Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Porcupine Mountains Series Part 1: Hallowed Hollow Ground

I like trees.  This is a bit of an ongoing argument at my house, because Scuba likes to cut down trees.  I understand his concern with things like pine needles and leaves clogging eaves troughs, and roots
infringing on the driveway.  However, I always point out the trees were here first, so I win.

If I could get Scuba to take a day-long hike through the Porcupine Mountains, I might be able to change his way of thinking.  A long time ago, before settlers arrived in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, those lands contained 81 million acres of undisturbed, closed-canopy forest.  About half of this land consisted of forests of sugar maple, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, American basswood, northern red oak, and eastern white pine.  Today, less than 0.2% of these hardwood-hemlock forests survive as virgin (never been logged) forests.  The largest of these virgin forests is in the Porcupine Mountains, with 35,000 acres of relatively undisturbed hardwoods and hemlocks.*

I only saw a fraction of that while hiking the Porkies, but it is really something to see.

It's not that portions of the Porcupine Wilderness has never been logged.  In the late 1800's, tracts of land were purchased to log the white pine and cedar stands.  Sadly, remnants of the logging era still remain today, where century-old pine stumps can be seen all along the Lake Superior shoreline.*  But the difficulties of logging in this wilderness area pushed the logging barons to other places by the early 1900's.  As technology advanced, some logging activity took place until the early 1940's.  The last logging operations in the Porcupine Mountains occurred in 1953-1954, after a wind storm left a blowdown of centuries-old trees between the mouth of the Big Carp River and Summit Peak.  After the storm, park officials contracted with Connor Lumber and Land Company to salvage the timber in exchange for land the park wanted.  When the salvage of the timber was complete in 1954, the Michigan Conservation Commission declared the Porcupine Mountains a Nature Reserve, thereby protecting the remaining virgin stands from further logging.*

Darkness in Daylight
My favorite tree is the Hemlock.  When hiking on Government Peak trail to the top of a
mountain is halted by a majestic 400 year old tree, I can't just walk around it.  I must take a moment to study its solidity, its gnarled roots visible below my feet, yet stretching deep into the mountain rock for stability.  Standing under its branches, I am awed by the darkness at the height of day, the mighty Hemlock blocking the warmth of the sun, yet radiating its own heat down on the earth.  I am humbled by its strength, inspired by its endurance, and joyful at its beauty.

As I hiked, I noticed from time to time my footsteps made a hollow sound, like I was walking on a drum, and I wondered about it.
Later, a visit with Bob Wild of the DNR shed some light on this phenomenon.  The mountains are a result of millions of years of volcanic eruptions and tetonic plates moving around, and have a strong foundation of rock.  The Hemlocks traveled through pollination and took root in the glacial deposits and rock, but the roots necessarily grow down through the earth.  In various places, especially where the virgin Hemlocks stand, the root formations under the rock have created pockets of air, or hollow places.  At first I found this unsettling, but Bob explained that the roots serve to strengthen the framework under the ground.  He pointed out that the "hollow" ground on which I walked felt very hard and solid.  As my time progressed in the mountains, I came to think of these areas as walking on hallowed, hollow ground.  Bob liked my description.

Those same roots, exposed above the crust of the mountain, act like fingers, reaching out to claw and grab.  It is entirely possible that a lone hiker could find herself having some difficulty navigating the Hemlock roots, which brings up the age old question; if a hiker stumbles and trips her way up (and occasionally, back down) a trail, but no one is there to see it, did it really happen?  So I found myself being quick and light of foot, following in the steps of my American Indian ancestors with speed and agility on my hike.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

The entire 7.3 mile hike up Government Trail was made worth it by the rest stop I took at Trap Falls.  Stumbling…um, I mean, gracefully stepping, into a designated backcountry campsite, complete with a bear pole, and finding a rustic outpost of the most delightful design, was a much welcome respite from the hike.  Many others who had traveled this way before me had created an outdoor home complete with chairs, tables, fire pit, and the soothing sound of Trap Falls cascading into the Carp River.

Rooney ran down the steep bank to drink from the cool, clear water, while I sat on a log and drank my bottled water.  I looked up, at the mighty Hemlocks.  I looked over, at the bear pole where countless hikers have hung their food.  I looked around, at the natural impression in the mountain that gives a small but flat place to set up camp.  I looked down, at the water flowing over and around ancient rocks, and I thought "God is good, and Michigan's DNR is awesome."

I stayed longer than I should have, but found it difficult to leave this magical speck of earth.  As I climbed up the steep bank back to the trail, a Hemlock branch was there to give me a hand up.  In gratitude, I saluted the tree, and envied its post.  To be a sentinel over this beautiful mountain, and this very spot where people seek shelter, is a duty that can only be given by God.

Eastern Hemlock can be found throughout the park.  They can live 500 years or more, and reach 100 feet in height.

Arriving here from the eastern Allegheny forests 3,000 years ago, their thick canopy of needles provides not just shade from the sun, but shelter in the winter, attracting deer in the snowy months.  Hemlock stands become deer yards during the winter, where the deer feed on buds and needles.  The tannins in the needles and bark of the Hemlocks also creates the reddish-brown color of the streams and rivers in the park through runoff.*  All through my hike up to Government Peak, I marveled at the Hemlocks, seeing the effects of them everywhere I looked.  They are a living, dynamic presence which urged me to keep going, even as I tired.

Root growing over Rock
I found a sense of inspiration in the woods.  The Hemlock will not be daunted, giving me the idea that the next time someone challenges me to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, I want to be a Tree!

Throughout my hikes up the mountains, I forged ahead, I reached the top, and I came back down.  I followed the rules, carrying out my empty water bottles and granola bar wrappers.  Because God has given us this amazing place, but the DNR, hikers, and nature lovers are bestowed with the responsibility of keeping it amazing, I was careful not to disturb the balance or leave anything but footprints, and possibly a little bit of flesh and blood from my leg, but that's a story for another time.  I hope that someday, my husband will walk the mountains with me, and see what I've seen, and never cut down another healthy tree again.  Then again, he usually cuts them down when I'm not home, so if I'm not there to see the tree fall, did he really fell the tree?  That's his story, and he's sticking to it.

*All of the historical and environmental information in this post comes from The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion, Fifth Edition, by Michael Rafferty and Robert Sprague, published by Nequaker Natural History Associates, 2012.   I strongly recommend reading this book prior to a visit to the Porcupine Mountains.  It will not only give you helpful tips for exploring the park, but will also enhance your understanding of what you will experience here.