ITASCA COUNTY, Minn. – If you listened closely to the woods north of Grand Rapids this summer, you could hear modern-day lumberjacks trimming white pines; if you captured a glimpse through the thick growth, you might be surprised to learn they were all teenagers.
Armed with pole saws and tree pruners on this early August day, eight teens focused their attention on young white pines, which hold the promise to become future giants. Full-grown white pines with their unique uneven branches are the north wood’s tallest tree.
The team was led by Ethan Rajala, grandson of legendary lumberman, Jack Rajala.
“Grandpa Jack, he infused a real desire to treat these trees in a beautiful way,” Ethan notes.
Jack passed away from an aggressive brain cancer in August 2016, but he left a huge legacy, successfully planting 3.5 million white pines. He could often be found deep in the woods pruning his beloved trees.
While Ethan and the team of teens are preserving that pruning tradition, they are also helping manage Jack’s enormous success by seeking the best trees.
Guiding the teens is John Rajala, Jack’s son and Ethan’s dad – all part of a five-generation, family lumber business, Rajala Companies.
Standing in the middle of the very same woods where Jack walked, John reflects, “Now we’re dealing with the fact that we’ve got more trees than we really optimally want.”
Managing white pine success
Jack’s growing method, which included what is called bud capping – stapled pieces of paper around the tree’s top bud to protect from hungry deer – was so successful that some white pines are overcrowded.
Three weeks before Jack passed away, John recorded a home video (watch portion on associated KARE-TV video story), which he posted on YouTube, of Ethan discussing the issue with his grandpa. “We’re gonna pick out the best tree, and we’ll use our best judgment,” Ethan said.
Looking back, Ethan says, “And it made me feel really, really good that he approved of what I was doing.”
The team of teenage lumberjacks is now carrying out that conversation, pruning the best young white pines, marking them with pink ribbons; the others will be thinned later to make space.
“I feel sometimes a little bit funny changing the work in any way, but you know, he completely would have agreed,” John says.
The family tree
If John and Ethan needed any more assurance, perhaps they got it this August.
While out seeking the best, one of the teens, Bo Anderson, found a simple reminder of who blazed the white pine trail.
“I found some glasses,” recalls Anderson.
On the forest floor, near a grove of white pines, Anderson had found Jack’s glasses.
As Ethan remembers it, “I was kind of thinking about my grandpa all day. It was Aug. 2; it was the one-year anniversary.”
John remembers giving his used glasses to Jack.
“So how ironic, that on the anniversary of his passing, Ethan and his buddy would find those glasses out here in the woods,” John says.
Ethan adds, “It was a feeling of reassurance that, you know, things are all right.”
Beyond the countless white pines and the remaining bud caps, the glasses point to Jack Rajala.
“It reminds us that his presence was always here, and his presence is here with us now,” John says.