This article is part of the Rediscover Brown County package in the October 2016
Indianapolis Monthly issue. For more on our favorite fall destination, click here.
Off state Road 135 past Gnaw Bone, down Valley Branch Road, on the unpaved turnoff to eXplore Brown County, strange sounds start coming out of the woods. Motors whining. Tires grinding on gravel. Loud squeals and wild screaming.
When Gary Bartels’s family inherited this 1,000-acre plot of land in 1994, the then-engineer gave his two sons a choice: He could sell it and retire, or build up a business here the boys might someday take over. The counteroffer: Dad could keep the land if he allowed their friends to help work on it—and only if they could take swim breaks in the lake.
Four years later, Valley Branch Retreat (as it was then known) had paintball, mountain biking, and a party barn. Since then, Bartels has added ATV and buggy tours, zip lines, cabins, camping, and a new name that captures the playful spirit of the place—an alternative to more traditional outdoor activities and staid country getaways. “Brown County was known for shopping and all that, which is cool, but we are doing something a little different,” says Bartels.
Even with his leathery hands and white hair, Bartels, a kid at heart, looks younger than his 65 years. The facility’s “chief adventurist,” he invented eXplore’s newest activity, “arrow tag,” a mash-up of dodgeball, paintball, and archery with soft-tipped arrows. “At 10 feet, if you shoot an 8-year-old, you can knock the wind out of them,” he says. He knows, because, “My grandson tried to come up on me and shoot me, so I lit him up.”
A tinkerer and recycler, Bartels has built everything by hand. The past owners left a pile of metal poles; Bartels used them for paintball nets and tetherball posts. He has traveled the world to research zip lines, and in 2011 finished erecting twin racing lines modeled after some in Maui. “I took out all of my retirement and put it in the zip lines—my wife thought I was crazy,” he says. An elaborate new playground he’s building—with repurposed 4-foot-diameter concrete tubes assembled to look like a spaceship, and a rappelling rope—is inspired by what he calls a “European” philosophy. “If playgrounds are too safe, it boosts [a kid’s] ego too much. If I’m comfortable putting my grandkids on the line, then it’s safe enough for anyone. I tell them, ‘If you fall down, you might get hurt.’” All activities here get people moving (if not his two old dogs, who wouldn’t stir if you fired a starter gun). And that’s the goal, says Bartels. “You and your kids aren’t just pressing on buttons.” 2620 Valley Branch Rd., 812-988-7750, explorebrowncounty.com
CAN YOU HANDLE IT?
Fun at eXplore Brown County, rated least to most extreme.
Original to eXplore Brown County, the game mixes the tactical battlefield aspects of paintball with the quick-draw techniques of noted archer Lars Andersen. Two teams can divide across a center line and incorporate catching (à la dodgeball). The soft-tip arrows pack a punch, perfect for getting—ahem—medieval on frenemies.
A hub of Indiana paintball for two decades, EBC has 80 acres of woods and open fields to stalk, encompassing 10 different scenario settings, with inflatable bunkers and wrecked planes, cars, and trucks to hide behind. Group sizes range from six to 50-plus, allowing for real-life Call of Duty reenactments.
ATV and Buggy Tours
All vehicles are automatic, and before setting out, guides teach beginners how to handle a four-wheeler on the path and off (they have new tricks for old dogs as well). Tours pass an 1800s graveyard and cross a creek bed along uphill and downhill trails—sometimes at 30 miles per hour.
Offered by Q’s Bikes, an outfitter on the EBC grounds, they’re like mountain bikes but with more rubber and gearing designed for easy riding—an invigorating way to explore EBC’s 35 miles of trail. Difficulty ranges from beginner to advanced, which can involve breakneck downhill and wicked curves.
Flying 90 feet in the air at 45 miles per hour, across a 1,200-foot span, through trees and over water—a thrill even if you’re not afraid of heights. The many courses include side-by-side racing lines and “superhero zips” that involve running and diving off a platform, while suspended only by a cable connected at the waist.