Indian Trail Trees


(This 960th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 16, 2009.)



Indian Trail Tree in the Turnpike State Forest


Sixty years ago there was a campsite on the north shore of White Trout Lake in Algonquin Park that had an eight-foot tall tree whose trunk was twisted into a loop. The top of the tree stood perfectly straight but two feet above the ground was that stem's complete circle. I sometimes wonder if that tree is still there. If it is, I suspect that the tree is quite large by now.


Others told me at the time that Tom Dodd, one of Camp Pathfinder's famous trip leaders, had created that strange design years earlier by tying the tree into that contorted position when it was only four feet tall.


Two recent events recalled that experience. I have written before about Paul Prince, one of my favorites among Doris's Alabama relatives. He sponsored me on several raccoon hunts. We raced after specially trained hound dogs to tree the varmints. Such 'hunts' are, I discovered, a national sport, no guns involved. It is so popular that the best hounds are sold for thousands of dollars.


On my most recent visit Prince drove me deep into a forest to show me two trees he called Indian trail trees. Each of them had its trunk bent horizontal five or six feet above the ground. That horizontal section was about eight feet long. At its end the tree resumed its reach for the sky.


They were big trees, the circumference of each at their base to be at least eight feet and the horizontal part of the trunk at least three feet around. When I climbed up onto it, the horizontal section bore my weight without bending.


Kathy Brewer describes these trees: "Indian trail trees were formed by bending hardwood saplings over a forked branch in the desired direction and securing it to a stake with a piece of rawhide, sinew or vine. The tie-downs would eventually rot, but the tree would stay in its horizontal position. Trees naturally seek light, however; so sometimes vertical trunks would grow up from the horizontal trunk."


Brewer continues, "A unique characteristic of Indian trail trees is the 'nose' at the end of the horizontal trunk, which formed where the top of the sapling was cut off. Many still show scars where they were tied down. These marks distinguish Indian trail trees from those accidently misshapen by nature."


As Brewer notes, unlike that Algonquin Park tree, these were misshaped for a purpose. The indigenous peoples formed them to mark trail directions or to indicate locations of water sources or burial grounds.


Of course, the Indian trail trees Paul Prince showed me were in Alabama. Are they elsewhere as well?


Indeed they are. Lee and Donna Ryan of Almond, New York are leading a project seeking out the same kind of trees formed by New York's Seneca Indians.


Lee tells how they became involved: "We were charter members of the Almond Historical Society in 1965. Researching topics and historical information in the archives room located in the Hagadorn House museum, we came upon a black and white photo of an Indian Trail Tree located on Bully Hill in Almond.


"We went looking for the tree and finally found it - in very sad shape. Flooding, erosion and bulldozer work had caused the tree to now sit at a 70 angle, and the tree was dying. In our newsletter, we printed a copy of the original 1960 photo and a photo of the tree in its current state. We began to get phone calls from our readers: 'I know where there is a tree like that,' or 'I have seen trees like that when I hunted in the woods.'"


The Ryans collected the sightings and Lee visited the identified trees with a GPS unit to record their location.


Now the Ryans have an Indian Trail Tree website. It records over sixty of these trees so far, with the GPS coordinates so that people can see the trees for themselves.


Ryan adds: "Our quest continues as people contact us with 'tree spottings'. We are planning to develop a way to place signs on these trees (doing no harm to them) indicating that they are Indian Trail Trees.  We welcome your cooperation and comments."-- Gerry Rising