Post by Chloe Tremper, Science Educator
This past weekend, we had the honor of hosting Bernd Heinrich and his partner Lynn Jennings on island. Bernd is a well-known naturalist, ultrarunner, and author of over 20 books including Mind of the Raven, Winter World, and Why We Run. He has been a runner for most of his life but got into ultra running after he turned 40. He won his first 100k in 1981 with a time of 6:38:21, which was an American record at the time. He has also held American track records for the 100k, 100 miles, and 24 hour races and holds American ultra records in three age divisions. Bernd is a professor emeritus at UVM and still teaches a winter ecology course at his cabin in western Maine for a week each January, which is how we got him here on Hurricane. Chloe, one of our science educators, TAed his winter ecology course and invited him & Lynn to visit.
We were incredibly lucky to have Lynn out on island as well. Lynn is one of the most accomplished women’s long distance runners in American history. She is an Olympic medalist (bronze in the 10k at the 1992 games in Barcelona), has won more U.S. women’s cross-country titles than anyone in history, and holds the world record for the indoor 5,000m. While Lynn is retired from running professionally, she still runs daily and works as the Running Program Director and Coach for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont.
As you can imagine, our staff had a blast spending time with these two amazing and humble people. Their two days on Hurricane were chock full of running, exploring, lobstering, nest hunting, writing, tree climbing, cookouts and more. Lynn even held an informal running workshop for a few of our staff to improve their running form!
On Saturday evening, we all headed over to Vinalhaven where the Hurricane Island Foundation and the Vinalhaven Land Trust co-hosted a talk by Bernd. Over 90 people showed up to hear Bernd speak about his American chestnut trees.
American chestnut trees used to dominate the forests of eastern North America up until the early 1900s. This was until chestnut blight arrived in North America – catching a ride on imported Asian chestnut trees arriving to plant nurseries around the U.S. Within 50 years of its arrival, chestnut blight wiped out almost 4 billion chestnut trees across the east coast. While a few American chestnut trees survive, most remain small and succumb to blight before they can flower and reproduce.
In the early 1980s, Bernd obtained and planted some American chestnut seeds on his property. After ten or fifteen years passed, he noticed that his trees were beginning to flower and fruit – this caught him off guard as he had never expected his trees to successfully reproduce since most chestnuts planted today don’t. The first few years of flowering and fruiting, he was uncertain that the trees were being pollinated because many of the fruits he was finding on the ground did not actually contain nuts. He came to find out later that this was because chestnuts drop their dud fruits early and keep the successful ones on their branches until later in the season.
Bernd then began to notice chestnut saplings popping up all over his forests. Chestnuts have large, heavy nuts that are not very easily dispersed so he thought it curious to be finding seedlings showing up hundreds of yards from the mature chestnuts near his cabin. After a season of watching wildlife visit his trees, he determined blue jays and red squirrels to be the main dispersers – watching jays fly away with mouths full of nuts and squirrels run off with one nut at a time to stockpile away.
Bernd’s American chestnuts are still thriving and some of the saplings in the forest are beginning to grow fairly large. Hopefully chestnut blight will not find its way to any of Bernd’s trees. Want to plant some chestnut trees of your own? Check out the American Chestnut Foundation.
We are so grateful to Bernd and Lynn for coming out to Hurricane and sharing such a special weekend with us. We hope they will be back in the future with chestnut seeds!