Friday, August 26, 2011


Champion tree:  Roy Lukes, Tim Sweet and Steve Waldron

Plum Island, Wisconsin -

A group of five hiked the interior of Plum Island Monday, August 22.   Our main goal was to locate two large hemlock trees that were measured in 1981 (see blog dated 6/29/11), large specimens we thought might be worthy of champion status in the county.

Accompanying me were: Door County naturalists Roy and Charlotte Lukes; Clintonville, WI teacher, and president of the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, Tim Sweet; and Island Schools 7th and 8th grades science teacher, Steve Waldron.   Each also has a high degree of photographic interest and skill, and we were eager to photograph whatever we came upon as a means of helping record both human and natural history found on this Death's Door Island.

Roy and I had tramped the island looking for the large hemlocks in 1981, trees that I had observed while hunting there a previous fall.  It was still a "Coast Guard" island then, and we had permission from the Coast Guard's Station Commander to visit.  This time, reflecting the official change in island ownership from one federal agency to another in the fall of 2007, we asked permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to photograph and study trees there.  By "study" we meant, in the general sense of the word, observing the condition of the forest, as well as taking comparison measurements of the largest hemlock trees identified thirty years earlier.

Except for intersecting an occasional deer trail on our cross-island hike, we were, in Tim's words, "bushwhacking."  The combination of numerous windfalls, patches of waist-high raspberry plants, a variety of tall wild parsnip (which we suspected would produce skin burns) and nettles growing up to seven feet in height (which did produce stinging, burning on Charlotte's hand), made us work to find our subject hemlocks.

Having observed these two hemlocks as recently as about ten years ago, I led the way, following a route from memory, knowing we would be in the approximate vicinity.   But after we searched without results, Roy said he believed our two trees grew much closer to a low limestone ledge.  We moved that way, and his hunch proved correct.  We had been close, but I had been searching for tall, bushy hemlock crowns, not expecting to find these trees minus their tops.  Both hemlocks, as it turned out, had apparently succumbed to old age and had lost their entire upper story.  We measured one of them, anyway, just as an exercise of interest, and Roy's special tree tape indicated that this tree was in the ten-foot-circumference range with a diameter of forty-one-and-a-half inches.

One of two hemlocks found
that are on last legs. 

We were disappointed to find these trees were no longer vital, although each snag still had a few living branches on them.  This island was logged extensively in 1985, a combined effort of the Wisconsin DNR and the U.S. Forest Service (BLM was island owner-manager at the time), and we wondered if the opened forest might have contributed to the demise of these trees?  Or was it simply old age catching up?

Roy exclaimed he would enjoy nothing more than to measure a living tree, so we set off in the direction of yet a third hemlock, one we had observed years ago near the southern tip of the island.  My memory was that this tree, thirty years ago, was a younger brother to the other pair, and it had measured in with a nine-foot-plus circumference.  So we trekked off through the dry, brittle undergrowth with drooping leaves that showed severe lack of rainfall this summer.  Even in in shady areas, leaves drooped, stressed by the dry heat.

Finally, after pursuing a few false leads, we located our third hemlock.  This one proved to be well worth the hike.  Roy once again removed measuring instruments from his pack:  electronic stadimeter to measure height; two tape measures, one for crown spread and one for trunk circumference with sharp picks at the tape's end to hold it in place in the tree bark; and a GPS to record the location.

Within minutes we had our measurements which Charlotte recorded and plugged into a prescribed measurement formula:    average crown spread - 56 ft.;  trunk circumferenceat approximately four feet above ground - 10 ft. 10 in.    Charlotte then added 1/4 of the averaged crown distance to the circumference in inches, plus the tree height in feet (57 ft.) and ended with a descriptive number:  201.

Checking our tree list for Door County's largest recorded hemlocks, this one edged the top hemlock at Toft Point, recorded at 189.225 points.  Of course, 201 is still an unofficial number until the figures are reviewed by the State.

When not examining Plum Island's flora,
Charlotte Lukes recorded
and totaled tree measurements.
Our Plum Island experiences were well worthwhile, despite our disappointment in learning that two trees were no longer vital, and it was certainly fulfilling to find this champion tree.  We noted that a huge lower branch of this champion tree had recently fallen, likely due to storm damage, which might have reduced the point total significantly.  It took down with it a nearby maple, the leaves of which were brown but still clung to the branches.

Old lighthouse measured, too

We chose to return to our boat at the station dock by hiking past old stone ruins and through the cleared range light field.  These stone ruins, we are convinced based upon early 1900 photos of the standing foundation, belonged to the first lighthouse on Plum Island.  This lighthouse was completed in 1849, before a more substantial and better-situated lighthouse was built on neighboring Pilot Island in 1858.

Roy passed his tape measure to Tim, and we took approximate readings of the foundation dimensions,  guessing in the stone rubble corners where the building had ended.  We measured 19 ft. x 29 1/2 ft.   The recorded coordinates for this foundation:  N 45- 18.22'   W 86 - 57.247'

Small traces of mortar still can be found between the laid stones, but most of the mortar has eroded over time, one possible indicator, Steve Waldron noted, of the relatively poor construction mortar available at the time. What are essentially piles of stones could, in fact, be easily overlooked by passersby.  Charlotte noted that the upland area north of the old foundation appears relatively clear, perhaps a sign it had been cultivated at one time, and toward the beach there is a sand and gravel ramp that slopes toward the water, perfect for hauling a boat or moving supplies to and from the beach and structure.

Tim Sweet standing inside foundation rubble.

Given our rough dimensions, this foundation's location, the materials used, and the old light's context within Plum Island's recorded history, we are even more strongly convinced that this site is worthy of further historical investigation by an experienced archeologist.

Terry Pepper of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association contributed information on the earliest Death's Door lighthouse in the FOPPI Summer Newsletter 2001.  Using information gleaned from research of structures of similar U.S. light installations of the same period, Pepper came up with a rendering of what the old Plum Island light may have resembled.  (See FOPPI web pages at  for further information on this lighthouse.)

Excellent weather accompanied us on our Plum Island outing, and we took a number of photos that we intend to pool with the Friends of Plum and Pilot Island.

Monday, August 22 - Tim Sweet, Roy Lukes, Chalotte Lukes, Steve Waldron.

  -  Dick Purinton


Marc M said...

Richard, Nice to see you made it back and discovered a contender. Your building coordinate might need editing, N45, crunching coordinates and shipwreck hunting are like bread and butter to some folks.

Captain Sparks
P.S. Going to send you an update on the shipwreck adventure when time allows. I'm curious if you ever shared the "story" with district 9 USCG ? Be nice to have your e-mail address. :)

Richard Purinton said...

Marc - You're correct, and I didn't catch the error before you pointed it out, thanks. - DP