Estivant Pines: A Living Museum

The Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, protecting the largest remaining stand of old growth white pines in Michigan, celebrates its 45th anniversary.

By William Rapai

Time passes slowly at Estivant Pines.

Nobody knows that better than Gary Willis, a forester with the Michigan Department of Bertha and groupNatural Resources and former assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. Willis knows this place better than most people. When you see this preserve through his eyes you begin to understand that the best way to truly appreciate this place is not to consider time in hours, years, and decades but in centuries, periods and eras.

Estivant Pines is the Michigan Nature Association’s 510 acre sanctuary in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Despite its remote location—down a pothole-strewn dirt road south of Copper Harbor—it is one of the organization’s most popular sanctuaries. Every summer, thousands of people from across the United States visit, wandering two looping trails to marvel at white pine trees that stand 120 feet tall.

But there aren’t many visitors to Estivant Pines in the late winter or early spring because the road that leads to the sanctuary is usually under several feet of snow or too muddy to be drivable. However, the period after snowmelt and before trees emerge from dormancy is the best time to see and understand time’s impact by looking down—not up—and closely examining what is and isn’t here.

What is here is volcanic bedrock that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history and carbonized tree stumps that are the remains of a cataclysmic forest fire more than 200 years ago. What isn’t here is surprising and confounding. The plant life in the understory is healthy—lots of lichens, mosses, ferns, maples, birches, cedars, spruces, and balsams. Surprisingly, there are few young white pines even though these 240-300 year-old trees have produced millions of viable seeds during their lifetimes.

img 1198Willis gained these insights when he was a forester for the Michigan Nature Association. In the late 1990s he started working at Estivant Pines at the request of Michigan Nature Association’s founder Bertha Daubendiek. Willis was given a unique opportunity to study these ancient trees after a logger accidentally trespassed on the sanctuary and cut a number of the trees along one of the boundaries.

Daubendiek sent Willis out to write a damage report, but during the process he started to see this incident as a unique opportunity to study how these giant trees grew. As he measured the width of the stumps and correlated individual ring-widths he began to understand these trees through the prism of time.

But it’s not just the trees that are measured in time. Much of this sanctuary sits on a high ridge of volcanic bedrock that runs between Annie Creek and the Montreal River that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history, some 1.1 billion years ago. In fact, Willis said, other researchers at Michigan Tech have discovered the Keweenaw was once one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth.

It’s difficult to see it from the landscape level, but Willis says if you look at an aerial photo of the peninsula, you can see a series of ridges left behind from that volcanic flow. Those ridges run parallel to the shoreline and curve as the shoreline curves and narrows as it reaches the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Even though we tend to think of these trees as old, the plant community here is in its infancy, relatively speaking. Plants—trees, shrubs and grasses—established themselves only about 10,000 years ago following the withdrawal of the Wisconsin Glacier.

Tree roots - Brittany AllenMultiple glaciers over the past 2.5 million years left behind a thin layer of soil that can support plant life but generally is not deep enough to anchor a 100-foot-tall tree. To compensate for the lack of soil, most of the pines have grown roots deep into fractures and crevices in the bedrock. Some trees have been lost to windstorms but remarkably few considering that the sanctuary sits at an altitude that varies between 200 and 500 feet above lake level. That altitude leaves these trees exposed to powerful winter winds that blow across Lake Superior. In the winter, this sanctuary can get more than 275 inches of snow in a single season. The combination of heavy, wet snow and strong wind can bring even the hardiest tree down, says Donald Dickmann, professor emeritus of silviculture and physiological ecology at Michigan State University and co-author of The Forests of Michigan. Fortunately, most of the snow that blankets the Keweenaw’s rocky ridges is light and fluffy lake effect powder.

Summer brings heavy thunderstorms and gusty winds, and the trees, which tower above the hardwood canopy, are sitting ducks for lightning strikes. One of those lightning strikes more than 200 years ago might have been the spark for a fire that ravaged this area and set the stage for the Estivant Pines as we see them today.

Those carbonized tree stumps and little bits of charcoal strewn across the landscape point to a potent wildfire that swept through the area in the late 1700’s. Willis said it likely wiped out most of the white pines that had been standing on that spot perhaps for centuries. Just as the towering, mature pines today prevent the young pines from growing underneath, those earlier pines prevented any new ones from growing beneath them. It’s not that these trees are refusing to reproduce; it’s just their reproductive strategy. Barring a major fire, disease or insect threats, these pines could be here for another 300 years before they reach the end of their natural lifecycle. As that happens, the maples, birches, spruces, and balsams that make up the understory will continue to grow and mature and create a thick new canopy 50 feet or more under the tops of the pines. As those trees mature and die, fuel for a future fire will continue to build up on the forest floor, waiting for a spark.Marianne Glosenger - Estivant Pines NO WATERMARK hi res

When that fire eventually arrives, the pines’ continued existence will depend on its intensity. A moderate fire may not cause any damage because the old trees are protected by a thick layer of bark. But if the fire is intense enough the heat will fry the layer under the bark that transports water and nutrients up the trunk. That will kill the tree even if the fire does not reach the top branches. If that happens, the tree, knowing that it will soon die, will put all its energy into seed production. The year following the fire, massive amounts of seeds will cover the now-bare, ash-covered soil and thousands of new white pine trees will germinate if there is enough rain.

And the cycle will begin again.

Ancient white pine trees like the Estivant Pines once covered a good portion of Michigan. loggingIn the late 19th century, lumberjacks cut these trees to supply wood for houses, barns, and carriages needed by a fast-growing nation. At the time, it was thought that Michigan had an inexhaustible supply of white pine.

Only a few stands of virgin white escaped the lumberjack’s gluttony—this one, of course, one at Hartwick Pines State Park northeast of Grayling, and another stand on private property east of L’Anse are the three best known. But Don Dickmann of Michigan State says he has found small stands of them in other places in the Upper Peninsula. Those stands, like Estivant Pines, were spared through random chance and, more recently, the passion of local citizens who wanted to preserve these trees for what they represent.

nancy leonard - epines make a difference dayTwo people who have come to deeply appreciate the history represented by these pines are Bill and Nancy Leonard, who organize volunteers and stewards for the Michigan Nature Association in the Keweenaw Peninsula. They work closely with sanctuary stewards Ted and Alice Soldan to maintain the boardwalks and trails. Bill Leonard said that as he’s working he enjoys talking with visitors and is always amazed by how many people from faraway places around the country come to see these giants multiple times.

“It just pulls people back,” Leonard said.

Indeed it does. But those visitors? For now, it seems, they can take their time.

 

William Rapai is the author of three Michigan Notable Books including The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon.

As seen in the feature story in the Winter 2018 issue of the Michigan Nature magazine.

Advertisements

2018 Race for Michigan Nature

5K Race Banner for social media

Sign up today! 
Join MNA in the
Race for Michigan Nature
series across the state

Enjoy the beautiful outdoors and run, walk, or jog
along the park trails in select cities across Michigan
with the Michigan Nature Association!

MNA’s statewide Race for Michigan Nature series
of Family Fun Runs & 5Ks stretches from Belle Isle
in Detroit to Marquette in the U.P. The races are
endorsed by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness,
Health and Sports and qualify for the Pure Michigan Challenge.

The Family Fun Runs & 5Ks will promote efforts to
preserve habitat for threatened and endangered
species throughout Michigan.

Register Today

Bring the whole family! The Kids Fun Run will
be a 1 mile race 30 minutes prior to the 5K.

Kids 1 Mile Fun Run: $10
5K Run/Walk: Early registration is just $25 ($30 day-of).

Participants will receive a
commemorative Run t-shirt,
a finisher medal, and a
Discover Michigan Nature drawstring bag!
Prizes for the top male and female runners.

Volunteers are also needed!
We’re looking for energetic individuals and organizations
to provide great customer service to our 5K participants.
Interested in helping with registration, monitoring along
the course, or handing out medals?
We have a spot for everyone!

If you have any questions please call Jess at
866-223-2231 or email her at jfoxen@michigannature.org.

We hope to see you there!

Find a race in your area!

Grand Rapids
​Karner Blue Butterfly Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, May 20
Millennium Park
Register!

Karner Blue 5K logo - 300 dpi 2

Kalamazoo
Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 9
Mayor’s Riverfront Park – Kalamazoo River Valley Trail
Register!

Monarch March 5K logo - 300 dpi

Rochester
Rattlesnake Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 30
Rochester Municipal Park – Paint Creek Trail
Register!

Rattlesnake Run 5K logo - 300 dpi

Detroit
Sturgeon Sprint Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, August 12
Belle Isle Park
Register!

sturgeonlogo - BLUE

Marquette
Moose on the Loose Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, August 25
Presque Isle Park
Register!

mooselogo - GREEN 2

Ann Arbor
Turtle Trot Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, September 16
Gallup Park
Register!

Turtle Run 5K logo - 300 dpi

Spring has Sprung?

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

As usual, Michigan is having a little bit of trouble deciding when it wants to transition into springtime. Don’t let the occasional snow shower worry you, there are a few sure signs that you can look for to keep up hope that spring is on its way! Michigan’s beloved flora and fauna will bring the sounds and sights of springtime, such as the spring peeper, the American robin, and wild trilliums.

spring peeper - tim mayo

Spring peeper. Photo: Tim Mayo.

Some music to your ears might be the classic “tinkling of bells” of the Michigan spring peeper. Around early March, when the ground begins thawing, this abundant amphibian species begins its mating season. The peeping you hear is the male frog calling out to potential mates. The more intense the peeping, the more likely the males are to attract their desired female. If you live near wetland areas, such as a damp woodland, marsh, or pond, you are likely to hear these creatures singing away on a warming spring night.

american robin - taran rampersad

American robin. Photo: Tara Rampersad.

While the spring peepers sing you to sleep, another sign that spring is near is being awoken by the return of migratory birds. The classic harbinger of spring is the American robin, Michigan’s state bird. You might recognize its song from the often repeated whistle of cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. When the average temperature fluctuates around 37 degrees, the male robins will be the first to make themselves known as they establish territories and begin feeding. Female robins will return a couple weeks later to begin building nests and feeding on worms from the thawing grounds. You’ll hear them start singing as they arrive on their breeding territories!

Another bird that is usually a first sign of spring in Michigan is the red-winged blackbird, with some arriving as early as mid-February. Males will sing their song, conk-la-ree from a high perch, awaiting the female response of a series of several chits. These birds prefer wetland areas, so if you are near standing water and vegetation, look out for these birds. You will also start seeing more shorebirds and hearing more owls and woodpeckers. The return of these birds from late March through May marks prime bird watching season.

trillium - mary bohling

Trillium. Photo: Mary Bohling.

You might notice the budding of trees, and if you look closely some wildflowers are indicators that spring is on its way. The trillium is one that you might see first, a three petaled flower with dark green leaves and pale green accents. The arrival of the wildflowers ushers in the return of pollinators to help speed the spring process along!

Vernal Pool Patrol Training Workshops

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory and MSU Extension are hosting three FREE vernal pool patrol training workshops this spring! Sign up today to learn more about vernal pools and how you can help monitor and protect these important wetlands!

Sunday, April 8
Leslie Science and Nature Center
1831 Traver Road, Ann Arbor
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Phyllis Higman at higman@msu.edu or 517-242-3269

Leslie Science Center_Vernal Pool Training_4-8-18_FBfinal

Friday, April 13
Hemlock Crossing Nature Education Center
8115 West Olive Road, West Olive, Ottawa County
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Ashley Adkins at hurdashl@msu.edu or 517-284-6211

Ottawa Co. April 13 Workshop- FB

Saturday, April 21
Hemlock Crossing Nature Education Center
8115 West Olive Road, West Olive, Ottawa County
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
RSVP: Ashley Adkins at hurdashl@msu.edu or 517-284-6211

Ottawa Co. April 21 Workshop- FB