Estivant Pines — Upper Peninsula’s stairway to heaven

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  • COPPER HARBOR, Mich. — There are certain places on earth that feel a little closer to heaven than others. Nuvatukyaovi, the sacred peaks of the Hopi people in Arizona; Lumbini, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where Buddha was born; Mount Ararat in Eastern Turkey, where Noah’s Ark came to rest; Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ.

    Estivant Pines is a different type of divine location. Situated out near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, that rocky backwards apostrophe of land that dares stand up to Lake Superior’s depths and fury, Estivant Pines has that daunting “end of the earth” ambiance.

    If you could reach the tops of these centuries old trees, it appears that you could stretch out from there, peel back the clouds, and just maybe reveal the pearly gates.

    “It has that special presence, and just an almost supernatural air about it. This is one of those rare places where you can visit a hundred times and still be in awe on your next trip,” said Ted Soldan, who lives about 70 miles away and volunteers regularly at the site. “It can take your breath away, over and over.”

    Estivant Pines is one of nature’s miracles that almost got erased from the face of the planet. It is a 500-acre sanctuary that houses one of the last stands of old growth forest east of the Mississippi River. There are white pines here that were already strong and branching out when Jamestown was settled in 1607. When the Civil War was fought, some of the Estivant Pines were more than 200 years old.

    Estivant Pines, with some trees that are 300 years old and older, is found on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
    Estivant Pines, with some trees that are 300 years old and older, is found on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

    Forty years ago, there had been intense logging underway in the region, and the chain saws were essentially idling, prepared to level the last of the “virgin” timber on the Keweenaw. Universal Oil Products owned the land near here and had already cut 350 acres of old growth white pines.

    “These are some of the oldest living things around, so it seemed like the right thing to do, to try and preserve this last piece of true forest,” said Charlie Eschbach, who helped spearhead the “Save the Estivant Pines” committee in 1970.

    The group partnered with the Michigan Nature Association to first gain some publicity to buy time and give the pines an 11th-hour reprieve from the loggers, with the intention of raising enough money to purchase the tract so it could be protected in perpetuity.

    “It’s common today, but back then, environmental battles like this had not happened,” Eschbach said. “We were really out on a limb.”

    Eschbach and local naturalist Jim Rooks traveled to see the president of Universal Oil to plead their case in person in his office in a skyscraper high above downtown Chicago.

    “I remember the carpet was so deep I almost turned my ankle,” said Eschbach. “And it was clear he didn’t have a whole lot of interest in what us Yoopers had to say.”

    But the effort eventually prevailed, and in August of 1973, the Michigan Nature Association got the deed and the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary was born, maybe 500 years after some of its residents had first punched their then tender stems up through the ground, reaching for sunlight and life.

    The name comes from a previous owner — Edward A.J. Estivant — a merchant from Paris who bought a 2,400-acre tract in the 1870s that included today’s grove of ancient trees.

    Besides the hundreds of giant pines, some that reach nearly 150 feet toward the sky, the Estivant reserve holds many massive birch, maple, and oak trees, and it also provides a habitat for an array of unique flora and fauna.

    Estivant Pines boasts nearly two dozen species of ferns, 13 types of native orchids, along with violets, asters, baneberry, bloodroot, and sarsaparilla. Some 85 species of birds live here, including flycatchers, owls, warblers, hawks, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and jays.

    “It is a little overwhelming to realize that generation after generation of songbirds have come back there and not had their existence disturbed by anything man has done,” Soldan said.

    Superior’s storms batter the region and occasionally claim one of the giants, but Eschbach explained that is just nature taking its course in one of the harshest environments and most remote locations in the lower 48 states.

    “These trees are growing on the spine of the Keweenaw, so they get all of the fury Lake Superior sends their way,” he said. “The land is rocky, the soil is thin, but somehow they hang on, century after century.”

    Soldan cautions all visitors to Estivant Pines to not arrive here expecting paved trails and concession stands.

    “This is not a park — it’s not groomed. This is a wilderness with a thread of a trail going through it,” he said. It is also a rare snapshot of what Michigan’s first settlers encountered.”

    Estivant Pines is better referred to as a sanctuary, and it contains a trail that takes visitors through a “cathedral grove” of these ancient trees. Those heavenly terms seem appropriate to the 70-year-old Eschbach, who on a recent evening walk through the giant pines was reminded of the real purpose of such a majestic site.

    “I was alone and just reflecting on what this place does to you,” he said. “Then I heard children’s voices down the trail and noticed how we were all so dwarfed by these huge pines. Those children and their parents weren’t even born when we saved this place 40 years ago, but here they are, walking among the giants. It hit me — places like this are for our future generations. They need to see such natural beauty does exist.”

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.