Susan Cox and her canine companion are dwarfed by the trail marker tree that stands along the Cox driveway in Marquette County. Other trail marker trees can be found in the county. (Photo courtesy of John Cox)

MARQUETTE — GPS wasn’t around 150 years ago, but the woodland Native American tribes found a unique way to navigate forests: getting trees literally bent out of shape.

A local man knowledgeable about Native American trail marker trees, Bill Van Kosky, talked about these trees, which are found in Marquette County among other parts of the United States, during Tuesday’s meeting of the Marquette Area Chapter of the North Country Trail Association at the Peter White Public Library.

Trail marker trees have a distinct shape, with one shape going upward, making a turn and then going upward again, although other shape variations have been discovered.

Tribes that lived from the East Coast to the Mississippi River, out to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Canada created these trees, Van Kosky said.

“They, like all indigenous people, were much closer to nature than you and I will ever get, no matter how much we’re outside walking around, because their lives depended on it,” Van Kosky said.

They had to read shadows on the ground, notice how the sun changes positions daily and over the month, and see how the seasons repeat.

“They didn’t know about a compass,” he said. “There was no concept of a north-south, east-west understanding, but they could find their way through the woods by following the clues that nature gave them.”

However, Van Kosky said that at some point, “some clever person” decided it would great to have special markers to show directions.

So, the Indians started bending trees in different configurations, including those in Marquette County.

“It’s our very good fortune that in the trees we found in the county, they represented almost all of the known major variations in shapes,” he said.

Van Kosky showed several photographs of notable trail marker trees in the county.

All of the Marquette County trees that have been located, he pointed out, are sugar maple.

“A sugar maple, when it’s a young sapling, is very, very flexible, and sugar maple is a long-lived species,” Van Kosky said.

He provided an explanation of how a trail marker tree was formed.

A sapling about the width of a human thumb and 10 feet high was bent over, pointing in the direction of the trail, and then tied to a stake in the ground with a strip of animal skin.

The tree was visited occasionally for a few years to trin off all except one upright shoot or limb, which would eventually become the tree’s new trunk. When the tree showed no tendency to grow upward, the tie-down was removed and the original top cut off.

Decades later, a skinny sapling was transformed into a tree with a short tunk emerging from the ground, curving into a horizontal section several feet long, and then turning sharply upward.

As the tree aged, it grew taller and larger in diameter but never lost its unique double-curve shape.

Van Kosky said that to be considered an authentic trail marker tree, it must be at least 150 years old. Also, any sugar maple less than 22 inches in diameter is unlikely to meet the age requirement.

“We do know that diameter of a tree is the best proxy for its age,” he said.

What distinguishes all trail markers trees, however, is their uniqueness.

“There are no two of these alike,” Van Kosky said. “They’re similar, but of course, each one of these was shaped by a different person at a different time.”

He acknowledged, though, that although some trees resemble trail marker trees, they do not officially belong in that category. An unusual and similar tree, for example, resulted from nature itself, such as one tree falling on another and altering its growth pattern.

History project underway

In 2021, the Marquette Regional History Center began a project to locate trail marker trees in the county. Public response has resulted in identification of several previously undocumented trail markers, but it is believed many more can be found.

Anyone who sees a large, old bent tree resembling a marker tree shape is asked to call the MRHC at 906-226-3571. Arrangements will be made to evaluate, photograph and measure the possible trail marker tree within a few days. Afterward, the person making the report will receive a written response from the evaluator.

Cris Osier, executive director of the MRHC, said Van Kosky is a member of the center and is closely involved with the tree project.

“He is super-dedicated to this,” Osier said.

She also noted that the local NCTA chapter could be of assistance and “get more eyes” in the woods.

Van Kosky also joked to the group that he hoped he didn’t spoil their future hikes.

“I’m not looking at the grandeur or the vista,” he said. “I’m looking for crooked trees.”

Whatever the vista, these special trees dotted much of the country.

The entire eastern half of the United States, Van Kosky said, was covered with trail marker trees.

“We don’t know how many there are because there’s no registry,” Van Kosky said. “There’s no one group or organization that keeps track of trail marker trees, which is why we took it upon ourselves to try to find what we have in Marquette County because nobody else is doing it.”

Unfortunately, these trees won’t stand forever.

“As time goes by, these will be appreciated more because they’re dying off,” he said.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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