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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Nature Preserve

It’s fun to explore, but sometimes it takes an event to get you started. I have driven by this nature preserve several times and never really noticed it, but it was on the schedule of the Wildwalkers, a hiking group connected with the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation.

On the second and fourth Fridays of each month, anyone interested is invited to hike with the group at a nature preserve or park in Northeast Indiana or even occasionally in Ohio. A schedule is published annually and each hike takes place at 8:30 a.m. and lasts about an hour and a half, after which we all go to a local restaurant for brunch.

I’ve gone on several of these hikes over the past two years, especially when they are in our area. Earlier this spring they hiked Pine Knob and last year they visited Maple Wood. Most of the sites are Acres Land Trust sites or Nature Conservancy sites. So when I saw that this preserve was on the schedule I made sure I was available that day to hike.

Friday was a cool day with lots of sunshine and a very pleasant day to hike. Near the parking lot is a sign-in box, just to show who visits the nature preserves. Soon you find a board walk, because this area can be quite wet, but with the dry weather we’ve had over the last month wet feet were not a concern.

This nature preserve was acquired in 2004 by Acres Land Trust, and it protects an area of the Pigeon River. It’s a small property, only 41 acres and with only a 1.1 mile trail, but it’s quite interesting.

There is a wide variety of trees in this preserve. Besides the usual oaks, maple, and sycamore there was also an abundance of pawpaw trees. Pawpaws are a temperate member of a tropical tree family, and are native to North America. Pawpaw fruits are very edible, with a taste something like a mango. Thomas Jefferson was a fan of the pawpaw and sent some seeds to friends in France, and Lewis and Clark ate pawpaws on their expedition west. Now research is being done in several universities to investigate the possibility of growing pawpaws commercially.

Part of the preserve has an ox-bow that is usually wet, but was dry while we were there. An oxbow is a bend in a river that gets cut off after a flood as the water seeks a more direct path to its outlet. There are lots of oxbows in the flood plains of the Mississippi. According to the information in the Acres preserve guide, the oxbow here is often used by wood ducks for feeding, breeding, and raising their young.

In woods, you are going to find dead trees as well as living trees, and the dead trees are used by many birds and insects, and eventually they become part of the soil. Helping them make that transition are fungi. We saw a lot of turkey tail mushrooms during our hike.

We also found an all black caterpillar, munching on a leaf. I’m no caterpillar expert, and the closest thing I could find in any book or on the Internet was a Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar. While researching I did find directions on how to keep a caterpillar over winter so you can watch it build its cocoon in the spring and emerge as a moth. I didn’t keep the one we found, though, so that experiment will have to wait.

Another find was the fruit of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit. I enjoy seeing the flower in the spring, but I only recently became aware that they have bright red berries that grow on a stalk under the leaf in the fall. We also found some red berries that we thought might be on a spicebush, but since no one had an identification book just then, we weren’t able to definitely identify it.

The next time you drive down S.R. 120 west of Howe, look for this preserve just before you cross the Pigeon River. It’s worth a visit!