By Lisa Trigg
Terre Haute Tribune-Star
MARSHALL, Ind. (AP) — Trekking across snow-covered trails along the banks of Sugar Creek, a group of hikers bundled in boots and warm coats looked to the skies above Turkey Run State Park, hoping to catch sight of the eagles that nest nearby.
“Several bald eagles stay along our river in the winter,” interpretive naturalist Amber Schlaughterbeck told the group of 20-plus hikers as they stepped out on a First Day Hike in search of America’s national bird.
With the temperatures in the 20s, the hike on the first day of 2013 was a healthy way to start the new year, and a chance to get outside, exercise, enjoy nature and connect with family and friends. It was a two-hour trek past hemlock groves, old-growth walnuts and sycamores, walking in the shadows of sandstone and pioneer history.
The natural beauty of Indiana’s second oldest state park prompted frequent stops and some discussion about local history.
The trek started at the state park’s nature center and continued along the southern banks of Sugar Creek to the eastern edge of the park near the Narrows Covered Bridge. Schlaughterbeck — a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College — explained the geologic history throughout the park. About 225 million years ago, the Michigan River flooded the area, bringing rock and sand that was compacted and became the sandstone cliffs visible today.
The Wisconsin Glacier that covered the area about 10,000 years ago carved the park’s creek and canyons as the glacier melted.
Flooding and depositing of sand and rock continues in current times, as evidenced by the disappearance of the lower three of the main trail’s 70 steps that descend into the Rocky Hollow Falls Canyon Nature Preserve.
Along the southern bank of the creek, several huge black walnut trees rise like thick sentinels with gnarled bark and high branches carrying a remnant of last summer’s foliage. Some of the trees could be 200 to 300 years old, Schlaughterbeck told the Tribune-Star (http://bit.ly/ViPH6k ).
Pileated woodpeckers sought meals in the tall sycamore trees. Animal tracks mixed with boot treads on the snowy trails. Some hollowed out trees showed prior use as animal shelters. And a kingfisher skimmed the top of the creek water.
Among those stopping for a break at the Narrows Covered Bridge were Mike and Kathy Miller, natives of West Terre Haute who are now retired educators.
The Millers had intended to be in Colorado to start the new year, but the winter weather changed their flight plans. Instead, the couple joined the First Day Hike after reading about it in the Tribune-Star.
Kathy likened the hike to a past field trip onto the Wabash River for some of her students in human development.
“We took them out on the river in airboats, and they got a new perspective of it,” she said.
Mike agreed it was good to get the students out of their comfort zones.
“I’ve told them that West Terre Haute is not the hub of the universe,” Mike said laughing. For that reason, the couple organized a trip to Alaska for nine high school seniors in 2011 to get a look at the world away from home.
Tuesday’s hike was also about getting out of their comfort zone. The Millers said they had not been to Turkey Run State Park for about 35 years, and they were looking forward to an eagle sighting.
The hike continued to the historic Lusk Home, built by Salmon and Mary Lusk in 1841 to replace the cabin they built when they arrived on Sugar Creek in 1823. While only the house remains of the original homestead, along with a covered bridge built in 1882, the Lusk family also founded a mill, tavern and general store to bring commerce to the remote area of Parke County.
Still looking overhead, the group saw no sign of eagles, but did pass a protected bat habitat.
The Lusk family coal mine was founded in the late 1800s and was in operation until the 1920. The entrance to the mine was gated in August 2000, both to protect the bats that moved into the dank, dark abandoned mine, and to keep curious humans from harm.
The hike continued along marked trails, including several steps and some rugged rocks, before trekking along the north bank of the creek and returning to the suspension bridge near the starting point of the hike.
“Well, we didn’t see any eagles,” Schlaughterbeck said about two hours after the hike began, “but if you go west to Sunset Point and sit there and wait, that’s usually where I see them.”
The area around the park has seven nests and a roosting site, she said, and those nests will be featured in the Eagles In Flight Weekend set for Feb. 1-3 at Turkey Run State Park.
That sixth annual celebration of eagles will also feature live eagle, hawk and owl programs, as well as a silent auction, tours and balloon rides.
Tuesday’s First Day Hike was part of a nationwide celebration of state park systems. First Day Hikes originated more than 20 years ago at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, Mass., and this is the first year that all 50 state park systems sponsored the program. Indiana had hikes at 20 state park and lake properties on Tuesday.
For more information about Turkey Run State Park and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, go online to www.state.in.us/dnr.
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com