recreation Area is the picnic area/beach at the end of the Ridge Rd. In addition to a few picnic tables, and the beach of course, there’s a small (fairly modern) playground and (old and in need of refurbishing) flush toilets. This place is popular enough that it has a dedicated beach-host living right on site.

To each their own but since the parking area is twice the size of the beach I’m not sure there’s much elbow room or peace on popular days. If I wanted to feel that crowded and jittery I could just as well go sit in an airport departure lounge!!

So, while not horrible, the Hardin Ridge Recreation Area would not be my first choice when in the area. But then again, that’s just me.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Ups and Downs of Pate Hollow Trail

When reading the reviews on one of the campground-finder web-sites someone said "Blackwell Horse Camp is a great place. Too bad it’s in Indiana".

Now I agree that there are parts of Indiana I’m not in love with, such as Indianapolis, and parts that are so-so, such as much of the northern 1/3 of the state, (With some noted exceptions!) but I think southern Indiana deserves better than to be dismissed like that.

For example, just 6 miles from where I camped at the Blackwell Horse Camp, one mile out to the highway on Tower Ridge RD, then 5 miles north on SR 446, is the National Forest’s Pate Hollow Trail.

This 6 mile loop trail wanders around the sharp ridges and deep hollows near the northern shore of Monroe Lake. But when it came time to find the trail, despite being a favorite of the rangers I talked to back at headquarters in Bedford, there's no signage for the trail out on the highway

Sign at the trailhead, if you can find it!

making it slightly difficult to find.

The fact that the trailhead, and the parking for it, actually sits on the property of the Paynetown State Recreation Office and Indiana Conservation Officer Headquarters does pretty much nothing to lessen that confusion.

In fact there’s nothing to tell you for sure that you are in the right place until you park on the big, steeply tilted, but otherwise unmarked bit of asphalt there behind the state building and wander over to the north edge of the parking area where the trailhead sign sits tucked into the trees. (I took this photo while standing at the trailhead sign.) In fact, at this point I was still standing in the Paynetown State Recreation Area and wouldn’t reenter the National Forest until I was a few feet down the trail.

I was actually a bit concerned at this point because I knew from research that the Pate Hollow Trail gets down to the shoreline of Monroe Lake, but after crossing the causeway over the lake it sure did seem like the highway did a whole heck of a lot of climbing before I got to the trailhead! Climbing that I was now going to have to undo on foot then redo all over again to get back to The Van.

But I bravely hitched my pack up onto my back, grabbed my hiking stick, and set out.

But only a few feet up the trail I got temporarily sidetracked by the starkness of this hollow at the base of a tree right on the edge of the trail.

These kinds of hollows are actually fairly common, in fact another one would play an important part of this hike later on, but the unnaturally clean, sharp edges of this one make it stand out.

A few steps later and I understand.

Someone has gone to some effort to fit a board into a natural hollow here and create a geo-cache that at one point came complete with a hinged door.

A few steps later and I was immersed in the up and down world of southern Indiana where everything is either a narrow hollow, a knife-edged ridge, or the slopes in between.

Most of Hoosier National Forest exists because in the 30’s the feds bought up hundreds of little farms that couldn’t make a go of it on the thin, barely fertile soils of the ridgetops and the dense, wet tangles of the hollows.

There's an old road in here, maybe put in by Pate as he attempted to make a go of farming the area?, that cuts across the middle of the loop trail. I would have loved to learn more about who put the road in and what was at the end of it back then, but that info wasn’t forthcoming and I stuck to the trail instead,

which, for a while anyway, wandered off along a separate ridge.

But ridgeline, slope, or hollow, in late August this place was an arachnid paradise and I ducked whenever I could, but spiders were soon frantically rappelling off the brim of my hat as I walked through unseen web after unseen web.

And I was right about that downward slog, but eventually there appeared a brightness behind the trees that hinted at open space of some sort just ahead. Rare in this dense hardwood forest.

Yep, there’s the lake at about the 2.5 mile point, (If hiking the loop counterclockwise which is my default unless there’s a compelling reason to go the other way around instead. Don't know why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm left handed.)

but if you took this hike because you are a ‘lakie’ you’re going to be disappointed because there’s actually only about a quarter mile, if that, of actual lake-side hiking, before the trail turns up-hollow again.

This particular hollow starts out wider and flatter than most in the area and I have to wonder if this is was actually Pate’s hollow, though after casting back and forth for a while, cutting a fat-man sized zig-zagging swath through the spiderwebs, I can find no sign of road or structures or old fence-lines.

And it isn’t long before the hollow narrows and the trail starts to switchback up towards the ridge above.

That guy you see on the trail up there left-center isn’t wearing a reddish shirt, in fact he’s not wearing any shirt at all. Just a hat, shoes and black shorts and he, with his 4% body fat, stingy muscles and protruding tendons, thumpity-thumped by me at a rapid jog. Good for the health I suppose, (Bad for the knees though!) but I think I’ll stick to enjoying my trails at a quiet snail’s-pace.

Besides, doctors, most of whom are sporting 10, 20, 30% body fat, may try to cram the health benefits of extra low body fat down our throats but I’m not convinced.  Ever notice how often the extremely skinny get run down or sick? Keeping your body in that ‘doctor approved’ condition leaves virtually no reserves for body or immune system, so it might be healthy as long as nothing goes wrong, but we all know things go wrong; then what??

I mean this dude was so skinny that when I worked my way up the ridge right behind him spider webs were still blocking the trail (That out-of-focus orangish blob right in the middle of the photo is a spider hanging out in the middle of her web.) because he slipped right between the strands!!

About the time that jogger was fishing in the secret pocket tucked behind the waistband of his shorts for the car keys so he could get to his lunchtime Pilates class on time I decided to wander off trail and find a spot for my own lunchtime routine, namely a nice, healthy, fat-maintaining snack!

At this point the trail was tracking across a slope just below a ridgetop so I headed upslope away from the trail to find seclusion and a nice comfortable tree to lounge against.

I’ve talked before about the importance of looking back as you’re hiking, especially when you leave a clearly marked trail for untracked parts, and this photo illustrates that nicely.

Although I’m only 10-20 yards off the trail at this point, because of the terrain there is absolutely no hint of it anywhere and all these ridges and hollows and slopes around here look pretty much the same.  But I took this photo looking back the way I had come and if you look close you can see that a tree just left of center has one of those little hollows at its base. (In the photo there’s a yellow leaf right in line with the hollow but to the eye the leaf was not quite that prominent.)

If I hadn’t been watching my back-trail I wouldn’t have seen it, but I was, and this became my landmark to make sure that after turning around several times as I dropped pack and scraped out a seat, and then lounging and just generally zoning out for a while up there on that trackless ridge, I would head the right direction when I was ready to continue.

And clearly it worked because I'm still here to write this and not wandering southern Indiana trying to find the trail!

Though the actual elevation difference along this trail is only about 250 feet from its highest to lowest points, because of the ridge-and-hollow nature of the terrain I actually climbed, and descended, over 1300 feet by the time I got back to The Van.

Some people are not fans of forest hikes, finding them claustriphobic and boringly repetitive, they prefer the openness of hiking above tree-line, but I personally find forest trails soothing and meditative, and frankly this one was over too soon because now I was back to worrying about what hurricane Harvey was doing to The Wife back home. . .