Indiana is a tough place to be a swamp. Historically, fertile marshlands weren’t uncommon here but had the unfortunate distinction of occupying prime farmland. In the battle between farm and swamp, the vast majority of swamps fell to the axe and drainage tile.
These days, however, swamps are making a come-back, little by little. The Hoosier state’s most famous swamp, Limberlost, is slowly regaining some of its original territory and returning to a natural state. Indiana native Gene Stratton-Porter first publicized Limberlost in books she penned during the early 1900s.
Legend says that the name Limberlost was coined when “Limber” Jim McDowel, an early settler of the area, became lost during a wild animal drive. When the others realized that Jim was missing, they asked, “Where’s Jim?” The reply, “Limber’s lost!” stuck and eventually morphed into Limberlost.
But don’t worry, you won’t run into Jim in the swamp; he was found three days later. I visited the 440-acre Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve, one of four areas in the historical Limberlost area managed by the DNR, and spent an afternoon exploring the trails and observing the wildlife.
The other three areas are the 106-acre Limberlost Bird Sanctuary, the 789-acre Limberlost Swamp Wetland Preserve and the 113-acre Wabash River Rainbow Bend Park. These protected areas have a long way to go, but offer interesting hikes through a unique ecosystem.
Trails stretch to the east and west of the small parking lot at Loblolly. These gravel paths traverse both dry and wet portions of the swamp. Hardcore hill hikers looking for a workout need not apply. The swamp is a great place for folks looking for an easy walk with plenty of opportunities to view the wildlife.
Before visiting Loblolly, I asked Ken Brunswick, DNR’s regional ecologist for the area, what makes the Limberlost area special. Among the many natural virtues of Limberlost, Brunswick noted the variety and high number of waterfowl, wading birds, hawks, muskrats, mink, aquatic insects and woodland flowers that call the swamp home.
Brunswick also told me that threatened, rare and endangered birds and wildlife are returning and nesting in this area where the local farmers previously lost crops due to frequent flooding. “Corn and soybeans are not aquatic plants,” Brunswick said, “so much of the lowlands lacked cover during bird migrations while it was being cropped. Today, we may see thousands of migrating waterfowl feeding in the Loblolly Marsh, but the true test of the Limberlost area’s quality is realized with the increased number of nesting species.”
Brunswick’s comments rang true as I walked both the east and west trails. The western trail is a wide, well-maintained handicapped-accessible trail with a short bridge over a wet area, that runs for about a quarter mile (trail distances are approximate) before it abruptly stops. A wide area at the end allows for a wheelchair to easily turn around.
The bridges let a visitor get close and observe the marshy areas without the need of hip boots. To the east, a rough gravel path winds through a dry section of the marsh, but passes by multiple flooded areas of different sizes, especially to the south.
The eastern trail goes a third of a mile before splitting into smaller trails that lead to a small pond, into a small woods and along a large wetland area, from north to south. Throughout my trip to Loblolly, I must have seen 500 ducks of a variety of species, (many that I couldn’t identify).
Geese and birds of prey were also as abundant as almost anywhere I’ve been in Indiana. A bird watcher I’m not, but my next trip to Loblolly will include a bird identification book and a pair of binoculars. With easy access to wide, flat, well-maintained trails and plentiful wildlife, especially birds, Loblolly is a good choice for those who want to see nature in action, but don’t want to negotiate a rough trail to get there.
To visit Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve, start from the small town of Bryant in northern Jay County and head west on S.R. 18. At County Road 250 West, turn right (north) and drive for just over a mile. The small parking lot is on the left (west). The western trail takes off from the parking lot. The eastern trail begins directly across the county road.
Originally published in Outdoor Indiana magazine.