I Let My Kids Play in a Creek. Now I Have a Court Date.

I Let My Kids Play in a Creek. Now I Have a Court Date. Rain or Shine Mamma.

At 3:45 pm on May 25, 2015, my husband and I committed a crime according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Our offense? “Swimming in an unauthorized area.” Or, as it in fact were, letting our two children cool off in a creek at a local nature preserve.

I Let My Kids Play in a Creek. Now I Have a Court Date. Rain or Shine Mamma.

The preserve is just a 10-minute drive from our house, and although it’s small, it has both deciduous and coniferous forest, unique sandstone formations and a large creek that meanders through it, eventually feeding into the Wabash River. Years ago, before it was a nature preserve, the area served as a boy scout camp. Despite the preserve’s natural beauty, it is sparsely used and even on Memorial Day only a few other families had signed the log book before us.

To a nature-loving parent like myself, who is raising children in a state that is heavy on corn and soybean fields and low on public nature areas, the preserve is an oasis. I’ve hiked the short loop trail with my kids since they were newborn, and now that they’re older we keep coming back on a regular basis – spring, summer, fall, winter. This is to a great extent where their love for nature was first born.

Memorial Day was no different than any other day. Or at least so I thought. We walked down the trail until we got to the spot where a small path leads down to the creek. The girls ran down to the muddy edge and stripped down to their underwear, then plunged into the chilly, shallow water. My husband and I watched them as they were looking at some raccoon tracks, then got into a friendly mud fight. The sun broke through the clouds and a few stray rays danced on the rippling water, while the girls giggled and played.

Half an hour later, we started heading back toward the parking lot. My husband and the Big Naturalist got there first, since I was waiting for the Little Naturalist to climb a rock. When I got there, I saw a brown SUV with the IDNR logo on it, and an officer talking to my husband. Then the Big Naturalist came running towards me.

“Mom, there’s a policeman talking to Daddy. He says we can’t swim in the creek,” she said, her eyes opened wide in disbelief.

The officer went back to his vehicle to write up the paperwork, then returned with a ticket.

“I’m going to let you off easy this time. It may not seem like it, but I really am,” he said and explained that rather than adding additional citations for all four of us for “getting off the trail” and “disturbing wildlife,” he was only going to fine us for unauthorized swimming.

“But kids used to play in this creek all the time, when this was a boy scout camp,” I said, even though I knew that my protest was futile.

“That was a long time ago, before this became a nature preserve. The only thing you’re allowed to do here now is walk on the trail. That’s it. We have these rules to keep you safe too. There are some loose rocks, and other dangers. The creek is a health hazard as well. Manure from the farms upstream gets in the creek and the kids can get infected with e-coli.”

He made it sound like he was doing both us and nature a favor by keeping us separated. Instead I couldn’t help but wonder, If this preserve is so delicate that it can’t take a couple of kids chasing minnows in the creek, why doesn’t the state investigate the source of the agricultural waste? Which is really the bigger threat to the environment?

According to a study from Sweden, where children often play unsupervised in the outdoors, nature can handle some rough-and-tumble, hands-on play. Matthew Browning, a former park ranger who did the research, noted that the places where kids played the most remained functional natural areas, even though the activities weren’t necessarily environmentally sensitive by adults’ standards. Other studies have repeatedly shown that a common denominator for people who love and care for the environment as adults is that they played in nature on a regular basis as children.

Did I break a rule by letting my kids play in the creek? Sure did. And the rules are the rules are the rules. I’m not saying that nature should be a free for all. Sometimes creeks need special protections because they shelter endangered snail species or rare mussels. That was not the case here. Nor was there a drowning hazard. As far as I’m concerned my kids are more likely to get hurt from falling in the bath tub than they were slipping on rocks in this creek.

I believe one of our most important jobs as parents is to raise children who care about our planet. But in order to do that we can’t treat nature like a fine arts museum. We need to let them get in creeks, pick up little critters, throw rocks, climb trees and (gasp!) even pick some common flowers. As Katherine Martinko puts it on Treehugger: “Kids can be hard on a forest if left to run wild and free, but that’s the best way to teach them to love nature. And kids’ games will never be as destructive as what adults continue to do to the planet.”

Browning suggests dedicating certain areas in parks and other natural spaces to free play. He also believes the rules should be more nuanced, instead of basically telling kids that they can’t touch anything. It could be as simple as letting them pick some pine cones. I think that would be a reasonable approach at a time when kids have fewer and fewer opportunities for unstructured play in nature.

I’m not worried about the fine, or the court date that we were given in case we decide to fight the citation. I’m worried about the message that this incident sent to my girls. That they’re not allowed to interact with nature and if they do, they or their parents will get in trouble.

Sure, I can tell my kids to do nothing but walk on the trail the next time. But if I do I’m pretty sure that they will have no interest in going back to this preserve. And what, exactly, will the IDNR have accomplished by that?

UPDATE: After the overwhelming response to this story, I wrote When Nature Is Off-Limits: Thoughts on My Run-In with the Law at a Nature Preserve to elaborate more on this topic.

34 thoughts on “I Let My Kids Play in a Creek. Now I Have a Court Date.

  1. Karen says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you! This is ridiculous and should not be happening. Please keep us posted and let us know how it turns out.

  2. Rebecca Orr says:

    My husband, our children, and I all had an extremely similar experience on Easter Sunday 2014. We were having a picnic off the trail at a location my husband had proposed to me in 2010. It was about a $125 ticket but again he told us we were getting off easy. He would love to attend your court date, since he wasn’t able to attend his own and had to pay the fine without being able to plead his case.

  3. heather reilly says:

    Greetings from NY, I understand what it is like to have the government acting like a nanny. I live about an hour north of NYC, and the closer you are to the city, the worse it is. Swimming holes, and the like have always been good old fashion fun, and sadly, something that was normal, is now incredibly regulated, due to liability, or simply as a means to make money. I am not sure how things are in your state, but here, if you are not allowed to swim, there are signs, and if there is contamination in the water, again there are signs. If there were 0 signs saying swimming was not permitted, and 0 signs saying there was contamination, than there is no way that you could be held responsible. In fact if there was actual agricultural contamination, than it is the state’s responsibility to let the public know, and to regulate it. If they get heavy handed with you on your swimming charge, I would tell them that I might sue them for failing to notify the public of this contamination, and failing to regulate it. (please know I am not a lawsuit person, I would just say that to show their lack of responsibility, and put the onus on them ). Further if there were no signs, I would file a harassment complaint against this officer, he ruined your day, and robbed you of your time to fight the ticket. As far as disturbing the forest, and going off trail…um yeah, I am sure the Native people never climbed, went off trail, or moved a rock right? They did,and somehow this country’s beauty thrived, and then deteriorated after it was colonized, and government stepped in (yeah think about that for a few seconds;). Do not get me wrong, I am all for conservation, and respecting nature, but I fail to see how enjoying it, is some kind of threat to it. You seem like a lovely, responsibly family, I am sorry this person ruined your day

  4. Deb M says:

    This is ridiculous! I live in southern Indiana and we regularly explore off-trail and in the creek with my son and my dog at Charlestown State Park, and have never noticed any signs saying this was against the rules. I would definitely fight this. Was it posted any where along the trail or at the entrance to the trail?

  5. Kat says:

    I am sorry that this happened to you and I’d be frustrated too, but I think you are getting 2 issues jumbled together and not seeing it clearly and neither will most of your readers. If it is a preserved area then there are rules, rules to conserve that area, you have to obey them. Your family probably isn’t who the area is being protected from ( teenagers, bonfires and glass bottles comes to mind) and maybe the ranger was being over zealous but it’s still a law.
    Yes I wish we could do what ever we want too and what you were doing was harmless and fun but there are many other areas to run wild and have no rules but in this area the beauty comes with a little restraint.
    Maybe I see it different because I live in a Canadian National Park…
    (Regardless I hope you don’t have to pay a fine!)

    • Joslyn says:

      Only one problem with that… The preserve was contaminated by the industrial farming upstream. Nothing any kid can do is as damaging as that. If it really was about protecting the creek and surrounding areas, they would be fining the farmer too. It’s a double standard and she already said that in her area, there aren’t many areas to run free at all. Maybe because you live in Canada you don’t understand what some states in the US are like, but not all have lots of places to interact with nature. Some states, you’re lucky if you can find a park in certain areas.

    • MK says:

      When I saw the headline, I thought “ridiculous”. But when I read the article and realized it was a nature preserve, my opinion changed. Preserves have specific purposes. If everyone uses them for recreational purposes, then those preservation aims can be destroyed. If it used to be a public swimming area, then it would be in everyone’s best interest if clear reminders were posted in applicable spots that swimming is not allowed, though. I hope the judge decides to be sensible and not enforce the fine as long as you agree to follow the rules when visiting the preserve in the future, though.

      • gypsy weber says:

        That may be OK for conformist but those who would prefer freedom and are simply enjoying nature this is bull crap and I would most definitely fight it. I would also test the water and tell the judge to focus on the real problem and not my children cooling off in a creek. I would also bring attention to the situation and the real cause of why this preserve does not allow a child to play.

  6. John Wise says:

    I walked that trail many times. It has been around 30 years since I was last there. Even back then it was rare to find anyone there. And the book that you are supposed to sign would sit for weeks with only a name or two on it. This whole thing is just ridiculous. They should be glad that there is someone walking the trails just to keep them from getting grown over. It really is, was, a beautiful place. I am sorry you and your children had this experience.

  7. Tanya says:

    That’s insane! Was there a sign that said no swimming? And were the rules posted for how to behave in the park? If not, I hope you can fight it and NOT pay the ticket. If so, I guess you’ll have to but it’s still sad.

    And my personal pet peeve is people giving me a ticket in the name of “protecting me!!” How exactly is giving me a ticket protecting my kids from E-Coli?? Maybe handing out some informative pamphlets, giving a lecture, telling you about the dangers and asking you to not do it again – that’s education. A ticket is just about punishment and is not education. Maybe you won’t do it again, but purely out of fear and not because you realize your kids were at risk of getting sick.

    Side note, my son has played in a creek that had contamination risk from farms many times! He hasn’t gotten sick yet. 😉
    And we play in ponds/creeks in natural areas, provincial parks, AND National Parks ALL the time here.

  8. Kelly says:

    We live in IN too and do this very thing, and I’ve wondered when someone is going to come reprimand us. It is controversial, but I think any harm the kids are doing is so minimal. There are so many other things the park service should be concerned about! Sorry this happened.

  9. Carmen says:

    Try checking your sense of entitlement at the entrance to the nature park. If it’s a nature preserve then a group of informed experts have determined that it needs to be protected since it sounds like there aren’t a lot of places like this in your area. Maybe there was a raccoon nest by those tracks that your children accidentally disturbed. You just don’t know, so follow the rules and quit bitching. First world problems…

    • gypsy weber says:

      Ha a racoon, yeah um no. A child playing in a creek is nature. We are a part of nature. It is 100% natural to cool off in a creek. Something all animals in nature do. We ALL share the planet. A racoon wouldn’t give a rats arse if a child was playing in a creek.

    • Lisa says:

      I’m right there with you Carmen. I am sure that many people worked very hard to save that land and turn it into a nature preserve. If you don’t like the rules educate yourself as to why they are there and then work to change them if they need to be changed.

  10. Paul Osborn (@bcoutdoor) says:

    It’s a shame that you got a ticket when it sounds like a warning would have had the same effect in this case.

    It is a good thing that these areas, that are at high risk of being destroyed, are preserved in a way that allows our kids to see a healthily functioning ecosystem.

    We have our share of Preserves, Parks and Protected areas… as well as Crown Land. Each can be used in a different way to teach kids a love for nature and the outdoors.

    Everyone’s pride is hurt when we get in trouble. I get that. He did you a favour by not giving you the same fines he would have if some drunken teens had been flagrantly damaging a preserve. I think that’s fair, even though it hurt. There has been significant damage to existing areas, and it’s good that the state takes note. From State Code 14.31.1 “”Once the areas have been destroyed, the areas cannot be wholly restored.” That’s a recognition that mistakes have been made. All we can do is preserve what we have left!

    The message our kids get about the outdoors based on an experience like this is going to be based on our response. If we are angry with the state because we broke a rule designed for the benefit of everyone our kids will be angry with the state.

    My experience has been that when I swallow my pride and explain my mistakes to my kids and why the rules are there in the first place that they totally appreciate it and appreciate the outdoors more. Reinforcing that they have a reasonable expectation of respect is what we’re trying to teach our kids about nature, isn’t it?

  11. Angela says:

    This story disgusts me! Children should be allowed to play in a creek for crying out loud. The most he should have done is tell you about the rules. We have too many people power trippin these days over the dumbest things! So sorry you had to experience this.

  12. Stephanie says:

    maintain (something) in its original or existing state.

    Nature preserves are there to look at, not play in. They are not playgrounds. A contaminated creek in a nature preserve is there to look at, not play in. What are you teaching your kids with this? That a sense of entitlement trumps the law? Trumps keeping an area that has been identified as “at risk” from slipping into the state that so many other areas of nature are in: Trashed, torn up, and ecologically damaged?

    If you love nature so much, you should consider this a sign that you need to change your views on what you “should” be allowed to do, and instead focus on what you can do FOR nature.

  13. filiusdextris says:

    Definitely go to court; don’t pay the fine outright. Call up the courthouse and get a continuance to a later date not of the officer’s choosing. The officer may very well not show up in which case you win.

    Point out any lack of signs. Then see if the officer can tell you how he knows whether a given plot of land is a nature preserve and what are its boundaries. Can he cite the administrative code sections for the Department of Natural Resources and show them to you? Can he show you how you were supposed to be aware of the rules since they’re probably only in the department’s private code? In order to determine if they have lawful effect, can the officer tell you when and where (newspapers) the department’s rules were published? If you have citation for swimming, is swimming defined in the rules? How? Did the officer see you swim? Where is his proof? Tell the judge you’ve always tried to follow published rules here, but couldn’t/didn’t find/see any. (Before you go to court, you might want to call up the Department, or have someone else do so, and ask about rules and regulations and how you can go about obtaining a copy of such.)

    Don’t be afraid, even if you’re not sure what you’re talking about. As long as you’re being respectful, you’ll get a good education, and nothing worse can likely happen to you than paying the fine already charged. Also politely ask about appeals options, although they may give you short shrift there.

    Let us know how it turns out. I suspect you’ll get off the fine easily and hopefully earn something in the process.

  14. Kate C says:

    Yuck, it sucks to get a ticket for something that seems like it should just be fun and no big deal. When we first moved to CO, we got ticketed for letting our dog run free in a natural area. Dogs and Kids, you want them to run and get exercise and be free. But, there are rules, and we were breaking them.

    Over time, I’ve come to really appreciate how important those rules are for establishing usage boundaries that do protect an area. As a rock climber, I’ve seen many amazing places shut down to all use because a handful of people were breaking the rules and abusing the place. I do my best now to follow the rules so that we can maintain access to the beautiful places we love. I don’t think my dog causes much damage when she runs off leash, and I don’t think two kids swimming in a stream would cause damage either. But if word gets out that a rule is not being enforced, it seems like that just opens the door to crowds and parties and trashing an area. I’ve seen it happen so many times.

  15. Karen Ung @playoutsidegal says:

    I always enjoy your posts, but this is depressing (the situation, not your writing). I don’t know of any such laws up here in Canada, except in areas that are EXTREMELY sensitive such as some hot pools in Banff that have endangered snails living in them. There are no swimming signs everywhere as well as warnings that disturbing the snails is a federal offense (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/man-faces-75000-in-fines-and-year-in-jail-after-hes-caught-bathing-in-home-of-endangered-banff-springs-snail). That makes sense to me and is FAR different than a couple kids playing in a stream. Goodness! What will be next? I hope the charges are let go. A warning would have been fine, but where then CAN you swim??

  16. kasina says:

    We will simply avoid going to The Arches anymore. God forbid kids be kids and learn to use their imaginations, adapt to surroundings and to simply have fun as a family!

  17. lora says:

    I’m going to come at this from another POV. My husband is a parks biologist in another state. He manages some parks with creeks and cool fossils in the creeks where it is very popular for people to come and swim, dig for fossils, let their dogs crap everywhere, etc. People literally put on their suits and bring their sand toys and coolers and make a day of it. The vegetation in these areas is completely gone due to all the unauthorized foot traffic. All the dirt washes into creeks and causes erosion and makes it difficult for any native plants, insects, fish, etc to get a foothold. To anyone who knows…it looks like hell. He does not have authority to arrest or ticket people for doing this and the larger authorities do not want to put up signs because it has been a popular activity for so long. In other words, nature has lost due to the “but this is fun for people” POV. I don’t know what the biological nature of this area is where you were cited, but it’s possible that it’s sensitive or that the DNR really wants to keep it from turning into a party swimming hole like we have. Once it goes that way, nature may not ever get it back. With that said, signage and a warning would have been appropriate for sure.

  18. Jenni says:

    If it’s a nature preserve, it’s to preserve nature. It’s usually posted right when you get on the trail, “no swimming”. I was there last year with my parents… It’s posted. Stop whining and just pay the fine. He did let you off easy…

  19. Brittany says:

    I get why you would be mad. But it’s a rule and whether you understand the reasons why it was put in place or not, know that there is one, and that reason is probably not simply to ruin your kids’ childhoods. 🙂 Your about page talks about teaching by example, and I wonder what kind of example it sets that you throw a fit/publish a blog rant about having to go to court because you like… well, you know… actually broke the law. My kids don’t like that there is a law against taking a Snickers bar out of the store without paying for it, and I don’t like it either, truth be told, but I’m not going to speak out to legalize shoplifting or telling people that law enforcement is keeping my daughters from appreciating the finer things in life by not letting them do whatever the heck they want. 🙂

  20. Joell says:

    People should name and shame any IDNR or LEO officer who would give out such a horrid victimless ticket. When those officers go home at night, they should really ask themselves if their morals are worth the pay check they get…

  21. Michael says:

    To start all you idiots siding with the DNR are quite wrong in all ways. Children, adults, humans, on their own do not possess the capability to harm nature. What we can create and the fact that we over use EVERYTHING certainly does though. Do you honestly think that a bunch of huminoids walking through a creek, or through the woods could destroy nature? No! However, saturating those same creeks in senthetic fertilizers, run off from factories, run off from automobile tires,and oils on highways and roads certainly will. Letting a hundred loggers loose will destroy the forest. If you must attack something, stop making illogical comments against innocent people and take it to the sources that actually can, AND WILL, destroy it all just for a few dollars. Is it sad that we have pushed wildlife into corners too small to sustain them? Yes. Is it sad that we fail to implement a limit for family sizes so that we can stop pushing animals further into the corner? Yes. Even sharks, the alpha predators of the ocean keep their numbers in check so that food is always available, yet WE have the big brains that don’t function. Is it sad that you who would bash the innocent ones playing in Gods creation, as intended, are using soaps made with harsh run off chemicals, plastic bottles that float around in the oceans, fertilizers for your flowers and vegetable’s that are not natural, that you waste fuel and cause more co2 discharge by driving a 4 person, or more vehicle by yourself? Yes. We humans, especially in america have become very self centered and we absolutely love to spread our uneducated opinions. If the aim of the preserve is to keep humans out then lock it up. No access except by permit for filming and such. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Maybe ALL parks need to be locked up, maybe all of the forest that are left need to placed under lock and key. We chose brick, stone, and pavement as our playground. Maybe we need to be locked up with the mess we have made for awhile to see just how bad we truly are. I’m no tree hugger, just an opinionated individual looking at this from the outside. God made all of this earth as OUR playground. That we can’t take care of it is testament to His agrevation with us. I like hiking, most people I know and everyone I know that I claim to know picks up after themselves in the woods. Fires are small and out out completely after. We will pick up the lazy peoples trash that we would like to track down and tell them what for. Most people know that we have to change, that we have to take care of nature. Its tough giving up convenience’s though like plastic as an example. It is happening slowly though. Keep pushing the corps and big money for change. We didn’t make this mess over night, it’ll take time to fix but it can be fixed. We would have to give up almost everything we enjoy though. Electronics made with and out of harsh elements. Miracle grow And other soil nutrient depleting fertilizers that we will feel the effects of for many years all in an effort to feed our over populated world. A move away from fast growing woods everywhere we clear. Yes a hardwood may take 100 years to grow, can’t have any of that though there is no immediate money to be made in it. If only we could think past our own lives. If only we could somehow track down the few bad apples that do throw out their trash in the woods. I’m tired of letting the few rule the many or cause the many to suffer because of their ignorance. To the story at hand, I personally think letting your children swim in the creek is fine, I also think going off of the trail should always be allowed. Quit making paths I must stay on DNR. I’d like to go see that waterfall half a mile off the trail. Just crush the sense of adventure out of me. Tie a rope to my ankle and guide me around like a dog. We have become a nation of lines and I HATE it!! Wait in line in traffic to get to work, wait in line at the coffee machine, wait in line for lunch traffic and lunch and traffic back to work, wait in line going home, follow the line on this trail, do not touch the water, do not leave the line, ever. When I escape to nature, it is because I want to leave the real world behind. I’ll say this once more, if the state is serious about a plot of land being a preserve so that animals have a safe haven to live in without human interaction then it needs to be completely closed to the public with no trespassing signs surrounding it. A little bit of rational thought by the DNRrep, the forestry commission, and the state would go along way. Set up cameras throughout the woods to monitor both animal life and to catch those few humans that do not treat the area with respect. Lastly, if no signs were posted on the trail or around the creek or at the check in about park rules then its just a convenient money trap for the state and you should fight it. Billions have been spent on human nature, they know your going to swim in it. Its the same as a cop sitting behind the 35mph sign that’s around a curve in a 55mph zone.

  22. Cranios says:

    The next time you are voting, ask yourself if the party you are voting for favors big, all powerful government, or smaller, less powerful government.

  23. Kia Clark says:

    From your description it sounds like you were at Turkey Run State Park. There is a preserve there that you have to cross a foot bridge to get to. If you were in that area then I know you are not allowed to leave the trails or take anything from that part of the forest.

    Also the Creek is called Sugar Creek that flows through there and every single year there are drownings in that creek. It is posted through multiple areas about the under tow and that swimming is prohibited.

    I used to live between West Union Bridge and Jackson Bridge, warnings are posted there also.

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