Web Exclusive! Searching with Students

August 1, 2005
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MTU students, left to right: Kristine Saia, Chris Stebbins, Levi Ronk, Jordan VanLiere, Neil Holshoe, Matt Johnson, Pat Leemon, Andrew Minton, Travis Horrocks.
On Saturday Oct. 9, 2004, the day showed promise of dawning bright and sunny. The previous night had been clear and a hard layer of frost covered the ground. I had plans to meet a group of surveying students from Michigan Technological University (MTU) for our annual GLO corner recovery day. I drove to the office early because I wanted to make sure I didn't leave anything behind that would be needed during the long hours we would spend in the woods. I'm sure you all know the feeling of pulling the total station out of the bag only to find the batteries are still back on the charger. I didn't want something like that to happen, especially in front of witnesses. Once all items were accounted for, I was out of the office faster than a tick on a camp stove.

I met up with the students at a local diner in Bergland, a town on the north shore of Lake Gogebic in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I was pleased to recognize several familiar faces from the 2003 trip. It was gratifying to see these fledgling surveyors taking a keen interest in what many surveyors say is the most enjoyable part of our profession-searching for evidence of the original surveys. MTU students Kristine Saia, Chris Stebbins, Levi Ronk, Jordan VanLiere, Neil Holshoe, Matt Johnson, Andrew Minton and Travis Horrocks formed the group. During breakfast, we discussed the surveying history of the area where we planned to search-about 10 miles west of Bergland within the Ottawa National Forest. I also told them we were going to start by making a short side trip to a special corner to prepare the group for what I hoped they would encounter later that day.

The inside of an original yellow birch bearing tree shows scarring as the tree healed the blaze on the right side of the stump.

The Witness Tree

The frost was still on the pumpkins as we exited the parking lot and headed west on M-28. Nature's canvas was painted with the brilliant fall hues of red, yellow, green and orange. After a twenty-minute ride we stopped the vehicles and walked a short distance off the road. We came upon a corner recovered in 1968 by Donald Lappala, a cadastral surveyor who worked for the U.S. Forest Service between 1953 and 1974 and authored the booklet "Retracement and Evidence of Public Land Surveys." When he recovered the SE corner, Lappala found two yellow birch bearing trees and a 24-inch hemlock witness tree. This gave me the opportunity to explain to the students the difference between bearing trees and witness trees.

A bearing tree is blazed and then scribed to read the range, township and section, I told them. It is also scribed with the letters "BT." Lower on the tree near the base a notch is cut to indicate where to measure from the tree to the corner. A witness tree lacks the scribed letters "BT" and the measuring notch. It is also crucial to understand that the witness tree appears nowhere in the written field book. Witness trees were not taken at quarter, meander, or any corners along the township lines.

I told the students, "Here's the rub: if we find a properly scribed tree at an interior section corner with no visible "˜BT' or notch, and it doesn't fit the original notes, it is either a witness tree or one that a subsequent surveyor scribed." We then discussed how the surveyor is left to weigh this evidence.

Lappala found just such a situation at the southeast corner of section 26. When we arrived 36 years later, the hemlock remained standing proud and tall. It was showing its age due to the ravages of time and woodpeckers, but the scribing was still plainly visible facing the now monumented corner, and it showed a typical pattern of overgrowth. In the past it was reopened with an axe to reveal the scribing. A healthy original bearing tree with scribing still visible will normally have been reopened more than once and the repeating pattern of blaze-healing will be evident. There was also visible pencil scribbling from foresters who stood in this spot and entered their names and dates, which is not unusual and is commonly referred to in our area as a "sign-in tree."

Looking at the inside of the yellow birch stump revealed the reverse side of the healed blaze. The lower scar where the BT and measuring notch resided, as well as part of the upper healed blaze, could still be seen. The other yellow birch was nearly obliterated. Neil Holshoe and Matt Johnson searched through a short mound of duff (organic matter) to find some outer bark-all that remained of the bearing tree. The students weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, and my hope was that this brief exposure to the original remains of section 26's SE corner would make the search for the NW corner more productive. "Once you see and actually handle the specimens," Kristine Saia said later, "it becomes more clear what you are looking for."

History of the Search Area

The MTU students planned to search an area originally surveyed by the Burt family of U.S. deputy surveyors. Chris Stebbins had helped to compile research on the area during his summer job with the Forest Service, and I had compiled a complete packet for each student that included copies of the original field notes, quad maps, Forest Service notes and complete sets of the survey instructions.

William A. Burt, inventor of the solar compass and typewriter, and his son Austin surveyed the township lines around T49N, R44W in 1847. The interior section lines were surveyed one year later by another of his sons, William Burt. Our target for the MTU search was the corner common to sections 22, 23, 26 and 27, which was monumented by William Burt in 1848. At that time he set a hemlock post and recorded two hemlock bearing trees. Nothing more was known of this corner until 1935 when George Kongstredt, a Forest Service employee, found one of the hemlock bearing trees and a scribed tamarack. He nailed a steel location tag onto the west side of a "24 inch hemlock tree," giving neither bearing nor distance to the tree. This was the last piece of recorded information for this corner.

A 5" cedar post found. This northwest panel is scribed "S 22 T49N R46W" and, although it looks like an original post, it is not from the 1848 survey. It lacks notches on the corners and was not present in 1935.

Getting in Position

We were fortunate that a camp road came within 300 feet of the search area. Before dashing off into the woods, we took time to go over the history of surveys in this township; among them being the subtle differences between the various sets of instructions from 1833 through 1850. We also reviewed what condition we could expect to find the original evidence in, and how to verify the search area's validity. Just as we were ready to leave for the site, John Vidakovich, the property owner, arrived. I had notified him quite some time earlier about our intended activity, and had arranged for a key to get through his gate. He was interested in joining our group.

There was a lot of gear to carry, but we had ample people to assist. We had everything from a post hole digger to stamping dies to paint and brush. As the day progressed I found myself returning to the truck several times to get the right tool for the job at hand. A key piece of equipment was a submeter Trimble ProXR GPS receiver. The day before the search, I had entered coordinates into the unit that were derived years earlier as part of an Ottawa National Forest GIS project utilizing public domain software called WinGMM [1]. After we entered the original survey information into this program and populated the township with submeter GPS coordinates, WinGMM performed a least squares adjustment and returned calculated positions for all the record data in a few seconds. As new corners are recovered and the position located with GPS, the program can generate new coordinate pairs.

We turned the Trimble ProXR on at the truck and walked the short distance through the dense cedars to the search area. It led us to a spot some 12 feet from a very obvious wood post. The post was cut from a 5-inch cedar and had the classic look of something important. It was squared with the four corners oriented to the cardinal directions. On each flat panel was scribed the township, range and section number. It was held upright with a length of ½-inch galvanized pipe wired to the post. Several generations of flagging had been tied to the post. Clearly, this was being used as the section corner for logging operations. A quick tie to the lakeshore north of the post confirmed we were, indeed, in the correct search area and ready to begin a more detailed search.

Kristine Saia and Travis Horrocks are carefully dissect an original hemlock BT looking for any sign of a healed blaze or scribing.

Getting Closer

The first order of the day was to determine if any of the 1935 remains were in the area. Kongstredt did not mention setting this wood post, nor did he state that he'd found it. We could only conclude we were not in the exact spot he was back in 1935, or that this post appeared subsequent to his search. Being an optimist, I liked the latter explanation and proceeded to try and locate the metal tag called for by Kongstredt. There was no standing hemlock of any size to be found within a reasonable distance. Because Kongstredt identified the hemlock as a 24-inch tree, I began to wonder if the tree he had nailed his tag to was not the dead snag of the original BT. It would not account for an increase in size, but then we all know the diameters called for are more often estimates than actual measurements. Once we made that leap of logic, we turned our attention to trying to find the remains of the original BT east of the corner.

The GLO distance and bearing were pulled from the post and a severely decayed stump was found close by. Kristine Saia and Travis Horrocks carefully dissected the remains of the stump and log looking for any sign of a healed blaze, bark or scribing. In short order they both came up with definite hemlock bark. All the students were able to find portions of the bark with its maroon color.

This was heartening because the size of the stump indicated it could easily match the original diameter. The tree had either been cut or broken off. We passed a metal detector over every inch of tree and unfortunately were unable to find any trace of the metal tag. Although this was not a hopeful sign, it wasn't worth shedding tears over. The tags are quite thin and often corrode completely away.

Chris Stebbins ran a quick traverse on a calculator using the original notes from one GLO stump to the corner and out to the second GLO stump. He then inversed between the record bearing trees and located another area to search. Each step of the process was explained to the group as Chris ran through the calculations. This is a fast way to find stump pairs, but there was no obvious stump here.

We could, however, easily make out the form of a large tree under the moss. There was no doubt it was another hemlock. Matt Johnson was able to locate several knots along the length of the log. Upon excavation, we discovered the tree had not fallen, but was cut with a cross cut saw. There were no visible scars to indicate a healed blaze. With great effort, Andrew Minton and Levi Ronk cut the log into a more manageable size and turned it over. Anxiously we waited to see what no doubt would be perfectly preserved scribing. Boy-was that log stuck in the ground! Andrew and Levi finally rolled it from its cradle and there before our eyes was revealed an undisturbed hemlock log with no visible manmade marks. Rats!

No one seemed discouraged because they understood that not finding evidence is sometimes as important as finding it. It proves you looked, and if a conscientious search was made, there should be nothing for the next surveyor to find.

But we still had to decide what to make of this log. It was not the original bearing tree. It was a hemlock that was cut about 18 feet away, and the first log was removed, leaving this piece in the wet swamp. Once the obvious had been eliminated, we looked more thoroughly in the area. A barely discernible mound was about 3 feet away. It took some careful excavation, but Neil Holshoe was eventually able to locate portions of hemlock bark from what remained of the stump. There was virtually no wood fiber remaining, at least none that any of us could identify. Checking the bearing and distance between these two stumps agreed within one foot and two degrees of record. So we had two stumps that matched bearing and distance with the record. We were in a logical search area and apparently someone else had liked the area enough to put a post in the ground. We still didn't have any definitive physical evidence linking what we had found with the 1935 search.

We also still had the scribed tamarack to find. Again, Kongstredt did not give a distance to this tree, just a direction of north. He did identify in a sketch how it was scribed. We didn't see a standing tamarack that showed a healed wound. Matt Johnson started a search, moving progressively north until he uncovered a large wood panel. It was half buried in the duff and showed a healed scar. The inside of the scar revealed a small portion of reverse scribing and axe marks. This was the first tangible evidence from Kongstredt's record, and immediately gave greater validity to the two decayed hemlock stumps.

The Original Notes

What we didn't know was who had scribed this tamarack and when they had done it. The original notes made no mention of a tamarack. I asked the students, "Who do you think blazed and scribed this tamarack?" Although a few people have been known to scribe their bearing trees, very few do it exactly in the same style as the original surveyors. This was a good time to discuss the significance of the original 1848 survey date with the students.

It would be easy to assume that these surveys were executed under instructions issued to deputy surveyors for the Michigan Territory circa 1833. However, I reminded them, Michigan became a state in 1837. If this survey had been executed under the 1833 instruction, William Burt would not have run a random line to the north township line and then corrected back south as he did when subdividing this township. The 1850 instructions, which detailed a completely different style of subdividing the township than the 1833 instructions, had yet to be issued. It would appear that William Burt was either using a set of instructions issued to deputy surveyors in Wisconsin and Iowa in 1846 or he may have been using a beta version of the 1850 instructions.[2]

I explained that this related to the undocumented scribed tamarack because the first mention of undocumented scribed trees that I have found appears in these same 1846 instructions. The deputy surveyor was directed to mark four trees at each interior section corner. Two would be bearing trees, and two would be witness trees. Knowing this, it is not a big leap to identify the tamarack as an original witness tree. No doubt the other witness tree was to the south, but everything in that direction was badly decayed, and we had no idea where or what to dig for. Much debate followed on how to evaluate a witness tree if it were the only evidence remaining. It was a real treat joining in a dialogue with these young surveyors as they formed opinions on how to locate an obliterated corner using this evidence. I enjoyed listening to the students discuss with each other how they would overcome this dilemma. One compelling idea was to come off the witness tree blaze as a bearing and then use the distances to adjacent corners in a modified distance-bearing intersection scheme.

The students found three points during the search (from left to right): aspen point, original hemlock point, subsequent hemlock point.

Finding the Point

Convinced now that the two decayed hemlock stumps were indeed a part of the original survey record, we swung an arc at the record distance from each stump. It was nearly impossible to scratch a line in the moss-covered depression we found ourselves in. To solve that problem, we used a can of marking paint to establish the arcs. A light coat of paint showed where the two arcs crossed. As expected, the existing wood post was a few feet away from the intersection. Although it was close enough for many purposes, it was not something to be monumented without further investigation. This area was 100 percent organic in nature, and the only material we had any chance of recovering was wood fiber, hopefully intact and not loose like a wet mop head.

We cut a 3 x 4 foot patch of moss loose from the surrounding vegetation using a sharp axe. On his hands and knees, Chris Stebbins crouched over this cold wet mess and began reaching deep into the muck. With bare hands and fingers sensing like a cat's whiskers, he found quite a bit of wood. He encountered the usual stuff: bits of tree limbs and portions of larger stems were easily identified and discarded. But in only a few minutes he made contact with solid wood, which was vertically oriented and tapered to a point. His eyes began to grow wide with amazement as he realized what he had just recovered.

There are few words I can find to describe the thrill of locating an original point. For a brief moment time stands still. You reflect quickly on how lucky you were and wonder if this is the real thing, hoping nothing odd queers the discovery. But you can't stop there, you have to keep looking. Chris found a couple of hemlock knots, which resemble a post point but on close examination revealed a total lack of axe marks and showed the concentric pattern of annual rings that appear to form the point.

Jordan VanLiere knelt down and took his turn sifting through the muck. In the following ten minutes Chris and Jordan removed two more points for closer examination, and replacing each with a spike so we didn't lose the location. What initially seemed like the obvious location was now becoming confusing. Besides the large scribed cedar post, a total of three additional wood points were recovered.

With the landowner watching intently, I had to choose my words carefully and not appear too surprised. It was time to methodically eliminate any pretenders. By process of elimination I explained to the group, first, the original post was cut from a hemlock not a cedar. Also, if the cedar post had been in place in 1935, Kongstredt would have mentioned that fact. It was in too good of condition to be an original post. Although the person who set the post was obviously knowledgeable, there was too much information scribed, and it lacked any visible notches on the south and east corners indicating its position from the southeast corner of the township. That was the easy one.

The first point Chris found was a hemlock. It appeared to be undisturbed and it fit the two hemlock stumps. There were clear axe marks along nearly the entire 12-inch length of the point as witnessed at each of the small knots that resisted decay. The second point found by Jordan only had a short point about 5 inches long and it was obviously not hemlock. Later that day, as it dried out, it was determined to be an aspen point.

Chris had also found the third point. This one was also a hemlock with a short 6-inch point and was adjacent to the cedar post. This point was not set vertically into the muck, but at about a 45 degree angle. It was rejected because it was obviously disturbed and not vertically oriented. After evaluating each point for its species, position, orientation and decay, we unanimously agreed the first point recovered was the remains of the original hemlock post.

The end of a perfect day: good food and good discussion about we had accomplished.

Perpetuating the Corner

With the recovery work completed, we turned our attention to the perpetuation phase of the day's project. Levi Ronk pegged out the spike marking the position of the original hemlock point and proceeded to drive a 5/8-inch aluminum rod. Once at a reasonable depth, a 3-inch disk was attached to the rod. The disk was stamped with the pertinent information and a steel fence post with sign attached was driven next to the monument to help locate the corner during the winter months.

While Levi set the monument, Neil selected new bearing trees. He cut two blazes into each of four trees. The upper blaze is referred to as a snow blaze and is about 5 feet off the ground. The lower is referred to as a stump blaze. It takes some skill to insure a clean cut that will drain well and heal quickly to prevent rot. Following closely behind, Andrew scribed the snow blaze with my mark and the stump blaze with "BT." Kristine painted the stump blaze and a band completely around the tree through the snow blaze to make it highly visible and prevent decay. The bearing and distance information was stamped on metal tags, and these were nailed to the four new bearing trees. After we made sure all the important information was in writing, we gathered for a group photo and then retired to the trucks for a barbeque to celebrate a successful and rewarding day.

I was pleased that the MTU students had caught the spirit of the day and recognized the significance of their work. "We were not just walking in the footsteps of the original surveyors," Kristine said. "We were standing, stopping and kneeling exactly where they were."

Jordan added, "This was a rare opportunity to be one of the first to recover original evidence."

But, hopefully, it won't be the last opportunity for these students. Next year we will venture north of Bessemer, Mich., and search for yet another Burt corner along a range line. The goal will be the same: to give students practical experience recovering original evidence. It all feels worth it when I hear them say, as Travis did, "Today it became real and not academic."

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