Like many great adventures, this one starts with a book.
The book in question is titled Every Root an Anchor – Wisconsin’s Famous and Historic Trees, by Dr. Bruce Allison. As the title suggests, the book explores numerous noteworthy trees in my home state of Wisconsin.
On page 70 is the following entry on “The Scary Oak.”
When I realized I live not too far from the supposed location of this particular tree I knew immediately I had to visit it. I have always had an obsession with big trees, tall trees, old trees, and any other special tree. This tree in particular felt mysterious. From the moment I saw the black and white photo I felt drawn to it.
The thing about trees is that they can be hard to find. According to the USDA Forest Service, as of 2017 there were an estimated 11.5 billion trees in the state of Wisconsin. This was going to take some detective work.
Gathering the Clues
My first order of business was establishing the clues that I knew at the time courtesy of the book.
Clue #1: The Scary Oak was in Kettle Moraine State Park
Clue #2: The Scary Oak was in Walworth County
Clue #3: The Scary Oak was located along a nature trail
Clue #4: The Scary Oak entry in the book was submitted by Elizabeth Deakman from Madison.
As a resident of a nearby county and a frequent hiker in this part of the state, I quickly recognized the confusing aspect of the clue. To the best of my knowledge, and a quick Google search confirmed my suspicion, but there is in fact no such thing as Kettle Moraine State Park. However, there is a Kettle Moraine State Forest and some of it’s 22,000 some acres do fall within Walworth County.
Building the Map
I now had enough to start building a rudimentary map of where this tree might be.
Knowing that it was at the time of entry in the book it was placed along a nature trail, I decided to start by plotting those.
There are two major trail systems that wind their way through Kettle Moraine State Forest. An 11 mile stretch of the Ice Age Trail as well as an additional 25 miles of path known as the John Muir Trails that are primarily used for biking/cross country skiing. I used Gaia GPS to map them out as seen here.
Now the book was first published in 1982 and I was well aware that 40 years is a long time for any trail to maintain the same route. I was able to find a 1980 map of the area and it was evident that the state forest was in fact already established in the area I had identified.
This was reassuring.
Unfortunately, however, there were no trails marked on the map. So I was going to have to rely on my modern-day trail map. But still, I had determined a roughly 8,000 acre stretch of woods where this tree was most likely hiding out.
It felt within reach.
Hitting the Trail(s)
It was finally time to get out from behind the computer and start walking.
These were some gorgeous miles of hiking. Over the following month, my fiancée Shannon (now wife) and I took numerous trips to this stretch of woods on the constant lookout for the tree in question.
During this search, we became adept at spotting oak trees from the surrounding landscape. Many of them were impressive in size. But when referring back to the old black and white photo from the book, none of them matched the gnarly exterior characteristics of the tree we were attempting to find.
On a few occasions, we came across some knowledgeable locals on the trails and asked if they had ever seen the oak tree. But after showing the picture, no one had any solid leads.
As the days turned into weeks we rapidly began to run out of trail. We had hiked all 36 miles I had identified and we were still no closer to finding the Scary Oak.
At this point, the thought of retracing our paths felt daunting. So I turned my search back to the internet to see if I could unearth some more clues.
This time turning my attention back to Clue#4: Elizabeth Deakman.
As far as I knew, Elizabeth was the only person who had definitively seen the tree. Maybe it was possible to learn more from her. Unfortunately, I learned through some quick Google searching that Elizabeth died in 2005.
It then occurred to me that maybe Elizabeth Deakman was not the only confirmed person to have seen the tree after all. The author of Every Root an Anchor was also a viable candidate. So I started googling him.
As it turned out, Dr. Bruce Allison, the author of the book, in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, gave a lecture series titled, “If Trees Could Talk.” While I could not find a video of this lecture, someone had transcribed it. At the 12:24 mark a Mr. Robert Gard said to Bruce…
“… and he said, Bruce, you can’t write this book without going and seeing this scary oak out in Kettle Moraine State Forest. And, sure enough, I went out there and, for him, and of course he was very creative, he was actually a dramatist, he looked at that tree and he saw something kind of spooky, something kind of strange, something that would frighten kids early in the morning or late at night when the dusk was just setting in.”
Scary oak… Kettle Moraine State Forest… this had to be the tree.
Some more quick googling led to learn about Mr. Robert Gard.
Robert was a renowned figure in the Wisconsin education system and a lifelong advocate for fine arts at the community level. In 1992, Robert passed away.
However, now I was certain that Dr. Allison had seen the tree himself. This could be the next break in the case.
Going to the Experts
I went to Dr. Allison’s website and fired off an email asking if he would be willing to share what he knew or remembered about this particular tree. I sincerely stated that I had no intention of publicizing its exact whereabouts. This was a personal journey that I was on as someone who has always felt connected to this stretch of woods.
Dr. Allison responded a few days later and regrettably informed me that he did not know the precise location of the Scary Oak. Yet his kind email did include a sentence that I found made the gears in my head spin.
He mentioned that the inclusion of this tree was most likely the result of a student story that was submitted to the county historical society.
Reaching out to the Walworth Historical Society was not something I had even considered up until this point. Yet nearly three months into this search it was sounding like a genius idea.
I found their website and sent off another email sharing the journey I had been on thus far and inquiring if anyone at their society would know anything about this tree.
Can Instagram Find the Tree?
While waiting for a response from the historical society, another approach came to me. If this tree was as unique and magical as I saw it in my head, there was a good chance someone else had taken notice of it and probably also taken a picture of it.
And currently, but probably not for long, Instagram is the place where that picture would most likely be uploaded to the internet.
There were 5,000+ photos on Instagram that were geotagged to the forest I was looking in. I scrolled through all of them looking for my distinctly looking tree.
This photo here was my favorite candidate.
While the gnarly parts did not match the ones seen in the old black and white photo, I had to keep reminding myself it was 40 years later.
I was just about to fire off a DM to the taker of the photo when I was interrupted by a new email in my inbox. It was the historical society.
Never Doubt Your Local Historical Society
The Walworth County Historical Society email response was sent by Pat Blackmer, who sits on the society’s board of directors.
She in turn had posed my question to local historian and retired DNR resource Ron Kurowski.
Ron knew exactly where the Scary Oak was.
It was one of the best emails I’ve ever received. Here was the first person I had talked to who gave definitive directions.
Had it not been evening already I would have got in the car and gone straight there. I had the crazy feeling that if I waited too long the tree would be gone by the morning. A silly thing to think about a great oak tree that had been alive for many generations.
The Scary Oak: Found
The next day we got in the car and headed west into the Kettle Moraine region. After parking, we set off on foot and a half mile later we came to the spot Ron had guided us towards.
A few steps off the primary path was the tree.
It had fallen over and was laying on its side, but there was no mistaking the grandeur of its size and the burls that covered the tree’s surface. Without a doubt, this was the Scary Oak.
At first, I was sad. This was an outcome I had not considered. I thought this journey would lead me to a special tree in the forest that would I would be able to revisit all my life and would still be there to be appreciated by many future generations to come.
And in a way, I suppose it will be. Just not appreciated by humans. Over the years this tree will further decompose and the remains will make a home for fungi, mold, and other little invertebrates like beetles, millipedes, and slugs. Over many more years, the nutrients from the tree will spread into the soil creating a rich environment for future plant growth. With the large tree no longer blocking the ground below, sunlight will better reach the forest floor.
Someday, maybe not in my lifetime, but someday, a new oak tree will grow here.
And perhaps some future people will see how powerful it stands and the way the wood buckles in mysterious ways, and they will remark how scary it looks in the fading Wisconsin sun.
But it won’t be scary. It will be beautiful.
A special thanks once again to all of those who became part of this quest.
Dr. Bruce Allison – for writing the book that started this whole thing and for being a steward of our great trees.
Elizabeth Deakman – for submitting the picture of the Scary Oak that captured my imagination for so long.
Robert Gard – for loving trees and recognizing there was something special about this one.
Pat Blackmer and the Walworth County Historical Society – for connecting me with Ron.
Ron Kurowksi – who knows where the tree is and shares in the secret of it’s location. Maybe it’s not a secret, but it sure does feel like it!
Shannon – my wife, for the countless hours of hiking, tree inspecting, and letting me have this multi-month obsession. Love you.