Elkhart Bog preserve and prairie trail opens at last

The Elkhart Bog Nature Preserve finally opened to the public this month northeast of Elkhart ― to witness why the state has been working for more than 30 years to protect it. A half-mile gravel trail leads past prairie and woods and onto a floating boardwalk over the bog, which spreads across a horizon of poison sumac that has turned scarlet red and maroon for autumn.

But before the trail reaches the main attraction, ecologist Rich Dunbar stops on a slow hike to point out the still-blooming wildflowers and grasses that the path passes along more than 20 acres of restored prairie.

He fingers a species called stiff goldenrod ― specifically found in prairies ― which forms its blooms in a tighter cluster than the goldenrod we typically see in yards and roadsides (typically Canada goldenrod). Looking closely, our small entourage begins to see goldenrod with shorter and longer leaves and varying sizes of flowers. There are many species of this late-summer bloomer here, Dunbar says. Same goes for the blue asters that are now blooming.

Such diversity. Dunbar says most of the seeds that started this prairie over the course of four to five years, starting in 2000, had been collected from local plants.

“This is a cool place with a lot of rare stuff,” Dunbar, who’s worked on this site since the 1980s, says. He oversees this and other preserves in 10 northeast counties for the Division of Nature Preserves at Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources.

He points out an area of woods along the trail where the invasive bush honeysuckle has been removed and notes that other invasives such as phragmites and hybrid cattail had been removed from the bog itself, saying, “We control them to protect the good stuff.”

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Indiana’s DNR, which owns and maintains this preserve, had hoped to finish and open the trail by 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic.

From the fresh, asphalt-paved parking lot for eight cars, the flat trail to the bog is covered with a certain size of limestone gravel and dust, designed to bind and allow wheelchairs to roll across it without sinking or leaving an imprint, Ric Edwards, the DNR’s director of ADA compliance, says. That proves true as he rides his wheelchair along our media tour last week.

“They paid a lot of attention to the surface,” he says at Thursday’s dedication, having come up from Indianapolis. “They’ve done a really good job here.”

The 60-some acre bog is just part of thenearly 230-acre preserve, and there’s another 100-plus acres of land that the state and county hold as conservation easements to buffer the preserve. The preserve is a compilation of land donations, which started with 28 acres in 1990, and land bought with revenue from Indiana’s environmental license plates, says Laura Minzes, an Elkhart native who’s operations manager for DNR’s nature preserves.

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The Nature Conservancy is looking to acquire more land as a buffer, says stewardship director Tom Swinford, who’d also minded this preserve as the DNR’s assistant director of nature preserves until he retired this summer.

The preserve harbors 26 species of plants and animals that are rare in Indiana, including the Blanding’s turtle. Minzes heard sandhill cranes crooning in the bog when she arrived. Online, bird watchers have been recording species here through eBird.org.

Walking next to grasses that reach over our heads, Dunbar points out a low-growing plant that prairies support: mountain mint. Its narrow leaves have a milder, wilder smell than peppermint.

The more than 200-foot boardwalk crosses a moat that typically circles around a bog. The moat is dry as we visit, but Dunbar says it could fill back up this fall. Water levels fluctuate. The boardwalk is surrounded by a floating mat of vegetation, including plenty of spatterdock with its large round leaves. But Dunbar says it’s nine feet down to solid ground, while some parts of the bog are 20 feet deep.

Bogs differ from other wetlands in that they develop over thousands of years, a still, poorly drained bowl of highly acidic water that supports certain plants. More typical in the north, there are just a handful in our region.

The insect eating plants that bogs have aren’t close enough to be seen from the boardwalk, but Dunbar does point out blue joint grass, which likes wet areas, along with royal fern and a wild species of spirea.

Indiana state Rep. Doug Miller, who represents northern Elkhart County, joins the tour and speaks of the “harmony” of nature and development at this site, saying, “as long as we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.”

Contractors have cleared large swaths of former farmland where commercial and industrial buildings are rising a half mile south at county roads 15 and 4. Amazon’s huge facility is being built at least a half mile from the bog itself.

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Dunbar says the DNR will be monitoring the effects from development that are likely, noting that the impact on water levels in general is a "question for the whole county.”

Where: Elkhart Bog Nature Preserve is at 51455 County Road 15, Elkhart, northeast of the city. Take County Road 17 north of the toll road, go west on County Road 4, then north on County Road 15 for a half mile. Open from sunrise to sunset. Nothing may be removed. Pets must be on a leash. No horses, picnicking or hunting. No restrooms.

Find columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures or 574-235-6158 or jdits@sbtinfo.com.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Indiana DNR: Elkhart Bog Nature Preserve and prairie trail opens