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Youths who planted pine saplings at Brighton Beach years ago return to celebrate

Jevin Joki, 15, and his mother, Kelcey Joki, examine the white pine he planted in the Lester River White Pine Forest in Brighton Beach Park. The trees in the forest were planted by area students in 2007 and 2008. How much the tree has grown surprised Jevin Joki. “It’s taller than me, and I’m 6-1,” he said. “I didn’t think we would find it,” his mother said. The two were among the people attending a formal dedication of the forest Thursday evening. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Bob Olen, who was the project coordinator when students planted the trees in the Lester River White Pine Forest, holds the dedication plaque while talking to the crowd at Thursday’s ceremony. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

More than 20 Lester Park and Holy Rosary school alumni gathered Thursday evening in the northern part of Brighton Beach Park to see and celebrate the “Lester River White Pine Forest.”

“It has been a while; this definitely brings back memories,” said Cami Fischer.

The alumni planted white pine trees in 2007, in hopes of recreating a white pine forest on a parcel of land that burned in the Cloquet fire of 1918. The alumni, along with family members and city officials, were invited back to see how much the trees have grown.

“Some of the students graduated high school and we wanted to have a celebration before they went away for school,” said Bob Olen, project coordinator. “Both the kids and the trees have grown.”

It’s been five years since Lester Park alumni and brothers Charlie Bray, 18, and Henry Bray, 16, last visited their trees.

Their mother took pictures of both of them standing next to the trees they planted years ago. Henry Bray didn’t remember his tree being that tall when he last visited the forest. He sized up the 10-foot-tall pine in amazement.

“It has been a lot of fun,” said Henry Bray. “It is amazing to see how tall my tree has grown in the last several years.”

Charlie Bray gently touched the pine needles on his tree while smiling. He said he will try to make another visit to the forest within the next 10 years.

“This project definitely meant a lot to us back then,” he said.

Lester Park alumna Fischer, 13, tied a small green ribbon around her 6-foot tree to personalize it.

She then stood back and carefully studied each branch from the top to the bottom, with great enthusiasm.

“It is so cool that we all got to reunite for this moment,” Fischer said. “These trees are a part of our childhood.”

Fischer said it was an emotional day because this project was one of the most memorable school activities she participated in as a child. She remembers planting numerous trees around the forest with her classmates. Fischer is truly glad she was involved with the project.

“Overall I thought this was a really nice project and for a good cause,” she said. “I will probably come back in the future to see how my tree is doing.”

The massive 1918 Cloquet fire destroyed half the forest, which caused around 150 to 200 trees to be damaged.

“It was a very extensive fire that started near Floodwood; it burned all of Hermantown and burned down to the lake,” said Jim Larson, retired forester for St. Louis County. “It was a very unusual fire; it was just so hot that day. The fire went on for a day and a half.”

Olen was jogging by Brighton Beach Park back in 2003, when he noticed there weren’t any white pine forest trees. He only saw the remaining tree stumps from the fire.

Olen wanted to do something about it, so he contacted Larson, master gardener Bob Gilmore and several others to begin planting tree seedlings.

They later thought it would be a good idea to reach out to elementary students at Lester Park and Holy Rosary schools and get them involved with the planting.

The students adopted trees, watered them and discussed tree care. Then they took pictures standing next to their miniature trees.

Nearly 70 students planted saplings back in 2007, while Olen and others planted the rest. Almost 150 were planted and many of them stand at 8-10 feet tall.

“I’m really proud at how this forest turned out,” Larson said. “The trees have certainly come a long way; it’s really beautiful out here.”

Olen said he is thankful for everyone who participated in this project and hopes the students will revisit the forest again when they are a little older.

“This is the young people’s forest now,” Olen said. “I want them all to come back and visit in 50 to 60 years.”

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