Story and photos by Sara Clifford
VAN BUREN TWP. — The clapping from the crowd sounded muffled, but only because they were trying to save their hands from freezing.
More than two dozen appreciative hikers gathered to celebrate the opening of new trails at the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill last month.
Many of them were volunteers with the Hoosier Hikers Council or staff with Sycamore Land Trust. Some were just general fans of the groups’ work, which is to preserve the beauty, health and diversity of Indiana and allow people to enjoy it on natural, durable trails.
At 593 acres — nearly one square mile — Downey Hill is among the largest preserves in the Sycamore Land Trust’s inventory. At 6 miles, it also has the greatest trail distance on any of Sycamore’s 16 preserves, said Communications Director Abby Henkel.
However, driving along Valley Branch Road, it would be easy not to notice the small parking area and sign that mark it.
Before Sycamore acquired the land in 2012, drivers found it for a much different reason: to illegally dump their trash, tires and appliances.
The gravel road that bisects the preserve used to be an unmaintained county road — part of Sunshine Ridge Road — and the ravines on either side of it were littered with all manner of junk, said Hoosier Hikers volunteer Pete Banta. They even hauled a refrigerator out of the pond.
It took 143 volunteers, working nearly every third Saturday since April 2014, to bring it back to its natural state and to blaze trails by hand through its ridges and valleys.
In the mid-’80s, the 593 acres were on the verge of being sold in parcels as a large subdivision, the Sycamore Land Trust reported. Instead, a group of investors bought it, and when they were ready to part with it, they worked out a “bargain sale” with Sycamore. Its preservation also was made possible through a grant from the Laura Hale Charitable Trust.
The acquisition of this land, near Brown County State Park and Gnaw Bone Camp, helped create a block of nearly 18,000 acres of contiguous forest habitat, the trust reports.
Visiting it is free.
“We’re not getting anything from it,” Henkel said. “We just do it because it needs to be done.”
The Hoosier Hikers Council tried to route the trails to go places that people probably would want to go, while following the natural contour of land so it feels like they’ve always been there, Banta said.
The west loop goes past one of the many old homestead wells that volunteers found on the property, and other unusual finds, like a large “glacial erratic” stone that was deposited as the ice melted.
When the weather warms, hikers will be able to cross a creek and watch waterfalls. In winter, there’s still enough beauty to give even the most seasoned outdoorsman pause.
The group on the chilly December hike stopped to marvel at the intricate patterns that some force of nature had made in an aged beech tree. (The consensus was probably insects.)
They paused to acknowledge the spotted wintergreen, a plant on the endangered watch list; and to photograph a rare emergence of “frost flowers,” ribbons of moisture squeezed out of wild oregano plants, frozen on contact with the air.
Hoosier Hikers volunteers will continue to visit these trails and do periodic maintenance, such as clearing trees that fall across them, said Sycamore Assistant Director John Lawrence.
But if a tree falls elsewhere in the forest, they’ll leave it as it lay, the way nature apparently intended. No logging is ever done on Sycamore Land Trust properties, multiple staff members pointed out.
“That’s the way you get young trees for young hikers,” said a voice from the back of the line. “You let trees get old and fall over.”
Sycamore Land Trust will host a New Year’s Resolution Hike from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6 at the Laura Hare Nature Preserve at Downey Hill.
This hike is free for Sycamore members; the fee for non-members is $5 per person or $10 per family.
For more information, call 812-336-5382 ext. 100 or visit sycamorelandtrust.org/Events.