Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 22, 2012

Residents take good care of bent-tree trail marker


TRAVERSE CITY — There are plenty of trees in northern Michigan, but the white oak in Don and Sally Dunlop's Washington Street front yard is plenty special.

The tree is fat and old, perhaps 150 years old, with thick bark and grooves swirling like snow flurries in a December wind.

What makes the Dunlops' tree so special is its deep, y-like branch and hanging knot that rises from its gnarled base. The y-bend and knot mark it as a "bent" tree — a hardwood that was deliberately manipulated by Native Americans two centuries ago, when it was young, so it would stand out and mark a path through the woods.

"At first we thought it was a novelty, but we now know it's an asset," said Don Dunlop.

Caring for the tree is "a responsibility that weighs on us heavily" given the tree's incredible history, Sally Dunlop said. She relies on Bo Burke, a consulting arborist, to regularly baby the ancient giant through prunings and biannual doses of nutrients.

"We feel like we should take care of it," she said.

John Bailey is a member of the Grand River Band of Odawa people and hails from the Black Wolf clan. He said there is a great deal of discussion about bent trees and their significance. Sometimes they are trees that just grew unusually — perhaps because of disease — and Native Americans relied on them to mark pathways.

But some trees were deliberately manipulated — they were bent or had their branches tied together when young to spur unusual growth — to help Native Americans find pathways.

"A lot of times you look at them and they are directional markers," Bailey said. "They tell you, 'We are heading north or headed west.'"

Bailey said a bent oak is "highly unusual" because bending often occurred on softer varieties of trees.

"A lot of times they were utilized because they were abnormal," Bailey said. "They would see (the tree) and offer a prayer. I know of a hunter who came across one and used it for a stand to hunt deer and rest his rifle."

The book "Historic Traverse City Houses," by Lawrence and Lucille Wakefield, mentions the tree as "an Indian trail marker." Another book, "Gateways to Grand Traverse Past," by Richard Fidler, mentions the tree as well, and said the Record-Eagle mentioned the tree as early as Jan. 20, 1917, as one of the city's "Historic Spots" and a possible "meeting of the trails, the trail from Old Mission and the Mackinac trail."

"The majority of the city fathers felt it was bent by Native Americans and called it a trail marking tree," Fidler said, adding there are a lot of unanswered questions about the tree, including whether it definitely was manipulated by human hands.

"Could it have been a meeting place?" Fidler said. "Could it mark a boundary? Did it mark a trail at all?"

Another bent tree is on the grounds surrounding the Grand Traverse County Civic Center. Don Dunlop is intrigued by the idea of a tree marking a route through the woods.

"They've been replaced by GPS and maps," he said.

At the base of the tree on Washington Street is a stone placed by the Grand Traverse Historical Society. The stone tells passersby to "Behold this Tree!"

Burke certainly beholds the tree.

"I've been doing this for 15 years and I've never seen another one like it," Burke said.