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Visit Indiana’s natural time machine

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Have you ever wanted the ability to transport yourself back in time, to observe the world as it looked 5,000 to 10,000 years ago? What if you could see parts of Indiana as they appeared back then?

You can, and I did.

My buddy Travis and his brother Dave invited me on a trip to Pine Hills Nature Preserve, part of Shades State Park near Crawfordsville.

But there was a catch; we were going on motorcycles. I purchased my first motorcycle last summer (it is a used Suzuki V-Strom 1000) and have put less than 700 miles on it, none of them this year.

I was reluctant to do my first ride of the year knowing these two avid cyclists would probably add in side trips, probably on gravel, probably on twisting roads and probably in the rain. Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Encompassing more than 500 acres, Pine Hills Nature Preserve was given to the state of Indiana in 1961 by the Nature Conservancy and bears the honor of being the first nature preserve in Indiana.

Its white pine, hemlock and Canada yew are living relics that have survived and persisted since before Indiana’s last glacier, the Michigan Glacier, 5,000 years ago. The bedrock was formed from sediments deposited when the area was covered by a vast inland sea.

After the last glacier receded northward, glacial meltwater cut into bedrock and formed four narrow ridges, called backbones that stand 70 to 100 feet above the valley.

In 1850, a nearby sawmill removed many of the larger hardwoods, but the evergreens were not seriously disturbed, so the Pine Hills area is as it was more than 5,000 years ago.

Here is a northern forest, with rugged hills, deep gorges and hogback ridges with steep drop-offs. Sandstone bluffs are covered in naturally occurring hemlocks, white pines and Canada yews, descendants of pre-glacier trees.

We arrived at Shades State Park a little before noon and proceeded to the parking lot for trail 10, which we then took for one-half mile to the Pine Hills entrance. Pine Hill’s 1.8-mile trail is wide and paved in smooth gravel.

We approached the first of two significant ridges, Turkey Backbone.

Here the white pines are descendants of the ancients, their DNA going back thousands of years from when much of Indiana was a forest of mixed hardwoods and evergreens.

After crossing Turkey Backbone, the trail descends through a hemlock grove and passes the former site of a woolen mill. Now, down in the gorge, the environment becomes very lush and tropical, and humid. Various ferns sprout from the bases of trees, and many types of fungi abound on both live and decaying trees. This is definitely not the Indiana we all know.

We waded Indian Creek, a 12-foot-wide shallow body of water that courses its way through this valley, a creek I recommend for wading by kids of all ages. Along the trail and creek are cardinal flowers, maple leaf viburnum, greater mullion and many plants I am unfamiliar with, including one with a cluster of white 2-inch trumpets flowers. Stunning, and memorable, it is a photographer’s paradise.

We climbed up another trail and came across a huge hemlock perched precariously on a pile of rectangular boulders and overhanging the creek below. Dave estimates the slow-growing 30-inch-diameter tree as being upwards of 800 years old.

We all passed over the Devil’s Backbone safely, a 6-foot-wide ridge with 100-foot drop-offs on each side, but this is no place for kids or people with a fear of heights.

As we began our return to the parking lot we came to a sheer wall of honeycombed sandstone, formed more than 300 million years ago.

It is unique both in its pocked appearance and the fact that we are so close to it.

I could go on and on about Pine Hills Nature Preserve, but it is best if you see it for yourself. If you can’t climb down into the valley for any reason, then simply stay on top of Turkey Backbone and gaze at the wonders below or travel a short distance down the substantial wooden walkway that enters the valley.

Bring bug spray if going into the valley, and leave the pooch home if you plan to cross Devil’s Backbone. It has that name for a reason.

Doug Skinner is a semiretired veterinarian.

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