It’s funny, growing up in northern Indiana, I never knew much about the southern half of our state. My experiences in nature were pretty much limited to a small stretch of woods by the Eel River near Ijamsville/Laketon, with the occasional excursion to Salamonie State Forest. Obviously I’ve expanded since then, but I’m still finding new places to explore. On the surface, Indiana seems boring compared to the states out west with all their mountains and national parks. But southern Indiana has a whole different vibe than the northern half. Hoosier National Forest, Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, caves, waterfalls, underground rivers, lakes, fossil beds, long distance trails, etc. My family’s normal forest adventures have been in the form of day hikes while camping in official campgrounds with all the amenities like electricity and showers. But there is only so much of nature you can experience that way, to fully immerse yourself, you have to go into nature…and stay there.
The first weekend of May, we went on our second backpacking trip of the year. Of ever, actually. Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area is 13,000 acres of Hoosier National Forest, on the southern shore of Monroe Lake in Brown and Monroe Counties. The wilderness area is full of rolling hills and deep ravines, ruins of old homesteads, and several settler cemeteries dating into the early 1800s. Having the “wilderness” designation means nothing motorized is allowed into the area. Even trail maintenance is done with horse and buggy. The area was logged in the early 1900s, so there are very few old growth trees. Most of the official trails follow old settler road beds. But half the fun of exploring national forests is going off trail, and that we did.
We drove east on Tower Ridge Road, a narrow gravel forest service road, to the third of three parking areas for the wilderness, at Hickory Ridge Fire Tower. From here, we put on our packs and hiked out on Axsom Branch Trail, winding through mostly flat land until a series of switchbacks going down from the ridge and to the trail’s namesake, Axsom Branch creek. From here, we left the main trail and followed a narrow foot path that followed the creek, flowing toward the lake. On each side of the foot path, wherever you looked, spring wildflowers were abundant. Akira the trail dog lead the way, but she was extremely appreciative of having the creek to cool off in. As we approached the end of the creek where it spills into a lagoon, the ruins of an old stone house came into view. After a brief exploration, we continued on the trail, now on the edge of the lagoon. The lake was about three feet above normal level, so the trail was definitely soft and muddy in spots. As we rounded a spot on the trail, a large stone campfire ring greeted us. The trail continued down and into a flooded area, effectively ending the foot path. So we set up camp, which appeared to be close to an “official” campsite listed on our forest service map, by the stone campfire ring with a great view of the lake. Tent up, two hammocks hung, Akira tied out lakeside, we couldn’t really ask for more. We took a break, but it was only 3:30 in the afternoon, to early to settle in. Which meant…off trail adventure time!
Following my topo map, we hiked up the hill behind our camp and slowly made our way over fallen trees, thickets, and thorny vines. There was no evidence of any kind of human activity along this ridge for a very long time, really adding to the feeling of being out in the wilderness. But I did underestimate just how far we had to go to find what I was looking for, an old cemetery and frog pond, often referred to as “Camp Peeper.” As the ridge we were on widened out, I admit I got a little worried on finding my destination, so I pulled out my phone which had just enough signal to pull up a map and get our gps coordinates. That made it easy! Onto the old Terrill Cemetery we went, and then Terrill Pond. Kaden made friends with some silk worms, Akira scared frogs back into the pond, it made the long hike worth it. Except, we still had to hike all the way back… My step counter said we did nearly 22,000 steps for the day, which equates to nearly 9 miles.
Back at camp around 7pm, we got a campfire going, fired up the stove, and ate a hearty meal of Ramen noodles. The sunset over the lake was gorgeous, the sounds of crickets and frogs enveloping. We all slept very well. Next morning, we relaxed around the campfire, watched a bald eagle hunt over the lake, and finally tore down camp for the hike back. On the way back, we passed a family on horseback, which had a tense moment when one of the horses reared up at the site of Akira. Once back to the parking area, I went up the fire tower to an amazing view over the forest. Though tiring, it was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait to go back.