Thursday, September 3, 2009

Silence of the Big Trees

While hiking through the Rifle River Rec Area Lori pointed out a feature that I may well have overlooked--the huge, decayed stumps of the old-growth white pines that once dominated Michigan's landscape north of Saginaw. Once you've seen them, it's hard to believe you ever missed them.

It's hard to get a sense of scale in a photo, but one of the things that is striking about the stumps is that you can see so clearly that they were cut--the tops of them all were about 3-4 feet off the ground and cut straight across--right where a couple of men would bend to hold a two-handled saw.

I did a little research about Michigan's logging history, but really there's not much to it. Logging started in the 1860's, reached it's peak in the 1880's. The thick Michigan forests that prospectors thought would last for many decades lasted for about 20 years before production fell off. The speed of denuding the landscape was given a boost when rail lines were introduced. Before then, most wood was cut in the winter, loaded on sleds and pulled out by teams of horses or oxen, and left on a river back until spring when the high waters would carry logs down to the mills.

You have to admit, this is pretty impressive.

A walk through the woods here, once you're aware of them, reveals hundreds of remnants of these felled giants. Many of these trees were over 200 years old, 200 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. The land went cheap--$1.25 an acre--and most of the wood was shipped either to the northeast or Chicago. Many of the tallest trees were used as ship's masts.

These woods are thick, but when you really look at them, you realize many of the trees are not more than 50 or so years old, many much younger. In the photo above you can just see a large stump left of center, surrounded by a motley crew of young maples and poplars, probably not more than 20 or so years old.

It's nearly impossible to imagine what this area looked like before it was logged. There's 49 acres of old growth white pine at Hartwick Pines State Park, north of Grayling, and here and there you'll come across a huge tree that was spared--either it was hard to reach or didn't grow straight enough.

I came across one of those trees on the trail near Scaup Lake. Around a bend there loomed this massive tree, which I mistook for a maple at first due to its shape. But when I looked up to its crown I saw long, delicate needles and realized I was looking at a huge white pine.

I set my green water bottle on the lowest branch coming out on the left--the bottle is about six inches tall--for scale.
I have no idea what caused the tree to grow like this. It's main trunk grows up left of center and tapers oddly about 20 feet up. Probably whatever caused damage to its main trunk prompted the tree to send out secondary branches. I imagine the odd shape of this tree made it unfit to be logged, as straight trees were more desirable. Thank the tree gods for this deformation!

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