Two old cottages beneath a fistful of pines—that was my first impression of what was then known as Ogden Point. Before my first visit to Grenell in 1975, my then fiancé, Gary, showed me a pen and ink drawing his mother had made of their family place on Grenell Island. Looking at the same drawing today, I note that we’ve lost a lot of the towering pines that used to stand above the cottage. Luckily, in the process of losing the pines, we haven’t lost the cottages.
I grew up in Central Illinois, where there are no hills, no rocks, and very few trees—only miles and miles and miles of corn and soybean fields and whole lot of sky. Perhaps because I grew up in a place with no trees, I have such an affinity for them. Ever since I was young child, I’ve had this longing to live in a cottage in the woods. It would be a two-story cottage surrounded by lots of rocks, trees and ferns. Maybe I got the image from fairy tales that I loved—Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But when I saw that pen and ink sketch, I knew this was the place of my dreams.
To me, the trees are as important as the cottage. The first tree I remember almost losing was in 1981. There was a storm the night before we arrived with our infant son, his first trip to the River. Back then the boathouse was on the west side of the point. As we circled the point, we saw that the huge white pine at water’s edge had been cut in half the night before by a lightning bolt. The same bolt of lightning had followed the intake waterline and fried the water pump.
Although it’s been missing it’s top for 30 years, the pine still stands by our north rock at water’s edge and frames many of my sunset pictures.
The trees have been quite stressed in the last two decades. In the wee hours of July 15, 1995 a microburst swept through the area with straight-line winds estimated between 100 and 125 miles an hour. My mother-in-law told us she remembered waking to the sound of a terrible thud. A huge white pine—the largest and oldest on the point—twisted and fell, landing directly between the two cottages. We arrived a week later. I sobbed when I saw it. It was like loosing a grandparent.
Two years later, we had an even worse tree calamity--the ice storm of 1997. Sitting on my screened-in porch that summer and looking across at Thousand Island Park, it looked as if a dinosaur had munched on the tops of the trees. So many trees lost and the ones that remained, lost much of their canopy. Many trees were pruned so oddly, so severely, they looked like trees out of a Dr. Seuss book. We were lucky on the point. We lost lots of branches, but we didn’t loose any trees.
We weren’t as lucky in 2000 when beavers invaded sometime in April. Neighbor Tim Dennehy said he was eating breakfast and heard a thud. “It wasn’t windy, “ he recalls, it was perfectly calm out. He walked over later to see that not one, but several trees had been felled by beavers. We came prepared to do a lot of clean up, but there wasn’t a lot of cleaning up to do. The beavers stripped the trees of their branches and left only denuded trunks. Some of the smaller trees were gone all together, leaving only the telltale pointed nub of a stump.
We lost a total of 15 trees to beavers that spring. When we called the kids, their first question was, “Is ‘my’ tree still there?” We have a tradition of planting a tree when a child is born. The kids were attached to their trees while they were growing up. When we called my father-in-law, Bob, he wanted to know if “his” oak was still there. I knew exactly which oak he meant. Almost a decade before, an old oak had fallen, splitting this younger oak in half. Bob had played “tree surgeon,” reattaching the severed half and bolting the tree back together. It worked. The tree grew back together eventually growing over the bolts so we couldn’t see them any more. But the tree that he had saved hadn’t survived the beaver invasion. It was one of the fifteen trees that we lost.
Luckily, none of the kids’ trees had been damaged by the beavers. Especially for my daughter. Prior to his first visit to the island, our soon-to-be son-in-law asked me to tie a letter to my daughter’s tree. When they arrived on the island, she immediately took him to her tree. She was surprised to find a letter tied to her tree. In the letter, he proposed to her. He chose her tree as the place to propose to her because he knew this point was her favorite place in the world. She had told him about her tree so many times, he knew that would be the first place that she took him.
This spring we arrived three days after a heavy NE wind that took down our last remaining maple. If it had fallen to the east it would have taken out the workshop/laundry room. If it had fallen to the north it would have taken out the cottage. Instead it fell south, a direct hit on the little footbridge that connects us to the rest of the Grenell. The very tiptop of the tree landed a few feet from our neighbor’s cottage. The bridge was a pile of toothpicks, but all in all, we had been very lucky—again.
My mother-in-law saw herself as steward the trees on our point. She drew a map in 1978, which shows every tree on the point. Every summer, she would have Gary trim this branch here so that tree would get a little more light and that branch there so the tree beneath it wouldn’t grow misshaped. She was also the one who started the tradition of planting trees for weddings and births.
Mother Nature also has a hand in planting trees. Gary and I are always amazed when a white pine we plant in an opening doesn’t survive, but a seedling growing out of a crack in a rock does. Squirrels are also busy planting oaks around the point. Every year I have remove five or more seedlings from my flower bed.
Wind, ice, lightning, and beavers have thinned the ranks of trees on our little rock. This year we’re planting yet another tree, a new grandchild on the way due October 1. Generations from now the trees we’ve planted to celebrate weddings and births will tower over the little cottages and provide shade and comfort to a new generation. We are not owners here, we are only stewards of a fistful of pines on a tumble of rocks.
By Lynn McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life. This month Lynn explains what “trees” mean to islanders. Enjoy!
Lynn often writes about her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past two years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends and taking nature walks. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.
The photos presented in our slide show are attributed to the McElfresh Family Collection.