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Minnesota’s tallest red pine: Old, dying, majestic

LAKE ITASCA STATE PARK, MINN. — Maybe it’s wrong to mourn a single tree when so many have been lost to windstorms in recent years, from cherished heirloom trees in Twin Cities yards to whole swaths of forest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

But this was — is — a special tree.

It was Minnesota’s tallest red pine and a co-national champion, sharing the honor with a great red pine in Michigan.

It had been my favorite stop in Lake Itasca State Park for many years, ever since I first made the short trek down an unnamed trail by Nicollet Creek, turned right to walk to an observation platform, then turned back to see what seemed three great trees stacked to the heavens.

It was more than 120 feet tall and more than 300 years old.

“That’s older than our country,” I told my grandchildren one summer when I introduced them to my tree.

They seemed not impressed.

“It’s more than five times older than I am,” I said, and their eyes grew wide with new appreciation.

Old and imperfect
The red pine, more commonly called Norway pine, is native to Minnesota and covered vast stretches of the state north of the Twin Cities until it was heavily logged after European settlement. The establishment of Itasca State Park in 1891 was done in part to preserve some remnants of native pine. In 1953, the Legislature declared the red pine Minnesota’s state tree.

I loved this singular tree’s noble height, the centuries it represented and the way the trunk bent a little about halfway up to a lush crown that was not quite symmetrical.

“It is old and imperfect,” I thought each time I saw it, “but it is stunningly handsome. And it endures.”

It still stands, but it has lost much of its aesthetic charm and no longer towers above 120 feet. It no longer claims national-champion status. The winds that took or savagely altered so many Minnesota trees last summer reached around other impressive but not quite so tall red pines to shear the champion’s crown, leaving a jagged and nearly barren top.

I didn’t know about the windstorm and the damage when I visited last fall. I walked out to the platform, turned with the usual anticipation — and almost cried.

“Some people are sad, but they understand the cycle,” said Connie Cox, Itasca’s lead park naturalist. “It’s kind of expected, given the age of the tree. The average life expectancy of a red pine is 250 years, and they suffer some of the same things we do as we age. They become brittle. And last summer was so windy, we had healthy young trees breaking off.”

The 32,600-acre (49 square miles) park is open all year, but part of Wilderness Drive, which brings motorists to within a few hundred yards of the old red pine, is closed in winter.

“You can ski to it,” Cox said.

Besides the main trunk, only a few side branches remain, probably not enough to sustain it. The trunk is riddled with heart rot, which likely contributed to its inability to withstand last summer’s heavy winds.

But the tree stands — it endures — and this spring the viewing platform will again invite visitors to step back and look up to see noble beauty and history and the cycle of life. The sign that celebrated a champion is gone, but park officials plan to install a new plaque, Cox said, “telling the story of the former majesty of a great tree.”

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