Thursday, July 2, 2009

Amazing Maples of Mystery Mountain

After the very European first half of my Lutsen gondola hike, the second half of my hike was very Minnesotan. The trail cuts through one of the North Shore's most amazing sugar maple forests.

The sugar maples of the North Shore ridgeline are a fascinating story of forest ecology, of survival and persistence. The maples came to the North Shore 7000 years ago during a warm dry period, and when the warm climate moved back south, the maples found refuge along the North Shore as the big lake kept the air from getting too cold for them.

The Superior Hiking Trail route goes up and over Mystery Mountain, the least-used of Lutsen's ski hills. I first hiked this section of trail 17 years ago, field checking for The Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail. I noticed then that it was sugar maples everywhere. The big trees were sugar maples. The little trees were sugar maples. The shrubs were sugar maples. Even the ground cover was sugar maple. It's really really unusual to have one species of tree or flower dominant all levels of the forest like that.

17 years later, and I've had three jobs, two kids, and one wife. 17 years later in the maples of Mystery Mountain, nothing has changed. It's still maples everywhere.

I could see "baby" maples, biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to spring up. They don't get enough sunshine during the summer to grow much. I could also hear some of the big old maples creaking in the wind. And here and there in maple-land, one of those big maples had come down. Guess what happens next?

With the new sunshine breaking through the canopy, more maple trees grow up. The little trees make their mamas and papas proud as they grow up into the holes the old trees left when they died.

Ecologists might call this a climax forest. The maples are so perfectly suited to this environment that they replace themselves. One maple tree might not live more than a century, but the forest lives for millenia.

I'm sure there's a life lesson in there somewhere, about finding out what you're good at, being comfortable in your environment, something like that. Maybe as a father of two "sprouting" young men finding their places in the world, I saw some of my family in the forest.

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