Fall hike

A trail at the Tom and Jane Dustin, Robert C. and Rosella C. Johnson and Whitehurst Nature Preserves on Chapman Road in Allen County leads to this view from a bluff high above Cedar Creek.

Nearly 40 years ago, I visited the rustic home of Tom and Jane Dustin on a cliff high above Cedar Creek in northern Allen County.

I interviewed them about their efforts — ultimately successful — to have the lower stretch of Cedar Creek designated as Indiana’s first Natural, Scenic and Recreational River.

While there, I became entranced by the view. I never knew such landscapes existed in northeast Indiana.

How could I have known? The area known as Cedar Canyons was inaccessible to anyone except the private owners of its banks.

When the Dustins died, they left their property to ACRES Land Trust, which now uses their home as its headquarters and their land as a nature preserve.

Founded in 1960 by 12 environmentalists including the Dustins, ACRES today owns 52 preserves in the tri-state area. Most are open for public use, free of charge, daily from dawn to dusk.

Twelve preserves in Allen County top the list, with eight in Steuben County, six in Noble, four in LaGrange County, two in DeKalb and one in Whitley.

I’ve always wanted to return to the Dustin property, and I finally got around to it last week. Taking advantage of two perfect fall afternoons — cool, sunny and splashed with autumn colors — I also visited three other ACRES nature preserves within a short drive of my home.

The trail at the Tom and Jane Dustin, Robert C. and Rosella C. Johnson and Whitehurst Nature Preserves begins at a stone parking lot off Chapman Road, about six miles south of Garrett.

You could follow either of two trails, but take the one on the right that heads west. It travels for a half-mile through grasslands, leading into dense woods, until it arrives at overlooks towering a reported 80 feet above the creek. Flowing around a 90-degree bend with trees on all sides, the stream must look just as the native Miami people saw it more than two centuries ago.

A mile or so to the southeast, ACRES’ Vandolah Nature Preserve provides another view of the creek that was not accessible until the site’s acquisition in 1989. It lies inconspicuously off Vandolah Road, just east of its I-69 underpass.

Heading out on the trail, a visitor might wonder why this is a nature hike. The path emerges from the trees and travels just yards from the droning semis traveling on the interstate highway.

If you’ve crossed the bridge over Cedar Creek on I-69, you might have wondered what lies down there, far below the roadway. The Vandolah trail will show you.

Returning to the forest, the path leads to a bluff even taller than the ones in the Dustin preserve, with the creek flowing slowly below. Continuing on, the trail heads up a steep incline that made me think I was climbing in Colorado. If you’re not game for that, you can return the way you came. The steeper portion of the trail wraps around a deep ravine that looks like something in the Appalachians and then offers another view of the creek.

To get down to creek level, you can visit the James P. Covell Nature Preserve just south of Auburn, acquired by ACRES in 2014. Its trail runs for a half-mile along the west bank or Cedar Creek, where it’s hard to remember that a bustling city and one of the Midwest’s busiest railroads are just a short distance away.

Cedar Creek runs through the center of my home city of Auburn, where it can be enjoyed best in Eckhart Park and the newer Greenhurst Commons, but they can’t match the solitude or the unspoiled views found at the ACRES preserves.

With my creek fascination satisfied, I set out for two more ACRES preserves I’d been meaning to visit. The Deterling Nature Preserve on the northeast side of Kendallville lies just a short stroll from my late mother’s home, but I never took the time to hike it until now. When I learned on ACRES’ website that it will close to visitors on Dec. 31 for upgrades, I felt a sense of urgency.

The Deterling trail starts just steps away from U.S. 6, but soon leaves the busy highway behind. A wide path through the woods leads to the reward I expected — a serene view of Round Lake with a bench where you can stop for contemplation.

I personally contemplated the fact that my grandfather owned prime land on the opposite shore in the years just before I was born, but sold it because my grandmother didn’t want to move out of town. If only she’d learned how to drive.

Before heading back to the parking lot at Deterling, I tried a side trail that leads off to the west. There’s no water on this route, but it’s a pleasant walk on a narrower, more typical trail over gentle hills.

A short drive to the northeast makes it easy to visit the preserve known as Lonidaw on Allen Chapel Road, named for the wife of Potowatomi Chief Simon Pokagon. Her name translates to “Spirit Queen of the Woods.”

Lonidaw’s path rolls between towering trees to a brook that flows into Round Lake, which is visible in the distance, although the preserve does not reach the shore. The source of the stream is Little Whitford, a five-acre kettle lake that borders the preserve. I grew up only a couple of miles away and never knew it was there.

At times in Lonidaw, you might wonder if you’re still on the trail, but clean saw cuts through fallen trees give clues that ACRES is showing you the way.

When I returned home, I did one more thing I’d been intending to do for a long time: I went online and became a member of ACRES. The modest annual donation was a small price to pay for two afternoons enjoying the nature of northeast Indiana. And I still have 47 more preserves to experience.

Dave Kurtz at dkurtz@kpcmedia.com.

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