News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

The Valley of the Giants: If a 100 foot tree falls and no one is around does it really make a sound?

Courtney Pedersen

We heard about giants in fairy tales when we were kids… but it turns out Michigan has an island with giants that you can travel to anytime.  


These giants can be found deep in the forest of South Manitou Island. They’re trees, Northern White Cedars to exact, some stand 100-feet tall and some are 600 years old.  


The small grove of Northern White Cedar trees on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s South Manitou Island is one of the few stands of virgin timber left in all of Michigan.


Nick Seguin, Manitou Transit deckhand and tour guide, said it’s a fluke of nature that the trees are here at all since prevailing westerly winds have been sandblasting the cedar trees with sand from the dunes. This has caused the bark and wood to become impregnated with sand.


“When they were logging the island back in the early 1800s, they were using hand cut techniques, cross cut saws, and it would dull their blades really quickly, then they had to sharpen those blades by hand,” Sequin said. “The island distance and sand in the trees combined to spare this grove of cedars when the rest of the island is logged.”


Credit Courtney Pedersen

  The cedars were located at the point of the island geographically as far away from the dock at Burton’s Wharf, where the loggers would offload lumber.


“This grove of white cedar trees includes some of the largest and oldest in North America,” the National Park Service website reads. “Many of the trees are 300 to 500 years old and are over twice as large as the average white cedar, reaching 100 feet into the air and three to five feet around. A fallen tree revealed 528 growth rings.”


Since the trees have been growing untouched for so long, some have reached heights that make them National Champion Trees. The trunk circumference, height and crown spread are added together to determine which tree in a species gets the designation.


Due to the trunk circumference, height and crown spread of these cedars, South Manitou Island has housed some of the National Champion Trees. National champion trees add up the total measurements of those three categories and are then determined by the highest total.


Credit Courtney Pedersen

  “The first champion that was dated to 582 years old when it fell over and that was 20 plus years ago,” Seguin said. “The next one that fell over was not dated, but it was bigger and older and larger, so 600 or more.”


Although there is currently not a champion tree on the island, since they must be living, Seguin said there is a co-champion that is tied with a white cedar in upstate New York.


“We located and measured a new nominee for the State champion tree, a Northern White Cedar was found on South Manitou Island,” Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore posted on Facebook December 28, 2020. “Our nominee has a circumference of 148 inches, height of 93 feet and 30 foot crown spread.”


Credit Courtney Pedersen

  Seguin said Northern White Cedar trees have shallow roots that spread out wide, but don’t go far into the soil. He compared the trees to a nail standing on its flat head.


Once the trees develop mass in the trunk, most of the weight is up high from the branches and needles, and that makes them top heavy. They have a tendency to fall over. Often the old cedars are replaced with other hardwoods.


Seguin said it’s unlikely that the Valley of the Giants will still be standing in a hundred years.


“As the cedars come down it's the faster growing hardwoods that are replacing them, beech, maple, ash, ironwood, dogwoods,” Seguin said. “These trees can fill up a hole in the canopy in a quarter the time it takes the cedars.”


These cedars are accessible to visitors of the island by a 6.9 mile hike, or by a hybrid hike and trailer tour. 


Courtney produced this story as part of the Michigan News Group internship. A collaboration between WCMU and eight community newspapers. You can read a print version of this story in this week’s edition of the Leelanau Enterprise.