BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
I was saddened to hear about the toppling of the “tunnel tree,” an iconic sequoia tree with a lightning scar that had been carved out and widened enough to allow a car to drive through it’s trunk. I must admit, I had always hoped to be able to see this tree and pass through its center. In my travels, I had seen many large trees but the idea of a tree growing large enough to enable such a feat was difficult for me to comprehend. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco, and I made a stop at the Muir Woods National Monument, where the coastal redwood trees can achieve heights of 250 feet. Granted, these trees do not grow as large as the mighty sequoias, but it was still amazing to think that trees of that size were 1,200 years old and could possibly live for another thousand years.
The climate along the Pacific is well suited for such large, long-lived trees. In the eastern U.S., our largest tree species is probably the majestic Eastern white pine. White pines can live to be 500 years old, and reach heights of over 200 feet. To date, there are four locations in this tree’s identified range that are at least 180 feet tall. These huge trees have a diameter of three to five feet, which is why they were so popular to use for ship masts. In colonial times, the British would claim the largest trees in the name of the crown and reserve them for the Royal Navy. Colonists objected to these claims, and eventually it became one of many disputes that culminated in the Revolutionary war.
Here in the Northwoods, we had our own iconic giant white pine that toppled years ago. The MacArthur Pine was at one time the largest white pine in the country. It stood 148 feet high, and had a circumference of 17.5 feet. It was named after General Douglas MacArthur, who was a Wisconsin native. This tree was so tall that in order to harvest some of its seed-bearing cones, military veterans and Forest Service personnel used rifles to shoot them off the tree. This tree survived a lightning strike in 1977 and again in 1986, but fell when a fire was lit inside it in 2001. The trunk is still there, and it is large enough that we were able to fit our entire family inside for a photo. There is also a log from the tree cradled on the site. If you have never been there, you should build it into one of your backwoods excursions. It is located on MacArthur Pine road (where else?) northwest of Newald, a beautiful hour’s drive from Rhinelander. I did some digging to see where the white pine is found today. The tallest tree east of the Rocky Mountains is the Boogerman Pine, measured at 188 feet, 10 inches. That is the current height; it was 207 feet tall until a hurricane took the top off in 1995.
As a child, I read the book “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean George. In that book, the young boy carves a home into a lightning scar of a pine tree. I still remember the account of a particularly cold night where the trees around him were exploding from the cold, and he lay there hoping that his tree would not be next. Maybe it was a hemlock or some other tree he was supposed to have used, but I would expect a white pine would have been most likely, if they are the largest tree species in the Northeast where the story was staged. This book was one of many early influences in my life that led me to work in natural resources and appreciate the natural world around me. I am pleased that state and federal forest managers protect legacy and sentinel pines today, with the hopes that centuries from now our descendants can marvel at the enormity of the natural world as well.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.