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.

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MNA’s 2013 Volunteer & Donor Recognition Dinner

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Richard Brewer and Kay Takahashi are recognized by Garret Johnson.

Richard Brewer and Kay T. Takahashi are recognized by Garret Johnson. Photo by Steven Humes

MNA’s annual Volunteer & Donor Recognition Dinner was held on Friday, October 18 at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center in East Lansing. MNA members, trustees, donors and volunteers gathered together to enjoy an evening of camaraderie and a chance to appreciate the outstanding volunteers who have given their time and effort to help MNA with its mission.

Old friends were reunited, new friends were introduced and many stories were shared as guests mingled before dinner was served and the presentations began. The successes of the Michigan Nature Association were touched upon and key donors were recognized. Richard Brewer and his wife, Kay T. Takahashi, were acknowledged for their generous land donation, MNA’s new Brewer Woods Nature Sanctuary.

Eshbach and his wife, Diane, with longtime friends Roswell and Ruth Miller. Photo by Sally Zimmerman

Eshbach and his wife, Diane, with longtime friends Roswell and Ruth Miller. Photo by Sally Zimmerman

Several prestigious awards were given out to extraordinary volunteers. Charlie Eshbach, this year’s recipient of the Mason and Melvin Schafer Distinguished Service Award, shared stories of his multiple experiences in Keweenaw County, specifically with Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary. Guests listened thoughtfully as Eshbach talked about his involvement with MNA over the past 40 years.

MNA wants to thank everyone who attended the dinner for being a part of this special night! For additional photos from the Recognition Dinner, visit MNA’s Facebook page.

Estivant Pines’ 40th anniversary sparks new challenge for old-growth forest

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Photo by Charlie Eshbach

Photo by Charlie Eshbach

Forty years ago, people across the state of Michigan rallied together to raise money to save Estivant Pines. In honor of the 40th anniversary of this event, anonymous donors have provided MNA with a new matching challenge grant. The donors will match all contributions over $500 to MNA, up to a maximum of $40,000 by the end of 2013. New membership dues will also be matched. You can make a secure donation at www.michigannature.org or by calling (866) 223-2231.

Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary in the Keweenaw Peninsula has efficiently protected several threatened species and the beautiful white pines that cover the land over the past four decades.

MNA and local citizens ended their three-year long battle on August 17, 1973 by successfully acquiring a copy of the deed to the Estivant Pines. The “Save the Estivant Pines Committee” began in 1970 when local citizen Lauri Leskinen wrote a column that appeared in the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette that expressed the need to save the pines.

Universal Oil Products, who had cut down about 350 acres of the old forest and had plans for future development, previously owned the Estivant Pines. Charlie Eshbach and Jim Rooks were co-chairs of the committee that worked together with local citizens to generate enough funds to cover the $56,000 price tag that marked the foundation of Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary.

The sanctuary is often referred to as a “living museum” because of its large old-growth white pine forest, with some trees that are 500 years old and stand up to 125 feet tall. For the past four decades, Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary has protected numerous species of plants and animals, including Michigan’s official state tree, the white pine.

There are two trails that visitors can walk down, the Cathedral Loop Trail and the Bertha Daubendiek Memorial Grove Trail, to see the beautiful scenery of Estivant Pines. Visitors can also see several copper mine pits, dating back thousands of years.

For more information, visit the Michigan Nature Association website or check out the Fall 2013 issue of Michigan Nature magazine.

Michigan Tech Students Make a Difference at MNA Sanctuaries

Michigan Techline Group

The Michigan Techline Group helped out at Keweenaw Shores II

By Nancy Leonard

Make a Difference Day is a national day of helping others – a celebration of neighbors helping neighbors. Everyone can participate. Created by USA WEEKEND Magazine, Make a Difference Day is an annual event that takes place on the fourth Saturday of every October.  The leaders of Michigan Technological University encourage their students to help their neighbors in the Keweenaw on Make a Difference Day, and this year, an overwhelming 700 MTU students volunteered their time throughout the community.

For the second year in a row, steward Nancy Leonard with the help of naturalist Karena Schmidt welcomed a group of  21 enthusiastic volunteers at Keweenaw Shores II Nature Sanctuary.  This class C sanctuary protects 100 feet of spectacular conglomerate Lake Superior shoreline and the rare and threatened plants that reside there.  The day’s project was the careful removal of invasive spotted knapweed that threatens the fragile rocky shoreline environment.

Students Digging

MTU students digging a water bar at Estivant Pines

Meanwhile, at Estivant Pines, stewards Ted Solden and Charlie Eshbach, assisted by volunteer Peter Ekstrom, worked with a group of 10 student volunteers. The students carried lumber, cleaned and built new water bars, and rebuilt a rock stairway on the sanctuary’s Cathedral Loop.

Group along shore

The volunteer group at Keweenaw Shores II spread out across the shoreline

After several hours of work at both sanctuaries, all the students were pleased that they could actually make a difference in the Keweenaw and MNA was thrilled to have their help!  Thank you to everyone who spent the day with us to protect Michigan’s natural heritage.

If you’re interested in helping out at an MNA sanctuary in your area, visit MNA’s calendar of events for a list of volunteer days.

A Hike Through Estivant Pines

By Nancy Leonard

Hikers amongst the towering trees

Hikers amongst the towering trees. Photo by Nancy Leonard

On July 21st, steward Hannah Rooks led an enthusiastic group of 28 hikers through the 508-acre Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary that protects one of the last remaining stands of old growth forest in Michigan.  As the daughter of well-known naturalist Jim Rooks, (the nearby James Dorion Rooks Memorial Sanctuary is named in memory of him), Hannah brought the added dimension of sanctuary history to this gathering.  Along the trail, she shared some of the stories that her dad told her as she tagged along on outings.  One recollection of a moment in the history of the sanctuary was particularly poignant and the group reacted accordingly.  Hannah pointed out the very spot where her father had stood, with legal papers in hand, to block the encroaching lumbering operations that would have taken these grand old trees.

Lunch Break

The group stops for a lunch break on the Memorial Grove loop. Photo by Nancy Leonard

We listened for birds, compared bilberries to huckleberries that grow side by side, and admired blooming orchids. On the Cathedral Grove loop, Hannah pointed out a prehistoric mining pit, dug some 4,000 years ago by indigenous people searching for copper. She led us down a side trail to an old mid-19th century mining camp where we viewed a few remaining relics. We continued on to the  Bertha Daubendiek Memorial Grove Trail and stopped to pay homage to Bertha in the Memorial Grove.  A little further on, picnic lunches were shared as we rested on smooth rock outcroppings, a favorite stopping point on the Memorial Grove loop.

Along the trail, we had passed trees growing here for centuries…..towering white pines, red oaks, maples, birches, and hemlocks.  No matter how often one visits this sanctuary, the old-growth giants never fail to inspire the fortunate visitor.

If you’d like to experience the majestic pines for yourself, MNA’s 60th Anniversary Odyssey Tour visits Estivant Pines on Saturday, September 29 at 1 p.m. All are welcome to participate in a tour of the sanctuary and anniversary celebration. Visit the MNA website for details or to RSVP.