MARQUETTE — The Upper Peninsula welcomed a very special guest to the area last week. Dennis Downes, an author, painter and sculptor, stopped in at the Marquette Regional History Center recently for a unique program on trail marking.
His book “Native American Trail Marker Trees: Marking Paths Through the Wilderness” took everyone on a historical journey. His goal with the book and his life has been to discover, properly identify and preserve these primitive messaging trees of our past.
“It was a great aid in navigating incredibly dense forest and complicated trail systems of the great lakes. Where to get off of a river for a short portage route, where’s the best place to cross a river with a rock shelf so you don’t sink into a river bottom. You can follow animal trails but they won’t bring you to things you really need. Things humans need like copper, medicinal plants that humans use, shelters for cache’s that you store things throughout your trip and know where they are at.”
Through his journey that delves back centuries, he has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, gone through three trucks and has visited 42 states and five Canadian provinces.
“They all had a little bit of a different technique but similar enough so that you would know the trees were shaped by the hand of man. Not just a tree bent over in the forest but bent over and a new limb would grow. There would always be a significant difference between the shaft going up and the trunk of the tree. So we would be able to tell here is the where the original trunk was removed. They were arched about 2–3 feet off the ground and in your area here in Michigan and around the great lakes, it allowed them to be above the snowline in the winter. Hunter gatherers were trained to look for deer, elk, game ands food so by having it at that height automatically you would pick out that horizontal plain in a vertical world. If you know anything about deer hunting you know you are not looking for the whole deer,” continued Downes.
With several Native American trees found in Michigan, Downes says he continues to get tree sightings from Cub and Girl Scouts, kayakers, fishermen and hunters.
You can follow the journey and post sightings at trailmarkertree.com.