A Walk with Will

By Kelli Carmean, Lexington, Kentucky, originally written for the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists Club.

In the chilly morning of Saturday, September 29, some 25 hearty souls stood before the wooden informational kiosk near the trailhead at Greenwood Lake Conservation Reserve. Unseen below our numerous bundled layers, many of us had donned red suspenders, in memory of the man with whom we were about to walk: my dad, Dr. Willard H. Carmean. My dad died December 30, 2017, a handful of days before his 96th birthday. Our family had moved him down to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be closer to family, and into assisted living, six years before his peaceful passing.     

Through the bright autumn sun, the birch shone yellow and the maples red, and above their brightness soared the majestic, always-green, old growth white and red pine that my father so loved. He first came upon these majestic trees – now some 350 years of age – soon after he arrived in Thunder Bay to join the Lakehead University’s School of Forestry, in 1979.

In 1992, Greenwood Lake Conservation Reserve was officially created. In the years since then, trails were cut, and the wooden kiosk built. It is my understanding that some kind of unfortunate hiking mishap caused the TBFN to distance themselves from the Reserve. My dad spoke frequently of how sad it was that the trails were becoming overgrown, which meant the public could no longer learn from and appreciate this rare forest.  But by then, we were urging and cajoling our dad to move, and finally that transpired.

During the summer of 2018, a group of volunteers led by Dr. Lada Malek, had taken up axe and saw to clear trails at the Reserve. That morning before the wooden kiosk, several speakers told of the uniqueness of this forest, and the history of the considerable and ongoing efforts to Reserve it. Nearly everyone spoke of my dad’s contributions. I spoke of my memories of him, and my surprise at seeing the veritable family photo album displayed on the walls of the kiosk.

As we “Walked with Will,” I did as Gerry Racey had requested of our group at the trailhead: Ponder what Will Carmean saw when he walked through this mighty forest for the first time. I will admit this was a hard task, as every time I gazed up at a mighty pine crown, my heart ached. I also knew with a strange precision exactly what my forester father would have been thinking on his inaugural visit of discovery. He would have been thinking about how a hot, long-ago fire (he loved the fire history story; I’d heard it many times) had produced this rare, shallow-soiled boreal forest. He would have been contemplating how fortunate it had been that many decades of logging operations had managed to miss it. He would already have been considering how he could protect this place. My dad was never against logging; his belief was that logging should be as productive as possible so that important areas like Greenwood Lake could be spared the saw. He wanted as many people as possible to see and admire the ancient trees of Greenwood Lake.

While we interred most of his ashes at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, we held back two small vials to bring to Greenwood Lake for the Walk with Will. A short distance along the Yellow Trail and to the right, in the space between the decaying stump of a mighty pine and a moderately aged one, I lifted the humus from the forest floor. There upon it my niece, Ms. Margot Thraen, one of Will’s three grandchildren, and I scattered the last bit of ashes of a man who loved this forest more than any other place on earth. I am deeply grateful that a portion of him will always be there, nurturing new pines. He would be pleased as well. 

On behalf of my family and my late, great dad, I would like to thank all the “Walkers” that day, organizer Lada Malek, those who spoke, anyone who has ever been to Greenwood Lake, anyone who has ever loved Greenwood Lake, and to all the future visitors and lovers of Greenwood Lake. May this unique forest continue teaching and inspiring a long succession of future generations.