For someone who is afraid of heights, the Hickory Ridge fire tower in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness area of the Hoosier National Forest represents a formidable foe. According to the US Forest Service’s website, the spindly, steel structure stands 110 feet tall, and its “123 metal steps” gradually snake upwards to meet a “7 foot square cab.”
Lined on all sides by open-air windows, the cab affords visitors with spectacular 360 degree views of an undulating, seemingly endless forest canopy. (The cab itself is a sight to be seen: its interior currently sports a motley of colors–bright reds, yellows, and purples–as well as hastily-scrawled messages of love (BS + KA), triumph (we made it!), and rebellion (insert your favorite expletive here). By next Memorial Day weekend, this decorating scheme no doubt will have been replaced by another color palette and fresh batch of interesting-to-read graffiti.)
Since the views are breathtaking (and pretty special), I never resist an opportunity to summit the tower, despite what, for me, usually turns out to be a sweat-inducing, heart-palpitating, knee-shaking climb. This Memorial Day was no different, and luckily, my dad was with me; his enthusiasm (for any adventure, really) bolstered my confidence and helped me to decide, once again, to ascend the tower. (We did, however, have different strategies: I prefer to climb to the cab slowly but without any breaks. The less I acknowledge that I’m gaining altitude the more likely I will be to reach the cab without a panic attack! My dad preferred a more easy-does-it approach, as he paused on every landing to take in the sights.)
Against the backdrop of a blue, cloudless sky and the increasingly yellow light of the waning day, the views from the tower were some of the best I’ve experienced. Luckily, I had my camera, and the next day, I shared some of those pictures with the US Forest Service via twitter (@forestservice) for their weekly #ForestFriday event: “Looking for your Memorial Day wknd National Forest photos. Post’em, tweet with #ForestFriday – it might be on our website!”
To my pleasant surprise, one of my photos did make it onto the US Forest Service’s homepage. (See the banner at the top of the page, which is marked “Twitter Follower Photo.”) Here’s the screen shot:
And, so, yes, there is wilderness (or, at least a “wilderness area”) in Indiana, and what’s more remarkable is how close the Hoosier National Forest and “the Deam” are to the city of Bloomington, which is home to a bustling Big Ten university and is a thriving town in its own right.
In fact, the person tweeting for the Forest Service offered this very observation (tongue-in-cheek, of course!) in response to my photo submission. My dad–my tower-climbing companion–also made a similar remark during our visit, except unlike the Forest Service tweeter, he was in genuine awe of my proximity to a federally-designated wilderness area. (As someone who enjoys nature, hiking, and backpacking, I kind of forget how lucky I am in this respect!)
Being an inquisitive person, my dad had plenty of questions for me about the Hoosier National Forest and the Deam, particularly in regards to their history. How did the Hoosier National Forest and the Deam Wilderness–as federally controlled areas–come to be?
The answers provide an interesting window into Depression-era history and, specifically, the Civilian Conservation Corps work in Indiana, which you can read more about here. In fact, the Hickory Ridge fire tower is, like the forest it overlooks, a testament to that past.
Recently, Indiana University’s Lilly Library acquired a collection of archival material about the Deam Wilderness, which I suspect would provide some answers to my dad’s questions, as well. The materials were collected by Claude Ferguson and donated to the Lilly by the Indiana Forest Alliance, and in April, a special event was held at the library to mark the official public unveiling of the Deam Wilderness papers. I didn’t attend the celebration, but perhaps, soon, I’ll get a chance to comb through the files myself and post some of what I’ve gleaned. In the meantime, if you’re on Indiana University’s campus and are interested in looking at this collection, go right ahead: the Lilly library and its reading room are open to the public.