The Proximity of Nature

So I’ve apparently slacked off pretty badly over the last couple weeks and for that I apologize. At the very least, though, I can assure you that we have been seeking adventure, even in our own home state.

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Ali and I are from Indiana. You may have heard of it. We’ve been in the news recently for the merciful blocking by the judiciary of a ridiculously overreaching abortion law passed by our fearless leader, Mike Pence, the butt of countless jokes and the hilarious but sad Periods for Pence movement, also perhaps the running-mate-to-be of Donald Trump, who falls more into the terrifying than hilarious category. That one sentence was full of politics, so I won’t make this post full of it too; from here on out, we’ll save the talk of Indiana for the cool things Ali and I have found in it.

Upon returning from Isle Royale near the end of June, we spent little time recuperating before heading back into the woods. The ferry back to the mainland was six hours, part of which was spent in a gale that illustrated Lake Superior’s fickle weather and reminded everyone of the Gordon Lightfoot song about the Edmond Fitzgerald which lies at the bottom of the lake, with much company. When we hit the mainland, a shortage of funds made me decide to make the drive on home without overnighting anywhere, so we reached Indianapolis somewhere in that dubious range of time that can be described as both Saturday night and Sunday morning. We were asleep shortly before dawn.

That day, understandably, was mostly given up for sleep. How wonderful it felt to be in real beds! For me, though, the relief was short-lived. It wasn’t a full twenty-four hours before that crawling impatience, that feeling we call wanderlust was back. The thought of going back to my corporate job appalled me. So I reached out to an old family friend, Joe, who spent several years as a trail dog in Montana, in an effort to reconcile the way I felt with my day-to-day life. Of course, such a meeting could not take place in a mundane place like a coffee shop or anywhere with a television (a device that is bound to depress me in record time) so we loaded up our kayaks and met by the Reservoir. The conversation itself I won’t detail here as it took place over several hours and meandered as much as Eagle Creek, but I will say that I will be acting on some of the ideas that he gave me and I felt much better about the world after being able to talk through the way I felt with someone who is as obsessed with the outdoors as I am. He did mention a solo fishing trip that he was leaving on the next day to a local park that I had never visited, Whitewater Memorial State Park, so I shamelessly invited myself.

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Views of Whitewater Lake

We set out the next morning. Ali and I beat him there by a couple hours and hung out at the playground, enjoying the sunshine. The park was about an hour and a half from our house, located just south of the small town of Centerville; another hour on I-70 would have landed us in Dayton, Ohio. The main feature of the park is its two lakes: one being its namesake, Whitewater, and the other being the larger Brookville Lake, spanning more than five thousand acres and the origin for much of the walleye in the state. The size is deceptive, especially from the boat launch within the park- most of its expanse is hidden behind a bridge, so it appears smaller than Whitewater Lake, but once you pass under the bridge it opens up. A neighborhood of houseboats, reminiscent of the lakes of the south, suddenly appears and then is swallowed up again after being passed by. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as we didn’t hit that lake until the second day. We fished the first day on Whitewater, but didn’t get anything worth eating- two small bluegill, two bass that were under the size limit, and several anticlimactic incidents with weeds. We headed back to the campsite after night fell, feasted on some delicious camp quesadillas, and Ali soon declared herself exhausted and went to bed.

The only light was that of the dying fire and the dusty strip of Milky Way peeking out through the trees above us. We could hear a bullfrog and an owl that seemed to be having a conversation; all else was quiet, except the rustling of prowling raccoons that were momentarily getting closer and closer.

A sudden, jarring cacophony broke the stillness. A pack of coyotes had kicked up somewhere across the lake. Once they finished greeting Orion- as there was no moon yet- the park returned to silence. The owl and the bullfrog had ceased their dialogue. A raccoon sat in the boat. Ali turned over in her sleeping bag in the tent.

We cracked another beer, and our gazes turned back up to the densely populated sky. Coming from a place where only a handful of the brightest stars are ever visible, I couldn’t help but be fascinated. I’ve always been jealous of Dark Sky communities, where light pollution is limited to be able to see the sky. We’re made of the stars, those windows straight into history, but in so many cities (including mine) we can’t even tell they’re up there.

Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to us, is 4.3 light years away. This means that when you look up to the sky, you are looking at light that has traveled for over four years to reach our eyes. The farthest discovered stars at this point are more like 13 billion light years, which  means that when we detect their photons in our highest powered telescopes we are looking into a window that opened only a short time after the Big Bang. Compared to that immensity of time and distance, the entirety of human history- even if we go back to the first emergence of hominids- is infinitesimal. And to me, that’s beautiful.

Some people have a need to feel big. I go to nature so that I can remember that I’m small.

The next day we went to the big lake, after an interlude of swimming at Whitewater. The sun beat down on us, and it wasn’t too long before we were looking for a way to quit baking on the boat. Somewhere past the houseboats, we tied off by the wooded shoreline and got back in the water. Ali swam, Joe fished, and I waded around picking up fragments of quartz and fossils along the rocky shore. Of those famous walleye, we saw none, but it didn’t matter. I saw the Milky Way, closer to home than ever before- to me, that alone is worth a return visit.

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Brookville Lake

After that was the return to the corporate job. It was uneventful, except for the inevitable catching up, until a customer happened to mention caving to me. I was intrigued, especially when she told me about a local group that plans monthly trips to different locations throughout the state. Kentucky, our neighbor to the south, is well known for its karst landscape- Indiana, however, is also built on limestone, and has its own formations that can be pretty outstanding. I knew little of this. I’d heard of Marengo Cave, and once as a child went spelunking with a group somewhere nearby, but that was the limit of my knowledge.

So this past Wednesday, Ali and I headed down to their monthly meeting at the beautiful War Memorial building downtown. It was a treat in itself to see the building after hours, with the lights dimmed and our footsteps echoing on the highly polished floor. Much of the meeting was horribly boring for Ali, which I will remember for next time- club business was the majority of it, but there were a few moments where we could envision why we were there. The meeting started with introductions, where everyone was to give their name, hometown, and any good caving they’d done over the last month. Some attendees were newbies like us. But one, a longtime member, spoke of his return to a certain cave to continue mapping it and to work on discovering more of it.

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Indianapolis War Memorial

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Streetlight by Monument Circle, downtown Indianapolis

Why would that stick out to me? Because it’s new. Unexplored. It’s a place that may not have ever harbored a human footprint. As someone who grew up obsessed with exploration, and thereafter crushingly disappointed to learn that much of the world has been mapped, this was huge. To learn that the unexplored could be found so close to home affected me deeply, and I am very excited about the idea of exploring with them on the future.

You may have realized by now that I have very little interest in resort vacations or spa packages. Some pampering can be fun sometimes, sure. But for me, a day spent exploring- whether above ground or below- is so much more rewarding. This weekend, I was able to do a little of both.

Friday night after work, Ali and I headed out to McCormick’s Creek State Park to meet up with some friends for a weekend of camping. This was the first state park in Indiana, dedicated during the state’s Centennial Celebration in 1916, followed quickly by another gorgeous park, Turkey Run. Although I’ve visited Turkey Run several times, somehow I had always managed to overlook McCormick’s Creek, and after this weekend I can understand how it was the first, boasting a forest comprised mostly of maple and beech with sporadic pine and shagbark hickory, a cascading waterfall, and a cave open for anyone curious enough to explore its tight passages. We arrived too late to do anything Friday night except join the campfire- we barely made it in before the gate closed for the night at 11 pm- but with some advance planning and friends kind enough to go ahead and set up our tents we didn’t lose any time trying to set up in the dark.

The soft crackle of the dying fire was intoxicating, occasionally accompanied by the whisper of the trees. The break in the green canopy above me formed the shape of an arrowhead, and I sat back in my chair watching the stars gliding across the sky toward the leaves while the fireflies paid homage below. On the way out to the park that evening, they appeared like shooting stars along the roadside; here, they couldn’t compare to their older, larger cousins. I was the last one by the fire that evening. The Milky Way didn’t make an appearance but the Little Dipper kept me company until finally I dragged myself reluctantly to bed and the crickets and frogs sang me to sleep.

We spent Saturday exploring with the kids, first heading up Trail 5 toward Wolf Cave. There were three young children total, one being slightly older than Ali, the other a little younger, and the great advantage of having multiple kids on the trail was that we were nearly back to the campsite that afternoon before they realized we were hiking. The cave wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned, although it shouldn’t have necessarily been unexpected- the giant caverns that I’d hoped for would be better found at Mammoth Cave, and it took some looking to realize that the cave extended beyond the low overhang apparent from the outside. I entered the cave, but only went maybe twenty feet into the serpentine passage before turning back- I didn’t have the proper equipment to be comfortable going any farther, namely a hard hat and a headlamp, nor any light sources handy except for my phone. At the same time, the kids were trying to follow me in, equally unprepared, so it was time to end the cave exploration for the day; on down the trail, though, we found the more spectacular cave exit, amid beautiful natural bridges, and were all able to explore that area without leaving the light of the sun.

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Wolf Cave

Later found us at the waterfall, the kids in swimsuits, enjoying the water alongside the other park patrons. I did prefer the solitude we found at Whitewater. Perhaps on the weekend it would be busy as well, but there on a Tuesday night we had an entire loop to ourselves, while at Mccormick’s Creek we had to return to the same locations again early Sunday morning to get pictures that weren’t full of people.

It’s easy to understand the popularity of McCormick’s Creek with the scenery that it offers. But while it conquered the day, Whitewater, with its fantastic views of the night sky, was the clear winner of the evening. Either way, the fact that both locations were so close to home made for two wonderful mini-trips that we would happily repeat, time and time again.

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