When Doug Baird encounters visitors to Brown County State Park, they react strongly.
“Wow! What a place” is one of the comments the property manager of Indiana’s largest state park hears.
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Brown County State Park is 15,776 acres big and attracts more than 1.3 million visitors to the area near Nashville. In what is often viewed as primarily an urban state, the largest of Indiana’s 24 state parks is a nature escape, a respite from Interstate highways, a home for forest and wildlife nestled into a quiet corner of the Hoosier State.
“Most people are impressed with the scenery,” Baird said. “We’ve got quite the variety.”
There are hills and valleys, trees that stretch beyond the horizon, two lakes regularly fished and trails that invite parents with small children to explore.
Brown County may not offer adventure on the scale of backcountry confrontations with killer animals or 14,000-foot-tall mountains like the Rockies, but in the relatively flat Midwest, there is enough nature to chew, enough outdoors to sate most appetites for a day trip or three.
In the time of coronavirus, when even the air people breathe is under suspicion, the more room Americans have to circulate away from other Americans and to appreciate a soothing experience is welcome.
If there is an activity where a mask is not required, it is bound to score points with masses who have been quarantined, restricted and just want something to do in a natural environment.
“You never get tired of looking at the scenery,” said Baird, who looks at it every day on the job.
Birds of all feathers
It was a recent peaceful morning at the entrance to Brown County State Park off State Road 46. The North Gatehouse covered bridge funneled traffic to a slower pace as bicycle riders mingled with cars approaching a ranger station.
The daily entrance fee for a carload of visitors adorned with an Indiana license plate is $7. The cost is $9 for an out-of-state driver.
The heat had not yet reached its peak on a sunny day under a blue sky, and the lushness of the grounds emphasized the color green on the landscape, a blossoming after spring rains.
Although this is not the right time, Brown County is most famous for luring visitors in autumn when trees’ leaves begin turning yellow and orange. October, give or take a few weeks, is its New England phase.
The North Lookout resembles an overgrown backyard tree fort with sturdy steps leading upward to provide distant views. One family of five was hiking the route, shortly ending a Monday-Thursday vacation.
These type of short upward hikes may wear out senior citizens, but they do not even dent the energy of enthusiastic kids.
Kenneleigh Boyce, 8, had a new set of binoculars dangling around her neck. She was on the lookout for anything that flew. At the family’s rental cabin, on their sojourn from Indianapolis, she had already spied a couple of colorful birds.
“Yesterday, I saw a cardinal and a blue jay,” she announced.
Mom Katie Boyce encouraged such James Audubon activity.
“Pretty cool, huh?” she said to Kenneleigh.
The North Lookout owes its sturdiness to hardy wood, but that same wood seems to have invited the carving of initials from all 1.3 million annual visitors who just had to leave proof they had been there.
Although it may have appeared that way, it was a good thing for the future of the structure’s stability that not every single person who passed that way since the park opened in 1929 had the same game plan.
Abe Martin or Abe Lincoln?
Brown County is a park with a sense of humor.
While it opened in 1929, it was dedicated to the memory of Frank McKinney “Kin” Hubbard in 1932. A newspaper humor writer and sketch artist, Hubbard was born in 1868 and produced work for the old Indianapolis News starting in 1891 and then other outfits.
The most famous landmark building in Brown County State Park is the Abe Martin Lodge. It is the centerpiece of dining and houses a gift shop. Made of stone and timber found in the park, it is likely that 99% of the people who visit believe the building is named after some famous local personage of the past, which is true in a sense.
Abe Martin was not a real person, but a Hubbard regular in his drawings, more of a cartoon fellow with homespun humor. There is an explanation, as well as a drawing of Abe, attached to a stand in front of the lodge.
The fictional Abe was known for his think-it-over sayings, one of which went like this: “Nobuddy can talk as interstin’ as th’ feller that’s not hampered by facts er information.” Also: “Now an’ then, an innocent man is sent t’ th’ legislature.”
Over the decades, the memory of creator Kin Hubbard has faded, and the public’s connection to Abe Martin has also diminished. People get confused about who he was.
“A lot of people think it’s Abraham Lincoln Martin Lodge,” Baird said.
That other Abe, the 16th president of the United States, was rarely as pithy as Abe Martin.
Home to wildlife
In addition to those teasing inflections brought to the populace by Abe Martin, Brown County is in the much more serious business of protecting and presenting nature in that engulfing scenery offering cover for wildlife.
The park is home to some bobcats, but they are reclusive.
“Very rarely seen,” Baird said. “Deer, you’ll see very regularly.”
Deer have proliferated, and periodically, the park conducts culling hunts every two years to keep the population in check so staying within the boundaries still offers enough food to spread around.
It is wise to keep to the speed limit in the park since going any bend, or climbing up any hill, a driver may confront a string of horses.
Clop, clop, clop, the horses could be heard coming through trees with low-hanging leaves that shielded views. No one bumped into a tree.
Horseback riding is a regular activity, although more for casual sightseeing than for backcountry galloping. Going 10 mph seems to be about the limit. Citizen riders are not encouraged to race across the countryside, even if the bank robbers are getting away.
One family of seven, two from Columbus and five visitors from afar, took a morning ride. At a time when many restaurants had limits on seating and many museums and the like were closed or offered only limited access because of the COVID-19 pandemic, an hourlong horseback riding turned into a hit.
“This is beautiful,” said Josh Glaser, 48. “We’re going to hike and picnic, too. Trotting is as much as we got. It’s a good thing to do with your family.”
A nondemanding activity for the family.
Brown County State Park is not the place to catch large coho salmon, but Ogle Lake, 17 acres, and Strahl Lake, 7 acres, are stocked with opportunity.
Bass, bluegill, crappie and channel catfish can be picked off with determination and patience.
An easy spot for kids to take a few steps into the water and cast is right by the Strahl parking lot, and one family staked it out. Layla Simmons was ankle deep for her fishing, and eventually, her perseverance paid off when she hooked a kid-sized fish.
Korey Henderson, 48, an Indiana firefighter, said he has been visiting Brown County State Park since he was a teenager. He, his wife and some friends were on a couple-day retreat, although he was the only one in the group fishing that day.
Henderson stood on a boardwalk next to Ogle Lake casting bait and hoping to fool a fish into biting. Not many were interested in his worms, though they took grabs frequently enough to keep him interested.
Every time Henderson thought of walking away, a cooperative fish swimming near the surface took a stab at one of his worms.
“As long as you’re getting a bite once in a while,” he said.
Once in a while is an indefinite unit of time, and it depends on an individual’s patience.
“Hey, I got one!” Henderson suddenly shouted.
He reeled and with a flick of the wrist a bluegill broke the surface, then dangled in the air. At first glance, the fish appeared to be just 4 inches long. When Henderson plucked it off the hook, it seemed to grow to 6 inches.
As Henderson smiled and held the fish out straight, it seemed to grow before observers’ very eyes. Just like Pinocchio’s nose, it was a phenomenon that has been known to occur with fish in the wild.