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Wild Side Column: More surprises in the tree cathedrals

A stand of large white pines and hemlocks in Drummond Woods, Bayfield County, Wisconsin. Dan Wilcox photo

By Dan Wilcox

The forest on our property in Martell Township was once a fairly diverse mix of white pine, American elm, sugar maple, black maple, red, white and bur oak, black cherry, basswood, ironwood, hornbeam and butternut. The native Americans intentionally burned the area for thousands of years, favoring bur oaks and savanna vegetation. Early European settlers logged and cleared much of the land, suppressed fire and grazed the woods with cattle, sheep and pigs. Much of the area became pasture and cropland, leaving some large spreading bur oaks, basswood and sugar maple trees.

When we arrived in the early 1980s, our woods were sparse with the big sentinel trees. Sapling maples, oaks, black cherry, basswood and American elm trees rapidly filled in the area that was once grazed by cattle.

Our woods have grown up in recent years with a variety of species but Dutch elm disease and butternut canker have nearly wiped out those species. There are fallen elms and butternut trees like jackstraws on the forest floor. Although we heat our place with wood, we can't keep up with all the newly dead and dying trees.

In recent years we have had more severe summer thunderstorms with strong wind and soaking rain. The tallest basswood in our valley was felled by a thunderstorm a few years ago. A number of the large old spreading sugar maple trees left over from the grazing days have had limbs knocked down by recent storms. The storm with a tornado that swept by Martell last year knocked down a number of larger trees in our woods.

Although we have some fine stands of large oaks and maples at home, we enjoy visiting real tree cathedrals, the remnant patches of old growth forest that still stand in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. A hike that we have taken many times on our way to or from Washburn on Lake Superior is the Drummond Woods Trail in the Chequamegon - Nicollet National Forest. It's an easy loop trail of about a mile, partly on the North Country Trail. It passes through a large stand of white pines and hemlocks that a logging company left standing. Some of the trail follows an old narrow gage logging railroad grade with some of the ties still visible. You can find the trailhead off Old Highway 63 North, close to modern Highway 63 just north of Drummond in Bayfield County.

Last week when hiking through the white pine and hemlock tree cathedral in Drummond Woods, we noticed that the forest floor had been scoured by the intense rains that occurred this summer. We came upon some large chunks of wood without bark scattered along the trail. One of the ancient hemlocks had been struck by lightning in a recent storm. There was hardly anything left of that tree. The lightning strike must have been spectacular. Lightning makes water in a tree turn into explosive superheated steam.

A thunderstorm came through Washburn just before dawn the following morning. Asleep on our boat in the marina, I was wakened by the approaching storm. A loud bang and flash of a lightning struck close by. I immediately thought of that exploded hemlock tree and hoped that one of our friend's sailboats hadn't been struck. I was relieved to look out and see all the masts still intact.

Based on surveys of tree tip-over marks on the landscape, ecologists have estimated that every spot in the Great Lakes region gets wind storm events strong enough to knock down large trees once every 500 years. With the changing climate and frequency of intense rainfall and wind events, that is probably becoming more common.

We look forward to visiting more of the tree cathedrals in this area while the largest ancient trees are still standing and hear the exquisite musical calls of a hermit thrush.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at news@rivertowns.net .

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