Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Witch Tree - the Spirit Little Cedar


One of the coolest, most evocative, and most history laden spots on Minnesota's north shore of Lake Superior is this relatively small white cedar tree that sits almost on the tip of Hat Point near Grand Portage. It's first written mention is by French explorer Sieur de la Verendrye in 1731, who commented on the tree as a mature tree at that time, making it at least 300 years old now. The local Ojibwe in Grand Portage had known of the tree long before that and Manido Gizhigans, the Ojibwe name for the tree, has spiritual significance and the land it sits on is considered sacred. Because of that access is restricted and now hikers must be accompanied by a guide from the tribe when they visit the tree. If a person visits by sea kayak however, both the view and proximity are excellent.

I've taken a lot of images of the tree including the one above on our last trip. I'm almost embarrassed to post it though, when I look at Travis Novitsky's images of the tree. Travis lives in Grand Portage and one of his images, not mine, is framed and on the landing of our St Anthony estate. The VOR and I are big fans of his work and stopped to say hi and pick up yet another Travis image on our recent trip to the area. Don't try to visit Grand Portage State Park during the week this fall though, its closed while they build the new visitors center.

Part of the lure of the tree is the history that its witnessed. We had a similar situation out in Oregon when we hiked the same trail in Ecola State Park Lewis and Clark had taken on a mission to acquire some whale oil in the Cannon Beach area. The giant Sitka Spruce are roughly 400 years old and were there and mature when Lewis and Clark passed by. I find that sort of thing compelling and the Spirit Little Cedar falls into that same category. The voyageurs and the couer de bois, the independent French trappers, used the tree as the landmark that told them they were almost to the fort at Grand Portage and their journey was almost over. On the way back to Montreal, in the big freighter canoes heavily laden with furs, they would offer tobacco to the tree to help insure safe passage on the often treacherous waters of Gitchee Gumee.

It an interesting tree with a lot of legends associated with it and its unique shape, formed in part by the 'bonsai' action of several centuries facing the gales of November on the big lake, make it an interesting photographic subject. But if you're paddling on the lake, starting a major crossing, it can't hurt to offer a little tobacco to the Spirit Little Cedar. Legends and traditions like that always seem quaint and funny. Until a person is in the presence of the tree that is; then all of a sudden it doesn't seem so funny and there is that feeling that maybe it would be prudent to sprinkle a little offering before heading out on the big lake.

2 comments:

Silbs said...

Wonderful piece. I know of what you speak.

My Life With AIDS said...

In 1989, while while visiting my grandmother in Boy River, Minnesota, my father and I took a few days to drive up to Canada, returning to MN south of Thunder Bay so we could once again experience the North Shore. Even though we had done the drive before, it never seemed to get old, even to a 17 year old -my age at the time. I always enjoyed Gooseberry Falls & Split Rock Lighthouse, but this time while having lunch in Grand Marais, if memory serves me right, we noticed the framed posters, photos on the wall and one stuck out -one of The Witch Tree. I immediately become enthralled by it's twisted trunk sprouting from a massive rock along the shore. How could that be? I had to go see it in person. I'm not sure if I asked someone or read it on the poster or what, but my father and I somehow figured out where we had to go to to start looking for this mystical tree. We drove up to Grand Portage and stayed at the Naniboujou Lodge for the night. I remember waking up early and taking a walk along the lake shore at sunrise -it was a chilly July morning, I remember putting on a long sleeve henley. After breakfast, my father and I drove up to the old fort and drove down some road, almost to it's end. We saw one sign, that had no mention of The Witch Tree. I recall thinking at the time how difficult it had taken us to even get to where we were on this search for the tree -this beautiful, intriguing, captivating tree captured on film and printed on posters...one would think that there would have been more interest in seeing this tree and therefore a more clear and defined direction to it, but no. I started walking down a path near the sign on the road and after a few meters the path disappeared; the path I was walking had grown over from lack of usage I assumed. I knew the lake was in front of me so I kept walking till I reached the shore of Lake Superior. Once there, I looked to my right, then to my left, and that's when I saw the tree some meters away. It was magnificent. Soon my father caught-up and we both admired in silence The Witch Tree sprouting from the large lake shore rock. I couldn't believe we had found it. Was it luck, or determination, I don't know -both! After saying a prayer and our farewell, we trotted back through the woods toward the road we came from. We emerged from the trees at a different location, from where we had entered. There I noticed a second sign -it was further down the road and hidden by vegetation. I'm not sure exactly how the words on the sign read, but it mentioned the Native American Tribe and the sacred grounds beyond the road and that only authorized tribe members could walk beyond the sign. It was more than an "oops," to my father and I, but we both agreed that we hadn't disturbed anything and had left the area as we had come upon it. So, we said an apology to the spirits, got in our car, and drove off. Oh, I did take one photograph.