Magazine article Natural History

Spirit of Lake Superior

Magazine article Natural History

Spirit of Lake Superior

Article excerpt

On Hat Point along the northwest shore of Lake Superior stands a gnarled elder of the Grand Portage Band of Minnesota's Ojibwe people: Manido Gee-zhi-gance, Spirit Little Cedar Tree. To reach it, one must pass through a grove shrouded by old man's beard, an ethereal, light-green lichen. The lichen is "very sensitive to air pollution, so we're happy that it grows so well here," says Seth Moore, wildlife biologist for the Grand Portage Band.

At the bottom of a steep trail waits the tribe's sentinel, a northern white cedar, or arborvitae, in which a spirit is said to dwell. The species, Thuja occidentali*, grows slowly on cliff faces and in northern swamp forests. The earliest written record of this aged specimen is from the French Canadian explorer Sieur de la Vérendrye in 1731, who called it a mature cedar at the time.

The Witch Tree, as it was later named, likely began life in a fissure in the granite rock that lines the lake. There it survived gales, ice floes, and blizzards - for a time. Then an unknown event, perhaps a lightning strike, damaged the tree's crown but left its main root alive. A root sprout arose, entwining the original trunk.

As the rock fissure in which the cedar grew slowly weathered, a deep path cracked open. The tree's roots followed, extending into the lake. Manido Gee-zhi-gance became halfland, half-water. Beneath the surface, fish dart among the roots. Above the waves, the tree's branches offer a safe haven to the eagle and the raven.

When you go to the Witch Tree," says Don Hoaglund, a Grand Portage Band member, "you're stepping into a different world. …

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