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Finding Minnesota: North Shore's 'Witch Tree'

GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. (WCCO) -- A twisted, gnarly old cedar tree has inspired centuries of wonder and mystery in far northeastern Minnesota.

The solitary tree, which locals nicknamed, "The Witch Tree," has long been growing out of a rock on tribal land along the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior.

Finding Minnesota: North Shore's 'Witch Tree'
(credit: CBS)

Many of the tree's roots are exposed along the side of the rock, while one root burrowed deeply into a crack appears to hold the tree in place.

Native Americans consider it a spiritual symbol, and leave offerings of tobacco to give thanks. They use the traditional name, "Manido Gizhigans," which means, "Spirit Little Cedar Tree."

No one is supposed to approach it without being accompanied by a member of the native Ojibwe people of Grand Portage.

John Morrin, a historian with the Grand Portage Reservation Tribal Council, says native people first spotted the tree several centuries ago and recognized the symbolism.

"This was something significant," Morrin said. "This was something not normal."

Morrin says it has become a peaceful place for people to unload their personal burdens.

"It's for all people who want to rejuvenate their spiritual path," he said.

Travis Novitsky is a tribal member and professional photographer who has long been fascinated by the unusual sight.

"You've got this tree that's growing out of the rock for at least 400 or 500 years," Novitsky said. "And just to stand in the presence of something that's living, that's that old, to me is mind-boggling."

Finding Minnesota: North Shore's 'Witch Tree'
(credit: CBS)

Novitsky has been capturing images of the tree for years, along a rugged shoreline that is often battered by extreme weather.

"I think it has to be pretty tough to not only be growing where it is, right out of the rock, but to be so exposed to the elements here," he said. "My favorite thing is to come down at night, whether it's for lightning, northern lights, stars, moonlight, star trails."

Many native people see symbolism in the fact that the tree has clearly had a rough existence, off on its own, apart from the others.

"It's hard to walk that road, that straight road," Morrin said. "And I think that's what it's trying to tell us, that it's going to be very hard. You've really got to hold on to your sacred ways."

Morrin says there is no official documentation of the year that native people first spotted the tree. But there are reports that a French explorer wrote about it in the 1730s, describing it at the time as a mature tree.

"As long as we honor it, take care of it, respect it, we believe it'll always be here for us," Morrin said.

The tribal council used to allow open access to the site before there were problems with vandalism. Some people even tried to take a piece of the tree, apparently thinking it would bring them good fortune.

To arrange for a guide to take you to the tree, call 218-475-2277.

Send us your Finding Minnesota ideas here.

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