MARQUETTE COUNTY, MICH. — It was after nightfall during a backpacking trip through the Upper Peninsula’s rugged McCormick Wilderness this spring when Nick Hansen first spotted the giant Eastern white pine.
Towering on the banks of a stream, illuminated only by the beam of his headlamp, the tree was so extraordinary that even through the darkness, Hansen immediately knew it was special.
“I’d seen a lot of big white pines — I’ve been to Hartwick Pines — and this thing just dwarfed anything I’d seen in actual, designated old growth areas,” he says. “I was pretty mystified by that.
Hansen’s instincts proved correct when he reported the white pine to the Michigan Botanical Club’s Big Tree Register program, which maintains the records for the largest trees of each species in the state.
When certifier Byron Sailor gathered the official measurements in late September, the tree was found to be 155 feet tall — making it not only the state’s tallest white pine, but the tallest tree currently on record in Michigan, and according to the state coordinator Ted Reuschel, possibly the tallest ever recognized under Michigan’s Big Tree program.
To be ranked in the Big Tree Register, trees are given a score by adding together several measurements. When its record-setting height was combined with its 63-foot average crown spread and whopping circumference of more than 15 feet, this white pine earned a score that unseated the previous champion — a 143-foot-tall white pine — and crowned it the new queen of Michigan’s big trees.
According to Reuschel, while new species champions are found several times a year, it is “extremely rare” to come across a tree that sets a new height record for all living trees in the state.
But what makes this pine even more remarkable is its location.
“The vast majority of the big trees on the register are not out in the woods; they’re in cemeteries and parks and golf courses and places like that,” Reuschel says — places where they might not have much competition, where they might be tended to and protected.
Out in the McCormick Wilderness, a wild 17,000-acre tract within the Ottawa National Forest, this new state record holder has been growing, untended to, for an estimated 287 years — an exceptional feat especially considering the rampant clear cutting of Michigan’s logging boom.
To protect the tree and its sensitive surrounding habitat from too much attention going forward, those involved with finding and certifying it wish not to divulge its exact location, which is a few miles from the nearest trailhead along rough terrain.
But as the hiker who found the tree, Hansen won’t forget exactly where it stands — and in fact says he’ll likely pay the tree another visit next spring, now that he knows just how incredible it is.
“Looking at it, I knew that tree was special,” he says. “I knew it would make the Michigan big tree community really happy.”
Learn more about the Michigan Big Tree Registry here.