by Steve Prusky
Near this part of lower Michigan, outside of Grayling, one un-cut stand of defiant, yet delicate, pedigree White Pine remains. We’re coming up on the park surrounding it now. Most of the virgin timber is between 300 and 375 years old. Some trees tower up to 160 feet tall. The Potawatomi Tribe, who originally inhabited this area before its value supplanted its beauty, called these trees the Whispering Pines after the high needles that lightly whistled music in the wind. Their reddish-brown furrowed bark distinguishes them from the younger gray-green smooth second growth thriving around them.
Dawn is the best time to drive the dew soaked interstate that penetrates this side chapel of virginity. A verdant mass of cloud high trees flank the black top then. The highway meanders, like a simplified maze equipped with signage assisting you past every deceptive “S” curve or tricky side road nowhere. Mid-morning sun hovers here on clear summer days, drying the asphalt dense black, kissing the high needle tips pure jade green.
Forty-nine virgin acres are all that stand today. The rest of Michigan’s wealth was destroyed by fire, storms, mankind. Of course, the tall pines you see now were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in the 1930’s on “cutover land” as one of President Roosevelt’s pump priming projects during the Great Depression. Only walking tours are allowed through the virgin stand. No smoking is allowed.
Some guess over 160 million White Pines were cut and milled in lower Michigan between 1834 and 1897. This harvest provided the material for the Transcontinental Railroad, commissioned by the Lincoln administration, across the Midwest between 1863 and 1869. Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, Topeka, Wichita are all indebted to Michigan for its contribution to their growth along that railed path. Michigan White Pine also rebuilt Chicago after Mrs. O’Leary’s cow tipped the lantern over in 1871 and burned the city to the ground. Tragically, the Great Michigan Fires of 1871 burned a large part of Michigan’s natural wealth beginning just south-east of here from Port Huron to Tawas City on the shores of Lake Huron. Had the fire not occurred, 60 million more trees would have fallen, or maybe been saved. This lost treasure is now nothing more than fuzzy tin-type pictures placed on museum walls.
Should you speed through here some day, focused on more common, less delicate destinations, with no notice this forest passed, by mistake you may spot the pines shrink smaller in your rear view mirror, ignoring your anxious impatience to pass the hay farmer ahead, his overloaded, careening flat bed truck slow walking you with no regard for your haste. Then, later, peek back as the pines verdant tips appear like corks capping timber message bottles bobbing about on an earthen ocean’s horizon, each tree proffering a centuries old invitation for you to slow down next time through, stop, gaze a bit, but don’t step out and touch.
Now we go to the Leelanau Peninsula where Lakes Michigan and Huron mate.