GWINN – In April 2021, the Marquette Regional History Center began a project to locate, measure and photograph trail marker trees in Marquette County. These are trees that were bent like saplings by Native Americans, to mark trails in their wooded domain. All Woodland tribes knew how to fashion these markers and continued to use them until prospectors, settlers and other immigrants disrupted the native way of life.
In Marquette County, the last authentic beacons are said to have been fashioned at least 150 years ago. Some very old, very tall among them, are approaching or have already exceeded their life expectancy of about 300 years. It is important to photograph and measure them before their inevitable decay and collapse.
Thanks to the many helpful people who called the History Center to provide information on possible beacons in the county, we have identified ten that have the characteristics of authentic beacons. Many other likenesses were assessed, photographed, and measured, but were deemed to have been formed by natural forces rather than human hands.
In December 2021, WNMU-TV recorded a brief interview that showed and described the trail marker trees and explained the History Center’s interest in them. This clip aired several times during the month, as filler between regular programs. Afterwards, a viewer called the History Center to say that he and a friend knew the location of four twisted trees they believed to be beacons.
The caller and his friend choose to remain anonymous, preferring to be simply known as “two Yoopers.” When we met a few days later, I learned that both were observant loggers who had roamed the forests of Forsyth Township for many decades. They knew a few twisted trees they saw were something very unusual, but they didn’t realize they might be beacons until they saw our ad.
We passed through the gates of two estates and traveled several miles on two-rutted roads, finally stopping at an old hunting camp. Two trail marker candidates were within a hundred yards of the camp. One of them was an often-seen example of the workings of nature.
When the tree was several inches in diameter, it had been partially uprooted by the wind or a large tree falling against it. As it continued to grow, at an angle of about 20 degrees above horizontal, the top turned toward the sun. Now, several years later, the mature tree looks like the letter “L.” Although it is not a trail marker, I learned that this tree nevertheless had a use: the children who visited the camp invariably ran towards the “horse.”
The other twisted tree near camp has all the characteristics of a classic trail marker. It is a tall old sugar maple with the distinctive double curvature. The diameter of the horizontal section is an impressive 28 inches.
After measuring and photographing this tree, the Yoopers told me there was “another just down the road.” This turned out to be literally true. We were only in the van for a few minutes before we pulled over and fanned out to find the next marker tree candidate. It took some time, as bushy conifers shielded the tree from view from both sides, but a shout, “She’s there!” from one of the Yoopers, ended our search.
This old sugar maple has the familiar double curvature, but with a less common added feature: two vertical trunks.
Reference books show many examples of double trunk trail markers, but this is the first intact example we have seen in Marquette County. The Reader Farm trail marker in Chocolay Township originally had two vertical trunks, but lost one in a windstorm about 20 years ago.
It is believed that twin-trunk trail markers had special significance to Native Americans of centuries past in addition to their primary function as directional pointers, but this significance has been lost over time.
The fact that this tree and the one at the camp were so close raised an interesting possibility. Could these two markers be on the same track? I had already taken a compass to record the direction the tree was pointing. It happened to be the southeast. When I asked, “Where is the camp from here?” the two Yoopers immediately pointed southeast.
This was encouraging, but more evidence was needed to determine if the two-trunked tree was actually pointing to the camp tree. A few weeks later, the Yoopers returned to the forest to take Geographic Positioning System (GPS) measurements on the two trees. Plotting the results on a map confirmed that the two-trunked tree was indeed pointing in the direction of the camp tree. Two in a row! Another first in Marquette County.
The map plot also showed that the two trees were just under a quarter mile apart. The camp tree points east, indicating that the trail has changed direction there.
The two Yoopers plan to hike the woods east later this year, hoping to find a third marker tree on the trail.
There’s a high chance that this quest won’t succeed, but so does the chance of finding two counters in a row. The existence of a third tree must be confirmed or denied, and that is what they intend to do.
Adding the double-trunked and camp trees to our tally brings the number of Marquette County marker trees to twelve, and the search continues.