Planting a Forest for the Future

“There’s a chance these can be the future forest here,” Brandt said. “We have to remember that.”

In an astonishing and perhaps noble tradition, four generations of the Brandt family have planted trees along the Gunflint Trail. Most of the trees have been planted on property the Brandts own, primarily along the Middle Gunflint. Luana, along with her husband, Carl, have owned and operated Nor’Wester Lodge since 1966, when they took over the family business from Carl’s parents.

To say the Brandt family is among the most well-known and well-respected families on the Trail is an understatement. Carl, a wiry fellow in his mid-70s, can commonly be seen standing on high rooftops cleaning gutters or removing snow, hauling brush across the Gunflint or lugging a limit of walleyes from his favorite fishing holes. Luana, a teacher in the Grand Marais Public School system for many years, still makes dinners for groups of 20 or more at Nor’Wester. Both Carl and Luana embrace the tough way of life along the Gunflint. And when it comes to the enormous forest they call a backyard, few people understand the value of healthy trees better than the Brandts.

“You don’t plant trees for yourself,” Luana said, when asked why she makes a point to enter tiny tree roots into the ground each spring. “We’ll probably never see any shade from these trees. You do it for the next generation. Or the one after that.”

For the past several decades, the Brandts, along with numerous other property owners throughout Cook County, have been greatly assisted by the Hedstrom Lumber Company and a program it offers each year, focused on planting new trees. In short, staff at the lumber company buy trees and give them away for free. The goal is to help maintain a sustaining ecosystem in the Superior National Forest and the surrounding area. The program started in the mid-90s and gives away approximately 25,000 trees annually, according to Howard Hedstrom, president of Hedstrom Lumber. And while the average number of trees given away each year is 25,000, on certain years that number has doubled.

Planting trees is an annual ritual for the Brandt family, who take advantage of the free seedling program offered by Hedstrom Lumber Company of Grand Marais. | JOE FRIEDRICHS

“The idea was to get people feeling good about growing trees,” Hedstrom said.

Most of the trees given away in the program are red pine, though some white pine and white spruce are also available. Property owners throughout the county email or call representatives at Hedstrom and essentially put in an order for what trees they want. Think of it as a much healthier version of calling for takeout pizza, with the bonus of a long-lasting payout.

“Most of the trees usually get reserved out each year,” Hedstrom said. “It’s been a great project for us.”

The trees, which are tiny seedlings at the time of pickup, typically come in orders of 25, though participants are allowed up to 200 annually. Most of the trees come from a PRT company nursery in Canada, near the Dryden area, Hedstrom said. The program got its roots when an attorney for Hedstrom Lumber had an idea on how to improve the business’s public image.

“We were thinking of some ideas and the (attorney) leans back and says ‘Plant a tree,’” Hedstrom said. “We turned that thought into the tree giveaway.”

The Brandts have participated in the tree-seedling giveaway every year since its inception, Luana proudly stated. During that time, she has planted “too many trees to remember.” In addition, Luana and Carl’s daughters and several grandchildren have planted trees that came from Hedstrom’s giveaway. Some years the planted trees take root and grow at an almost unbelievable rate. Other years, depending on weather, rainfall and how well each tree was planted, the trees have a harder time surviving. Overall though, Luana said, most of the trees take root and have helped maintain a thriving forest on their property.

After the epic blowdown storm of 1999 ravaged many swaths of land in northeastern Minnesota, Luana said Hedstrom’s tree giveaway was more important than ever.

“We all just felt sick looking at parts of the forest after the blowdown,” she said. “But some of the trees we planted after the storm are really coming into their own now. It’s incredible to see, really.”

Some of the trees the Brandts have planted via the giveaway now stand an impressive 15 feet tall, including a healthy white pine near the main lodge at Nor’Wester.

“This is an incredibly generous program and something the folks at Hedstrom don’t have to do,” Luana said. “It’s not cheap buying all these trees every year, and without this we probably wouldn’t be planting so many trees up here. So I’m proud to live in a community where trees are important.”

This story was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Northern Wilds Magazine. 

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By Joe Friedrichs