Wednesday, June 29, 2011


One of two large Plum Island hemlocks
measured in 1981 - Roy Lukes photo

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

In late summer of 1981, I had the pleasure of hiking the woods on Plum Island with Roy Lukes.  We  were on a mission to relocate several large hemlock trees I had seen there while hunting the previous fall.   I knew that Roy, who at that time was the Naturalist at the Ridges Sanctuary, might be interested.

We walked the island's interior forest, which at that time had begun to show signs of overbrowsing by the island's increasing deer population.  We had received permission to hike then from the Station Chief at the Plum Island Coast Guard Station.  Roy encapsulated our trip in an article he wrote as a featured columnist for the Door County Advocate:

"Dick found what he thought might be a contender for the state hemlock champion.  My tape showed it to be 9 feet 8 inches around with a height of 75 feet.  After giving it some thought, my friend decided to head in a different direction toward a possibly larger specimen.   
"Within minutes he had found it, quite a giant with a circumference of 10 feet 7 inches, a height of 86 feet and a average crown spread of 49 feet.  Looking at my book of state records we both broke out in big smiles as we read, "Shawano County, 10 feet 4 inches."   That record is old, however, and needs to be checked."

Roy later followed up with an inquiry to Guy Rodgers, Supervisor of Private Forestry for the Wisconsin DNR.  Mr. Rodgers' reply indicated the two hemlocks we measured were 224.85 and 236.12, respectively, in terms of points.  He also reported that the state record hemlock was in Sawyer County and totaled 257 points!  It should be noted that the national point system as recognized by the American Forestry Association recognizes a record tree according to an accumulation of points, those points taking into consideration circumference, height, and crown spread.  The State of Wisconsin, however, scores only by circumference.  (Roy noted in his column that all measurements are usually taken, in the event the tree may be close to the national record.)

Fast forward

The Plum Island hemlocks were measured some 30 years ago.  During that span the life and health of a tree changes, growth may occur, and new giants may have been discovered.

Several weeks ago when I attended an island slide program narrated by Roy, he reminded me of our 1981 trip, and he wondered if we might be able to obtain permission to visit Plum Island once again from the island's present ower and manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.   Our plan is to return to Plum Island later this summer in order to relocate and remeasure these same two trees, and to find out how much they might have grown during that time.

Perhaps the trees we measured have grown closer to becoming a state champion tree.  Larger trees around the state might have succumbed...or, there might be new near-record trees discovered as more and more people seek them out and measure them.   Roy has often written about large trees in his column (a state record hophornbeam was found at Newport State Park by Kirby Foss a few years back). Finding and admiring outstanding trees, and measuring the largest, are among the many enjoyable aspects of walking about in local forests, along with knowing these specimens have been here for generations and will live well beyond our time.

While our Wisconsin trees might not measure up to the giants found in other states, Wisconsin does have a great amount of forested land and each year new candidates for champion status are discovered.  In the case of Plum Island, we theorized that the moist lake air, heavy fog or damp evenings, might have promoted growth in these particular hemlocks.  With the exception of a combined U.S. Forestry and Wisconsin DNR logging effort in the summer of 1985, when the island was commercially logged for the first time, no timber had been harvested there.  While these two large hemlocks from the island's interior were spared the chainsaw then, dozens of semi-loads of logs were harvested that summer, followed by scraping the ground to promote new seedling growth.  Then planters seeded new trees, oak seedlings among them.  (Dessert for the deer!)

Unfortunately, among the trees sawn down in 1985 were several outstanding white cedars with bark "strips" that were several inches wide at chest height above the base of each tree.  I estimated with my "wingspan" that these trees measured nearly 8 feet in circumference.   These old cedars were most likely hollow, anyway, and had very little value as timber, but they were perhaps among the largest of Door County's cedars.

Now with U.S. Fish and Wildlife as owner and protector of this island's habitat, Plum Island's remote hemlocks have a strong chance of surviving many more decades, barring disease or a lightening strike.  Their periodic measurement, in addition to being a curiosity, may further contribute to the knowledge of our local forests.  

-  Dick Purinton

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