Wildlife refuge offers peace to visitors during virus pandemic

By Lew Freedman

There are reasons we congregate in these hot spots — to worship beauty and to feel its effects light up the electrolytes in the bloodstream.” — Frances Mayes, writer

There is a lot of room to breathe in Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, where the trees are tall, the water alluring, the ducks and geese call and the fish are not always easily fooled.

Never has 7.802 acres of public land seemed so inviting, the wide-open spaces on the outskirts of Seymour an oasis offering freedom.

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American society has been mostly locked down. No work or school for most. Stores shuttered. Orders to stay away from just about everyone everywhere except the grocery store because of an insidious and dangerous virus infecting hundreds of thousands.

As the country was being hemmed in Sunday morning, Steve Deweese and his daughter, Olivia, stood on the bank of Richart Lake in bright sunshine, casting light tackle into the rippling water as a gaggle of geese swam past.

“We probably were reaching the point where going stir crazy was taking hold,” Steve said. “You’ve got to keep mentally active and pause. It’s not the end of the world.”

Actually, COVID-19, the coronavirus, has been the end of the world for many, its poison killing more than 45,000 people worldwide so far. But those who are playing dodgeball with the disease, trying to elude its spread, are coping with cabin fever, homes becoming more prison-like than havens after days or weeks pass.

“We’re trying to be respectful of the social distancing,” Steve said. “You can’t be more socially distancing than being in the wilderness.”

Steve and Olivia, 12, staked out a fishing spot with no one else nearby. Anyone wishing to fish within the acceptable 6 feet would have been guilty of social crowding, even in less hazardous times.

Deweese, 42, who is changing jobs in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, endorsed the government recommendations, measuring elbow room at 6 feet over.

The aim was to catch bluegill or crappie or anything else that surfaced, but Olivia did not aspire to take any brand home to cook.

“I like to see the pretty fish,” she said. “I like to look at them and put them back.”

”Fishing is much less about the fishing and much more about the time alone with your kid, away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday.” — Dan Pearce, author

June 6 is Muscatatuck’s Take a Kid Fishing Day. Unlike the Deweese twosome, this is a gathering, surely of more than 10 people, so its scheduled date is in jeopardy unless the United States gets well in a hurry.

Too far out to cancel as April dawns, near enough to worry about, depending.

Right now, the refuge is open to the public, the sign on U.S. 50 welcoming, but the visitors center and bookstore are closed, and so are the restrooms. The latter could be a governor on the length of current visits. Or might lead to humans following the direction of what bears do in the woods.

A notice on the refuge’s website reads: “During the current public health emergency, whenever possible, outdoor recreation sites at national wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries will remain open to the public.”

President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge in Florida in 1903, and now, there more than 600 refuges and wetland set-asides across the country, totaling about 150 million acres.

The National Wildlife Refuge System attracts 50 million visitors a year for outdoor pursuits with Muscatatuck’s attendance hovering around 172,000 annually, said Park Ranger Donna Stanley.

“The refuge is a great place to be now,” she said. “We like to have people using the refuge.”

Although no one was seen encroaching on the 6-foot social distancing guidelines Sunday except for members of the same families, some refuge officials at other times recently have witnessed what they believe were violations of the ground rules.

“We were concerned people were not doing social distancing,” Stanley said.

Refuge manager Alejandro Galvan said while Muscatatuck remains open for visitation, the public should still be focused on good hygiene and keeping away from others.

“If a parking lot is full when you visit, please do not stop,” he said.

The outdoors can “help relieve stress,” but visitors should adhere to Centers for Disease Control recommendations, he said.

James Hibbs, 41, was fishing solo at Stanfield Lake. There were other anglers within visual connection but not germ-spreading distance.

Hibbs said he is a regular at the refuge, a place he said he loves, but staying home all of the time for protection against the virus was becoming claustrophobic.

“To get away from the house,” Hibbs said of inhaling the outdoors on a mild, though windy day. “Especially with the pandemic.”

He caught one largemouth bass, he said, shortly after tossing his line out, but the rippling waters had been silent since. Hibbs said this body of water is often productive, and he recalled previously catching “four or five, bang, bang, bang.”

Hibbs possessed that eternal fisherman’s optimism promising an aggressive bite breaking out any minute, tempered by a certain type of fatalism and faint satisfaction.

“I ain’t got skunked today,” he proclaimed.

Chase Browning greeted a stranger with an elbow bump rather than a handshake, the new normal. Browning, who fishes at Muscatatuck a few times a month, made kids fishing day come early for his nephew, Jonah Pack, 10, accompanied by Browning’s uncle, Matt Pack. The trio anchored a prime fishing location on Stanfield at the end of the fishing dock.

It was a vulnerable spot this day, though, because of the wind gusts, one of which lifted a gray plastic bag containing the bait worms and swept it into the water. The only reason this was not a bye-bye moment for the essential element of equipment was wind direction. Instead of blowing the bag out to sea, basically, the breeze blew the bag toward a sheltered area closer to shore.

Demonstrating the expertise he hoped would pay off in a large haul of fish (but had not yet), Browning cast and hooked the bag, steadily reeling it back to the dock without the contents slipping out. It was a clutch catch.

Browning turned his attention back to enticing smallmouth bass and bluegill to actually chomp on those worms.

”I look around you at the vastness and greatness of the natural world. Some stop. Others need binoculars to tie their shoelaces.” — Fennel Hudson, author

The speed limit is 20 mph in Muscatatuck, and since the roads are dirt and gravel after a short asphalt entrance stretch, most automobiles will give thanks.

While an auto tour is mapped out, there are numerous hiking trails in the refuge, and cars were parked at the head of many of them, the owners vanished into the wilderness, blending with the forest, counting eagles or simply out for the walk.

Bill Kendrick, 62, is one of those people who help others turn their binoculars in directions for views beyond their shoelaces. He was walking a hefty dog named Nukilik he was fostering. In Inuit, Nukilik means “strong,” and this guy appeared strong enough to pull a sled in the Arctic.

Kendrick, who lives not far from the refuge entrance, has been a longtime volunteer for a variety of activities and was even wearing a green souvenir baseball cap with yellow lettering advertising one of those days.

“It’s just beautiful,” Kendrick said of his attraction to Muscatatuck.

Kendrick, who works for Cummins, was on business in North Carolina in 2001 when terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York and other targets and so much of the country froze. But he views this virus impact as more widespread.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

Dan Korexl of New Albany was driving his family of five between trailheads in Muscatatuck Sunday, taking hikes amounting to about 3 miles. One stop was at Sandhill Ponds.

“They’re all short,” he said.

Korexl embarks on these type of outings regularly. The week before, the clan visited Charlestown State Park in Clark County. There was much more solitude at Muscatatuck.

“I was surprised at the busyness (in Charlestown) for this time of year,” Korexl said.

The volume did not match the crowds resisting government advisories by flooding Florida beaches, but it was probably still more people together than any other place except a Walmart right now.

”I love fishing. You put that line in the water and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.” — Robert Altman, film producer

Steve Deweese can identify with that comment. Fishing, being out in nature, is special to him, even if this time, he used the virus as an excuse to flee the house and steer to Mustatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s one of my favorite spots to go, even when it’s not a pandemic,” he said.