On a parcel of land known as the Maxwell Nature Study Area, a dozen Northland students follow Jon Martin, associate professor of forestry, down a narrow footpath near the winding banks of the White River.
These students are in the Sustainable Forest Management course and are using the bequeathed land, located ten miles south of campus, as a hands-on field laboratory.
The 140 acres is named for Mabel Cora Maxwell, a “vibrant, broad-visioned woman” who lived a long and colorful life. She and her daughter and son-in-law Genevieve and Patrick Bradley retired to the region and became quickly attached.
The Bradleys decided in 1983 to donate the land and make one of the most generous bequests to Northland College in its history at that time. They did it for the loveliest of reasons because the property “has those things Northland needs to fulfill the dream of increasing numbers of environmental students,” reported the Ashland Daily Pressat a presentation in 1984.
Indeed it does.
As Martin and students travel deeper into the forest, young stands of alder and aspen give way to a thick understory of balsam fir in the shade of a mature pine-dominated canopy, and their attention is drawn upward to a massive white pine, covered in lichen and towering over the rolling river.
Martin has spent the past three years conducting canopy research in the top of this tree. With the use of motion sensitive cameras, students have worked alongside Martin and Professor of Natural Resources Erik Olson. pictured here, to identify a multitude of mammals, insects, frogs, fungi, and lichen living in the canopy, including the highest ever recorded sighting of the gray tree frog in 2017.
“Now you understand my obsession with these old white pines,” Martin said.
What he didn’t know is that this would be one of his last, long looks.
One month later, the white pine fell during the Father’s Day weekend rainstorm. At 105-feet tall and at least 116 years old, it was just a few years shy of being considered old-growth by regional management standards.
Even in death, however, Martin said the white pine continues to provide instruction in ecosystems.
“A tree that once provided habitat for birds, tree frogs, stoneflies, and many other land-dwelling organisms now functions as an important habitat for aquatic life,” Martin said.
Martin, Olson, and other faculty consider the Maxwell Nature Study Area an extension of their classroom, a wilderness campus of sorts. Olson estimates about ninety percent of Northland College students spend at least a day at the Maxwell Nature Study Area and his students spend more.
And he uses it in all seasons.
This past winter, with the White River frozen, his Wildlife Ecology student spent a subzero day at Maxwell Nature Study Area tracking animals and contributing to a long-term survey. Bundled and booted, they marked down the tracks of squirrels, rabbits, bobcat, and even a wolf.
This is the sixth year students have collected data that will be added to a database for later analysis. “One of the best ways to understand what species are present and where they are located is through the use of track surveys,” Olson said. “This is a great place to do that.”