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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Fewer forest fires, a wolf hunt battle, and a scenic drive: this week in environmental news

Here’s a quick rundown of some of what happened this week in environmental news in Michigan and around the globe:

Gov. Snyder likely to tackle energy and water issues in next term (Michigan Radio): In a post-election discussion with Michigan Radio, James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council expects that energy will be a big issue for Gov. Snyder as federal regulations for clean energy will come into play. Snyder is also expected to unveil a water strategy in the next six months.

Battlefront on wolf hunt likely to shift to court (Detroit Free Press): Voters Tuesday rejected two proposals that would have affirmed the National Resources Commission’s ability to name wolves and other animals as game eligible for hunting. This will impact a state law change last August that gives the commission that authority. The decision will likely next go before a judge.

Wet weather douses forest fires (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan has had an unusually small number of wildfires this year, likely due to the an unusually large amount of rain. According to Scott Heather, assistant chief of DNR’s Forest Resources Division, this season resulted in the fewest wildfires he’d seen in his 37-year career. The largest fire the DNR responded to was about 150 acres. Typically, there is at least one fire that is 1,000 acres or more. This is a stark contrast to 2012, which saw the Duck Lake Fire spread 11 miles and burn over 21,000 acres.

Keweenaw Peninsula highway makes magazine list of ‘Best Scenic Roads’ (MLive): The November 2014 issue of Country Magazine ranked the UP’s U.S. 41 among the top 10 most picturesque drives in the U.S. in a special section highlighting unique byways. MNA members who have visited one of MNA’s 15 Keweenaw Peninsula nature sanctuaries are likely very familiar with this beautiful drive.

A 2001 photo provided by the C.S. Mott Foundation shows a waterfall on the Keweenaw Penisula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (MLive file photo)

Greenhouse gasses, birds and some fall color: this week in environmental news

Each week, MNA gathers news stories from around the state and country related to conservation and the environment. Here is a brief overview of what happened this week in environmental news:

Where ice once capped the Sermeq Avangnardleq glacier in Greenland, vast expanses of the Arctic Ocean are now clear. Credit Kadir van Lohuizen for The New York Times

U.N. Draft Report Lists Unchecked Emissions’ Risks (The New York Times): According to a draft of a major United Nations report, growth of greenhouse gas emissions has raised the risk of severe impacts over the coming decades. The report also states higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain, and other climate extremes are likely to intensify unless something is done to control emissions.

The 1,300 bird species facing extinction signal threats to human health (National Geographic News): Globally, one in eight bird species are threatened with extinction, and many others are in worrying decline. Habitat loss has been a factor in bird species’ decline for decades, but new threats to the environment, including certain chemicals, may threaten birds as well as humans.

Wolf hunt can proceed after Michigan House vote (Detroit Free Press): Michigan legislature voted Wednesday to support a wolf hunt in the Upper Peninsula, by a 65-54 vote. But, voters will still see two anti-wolf hunt proposals on the ballot in November. If voters pass those proposals, a hunt won’t occur in 2014.

Bare Bluff. Photo: Bob Stefko/Midwest Living

Legends of the Fall: Autumn Getaway to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula (Midwest Living): Midwest Living profiles the Keweenaw Peninsula in a feature that includes stunning photography of some MNA favorites like Grinnell Memorial Nature Sanctuary at Bare Bluff! Also worth a look – Midwest Living‘s 30 Great Midwest Spots to See Fall Color (it’s no surprise that the Keweenaw tops this list as well!)

Protecting Brockway Mountain

Earlier this year, MNA confirmed an option to purchase an additional 77 acres of land adjacent to the James H. Klipfel Memorial Nature Sanctuary along the Keweenaw Peninsula’s famed Brockway Mountain Drive.

In order to purchase this land and protect it forever, MNA will need to raise more than $150,000 by December 24, 2014. If MNA can make this happen, the total protected area around Brockway Mountain’s summit will total 557 acres, including a recent acquisition by Eagle Harbor Township.

Brockway Mountain and Brockway Mountain Drive. Photo by Charlie Eshbach

Brockway Mountain and Brockway Mountain Drive. Photo by Charlie Eshbach

Brockway Mountain provides semi-alpine habitat for various grasses, sedges and wildflowers, including purple cliff-brake fern and the green adder’s mouth orchid. It also provides one of the best opportunities in Michigan to observe raptors during their spring migration.

Brockway Mountain Drive has been described as one of the most scenic coastal drives in the United States. With an elevation of 1,320 feet, the drive offers stunning views of Lake Superior and the surrounding Keweenaw Peninsula, including views of Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor and the peninsula’s vast forests and sparkling inland lakes.

The drive was designed in 1932 and construction began in 1933 with funding from the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). It opened on October 14, 1933 and quickly became a popular destination for motorists. In December 1938, the Ironwood Daily Globe declared that “at least one million persons” had traveled on the road the first five years it was open, sparking a tourist boom in the area.

Brockway Mountain Drive is the highest scenic road between the Alleghenies and the Rockies and plays a vital role in the tourist economy of Keweenaw County. Protecting the beauty of the Brockway Mountain and Brockway Mountain Drive benefits both wildlife and the local community.

If you would like to help protect the critical habitat and beautiful outlooks on Brockway Mountain by donating funds toward MNA’s purchase of the additional 77 acres now under option, please contact MNA’s Executive Director Garret Johnson at (866) 223-2231, or gjohnson@michigannature.org.

Snowshoeing at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary

By Nancy Leonard

Hiking along the lagoon at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Nancy Leonard

Hiking along the lagoon at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Nancy Leonard

With the snow having finally returned to the Keweenaw, the trail at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary is finally packed with fluffy new snow just in time for the afternoon snowshoe hike. On January 19, 27 hikers eagerly donned their snowshoes. Led by stewards Peter and Jill Pietila, they trekked along the trail to where Black Creek and Hills Creek join to form a picturesque lagoon.

The sanctuary acquired its name from Black Creek that flows in a northerly direction through the sanctuary before emptying into the lagoon where it enters Lake Superior. Hills Creek also flows through the sanctuary, entering on the eastern boundary and flowing westerly until it converges with the Black Creek at the lagoon.

Ruth Sablich, formerly of Calumet, donated the first 121 acres of this jewel of a sanctuary to MNA in 1991.  Driven by her perception of increased private development in the area and concerned about the future of public access to Lake Superior, Ruth spearheaded a project to raise funds to expand the sanctuary. With her persistence  additional parcels were added in 1992 and 2002 to increase the sanctuary size to 242 acres.

Our snowshoe hiking companions! Photo by Nancy Leonard

Our snowshoe hiking companions! Photo by Nancy Leonard

Natural communities known to occur here include dry northern forest, dry-mesic northern forest, back-dune forest, emergent wetland, northern wet meadow, rich conifer swamp, northern shrub thicket, volcanic cobble shore and sand and gravel beach.

That cobble shore and gravel and sand beach in its winter coat is now obscured with fantastical ice hills and valleys and curious “volcano vents” formed by the ice building up along the shoreline.  Curious hikers couldn’t help themselves and many trod carefully upon the otherworldly topography, being careful, though, to not venture too far out.

Peter led the group along the shoreline to the Pietila home. Here, the somewhat tired but very happy hikers were treated to an array of refreshments and a chance to rest, warm , and share their trail stories.

MNA will lead several more snowshoe hikes this winter! Check the Events Calendar to find a hike in your area. We hope to see you there!

Snowshoe or Cross-Country Ski with MNA!

Snowshoeing at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Janet Lins

Snowshoeing at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Janet Lins

Winter doesn’t slow us down at MNA! We will be exploring Michigan in a variety of ways this winter, including special opportunities to snowshoe and cross-country ski through some of the state’s most unique landscapes.

Last winter, MNA members and friends enjoyed snowshoe hikes in the Keweenaw.  Hikers experienced the beautiful snow-covered dunes, frozen rivers and Lake Superior shoreline. The snowshoe hikes were so popular that MNA has planned more of them this winter! We hope you’ll be able to join us to experience one of Michigan’s most picturesque areas – the Keweenaw Peninsula!

Snowshoe hikes this winter:

Saturday, January 6 – Redwyn’s Dunes Nature Sanctuary, near Eagle Harbor

Saturday, January 19 – Black Creek Nature Sanctuary, near Calumet

Saturday, February 2 – Gratiot Lake Overlook Nature Sanctuary, near Copper Harbor

Saturday, February 23 – Rooks Memorial Nature Sanctuary, near Copper Harbor

Sunday, March 3 – Robert T. Brown Plant Preserve, near Painesdale

Email nancy@einerlei.com to RSVP or for details about the snowshoe hikes. Please RSVP so MNA can advise you of any emergency cancellations.

Snowshoe hikers explore Mystery Valley.

Snowshoe hikers explore Mystery Valley.

This year, MNA is also offering two cross-country ski opportunities. On Saturday, January 26, join steward Mary Probst for a cross-country ski along the Eagle Harbor Township Recreation Trail in Keweenaw County.

In the Lower Peninsula, steward Patricia Pennell will lead a cross-country ski trip through the beautiful Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary in Muskegon County on Saturday, February 2. If there is no snow, Patricia will still lead a hike, a rare opportunity to explore this unique sanctuary. For details about either of these trips, please visit MNA’s website.

Keep checking MNA’s event calendar for more winter events. We hope to see you in the field!

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.