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  Crooked Trees

by Dave Yanko

Note: the Magowans no longer own the land on which the crooked trees stand. See new contact info at bottom of story - ed.

Skip and Linda Magowan's farm in The Thickwood Hills northwest of Saskatoon is becoming a hot spot for fans of the strange and unusual.

The attraction is a stand of aspens economically named 'the crooked trees' by folks who live in the vicinity. The trees are located on the northern perimeter of the Magowan farm and they're surrounded by normal aspens that grow boldly skyward in competition for sunlight.

The crooked trees, on the other hand, feature branches that loop, twist and reach out in every direction. The effect is an eerie, even haunted appearance.

"Some people say they look like that weird forest in the Ichabod Crane movie, you know, with the Headless Horseman?" says Linda.

This aspen's trunk, photographed in early spring, looks like it belongs to an elephant.
This aspen's trunk, photographed in early spring, looks like it belongs to an elephant.

"We get tons of people stopping in here," adds Skip. "One Sunday I was bailing hay out there and there was traffic all day long. At one point, there were three motor homes sitting there. And we've had as many as three bus loads there at a time.

"There have even been people here from Australia and the United States."

Skip acquired the land from his father and now runs a cattle and grain operation on it. He says the crooked trees have been there for as long as he can remember, although the number of trees in the stand has grown over the years. He says old-timers from the district claim the unusual trees were not there when the first homesteaders arrived around 100 years ago.

Skip Magowan
Skip Magowan

No one, including a University of Saskatchewan plant breeder who studied the trees, knows of a similar aspen stand anywhere in the world. And speculation on how they got this way ranges from the scientific to the other-worldly.

"There are tons of stories about why they're like that," says Skip. "One says there was this guy out working in his field, and when he got close to that place he saw a UFO land. These little green men came out and urinated on that spot.

"When (the farmer) came back to this area to visit his grandson years later, he noticed the crooked trees were growing there."

Skip takes no position on the origins of the crooked trees. But he says there have been a lot of UFO sightings in the area, including one by his late neighbors who spoke of a bright object that 'woke them up one night and lit up their whole bedroom.'

Harold Storgard farmed the land across the road from the aspens before he retired to North Battleford several years ago. He's not the person who claims to have seen the little green men. But Harold's been having fun with the crooked trees ever since The Western Producer farm journal first published an article about them around 15 years ago.

"Back in the '30s we were infested with jack rabbits," says Harold. "I called them 'war-horse jack rabbits' because they were big boys, some the size of Shetland ponies.

"They could run right over the top of those bushes - there was a lot of snow there then. They used to stop and bite the tops off those trees and suck the sap right out them. When the snow melted in spring, the trees were all crooked."

Harold likes to tell stories.

"I'm having a ball over those trees, you know. People will believe anything you tell them."

Others aren't quite so whimsical.

Danny Lange farms with his father in the Mayfair district several miles north of the Magowan farm. He recalls as a child his family taking some visitors to the stand to show them the crooked trees.

Lange says his grandmother was walking among the trees and picking wild flowers. As everyone was preparing to leave, his grandmother announced she had the distinct feeling she was stealing the flowers.

"She put her little bouquet down and came to join the rest of us. And then she said, all of a sudden, that she felt a presence or something."

Lange says his grandmother's behavior was quite out of character. She's a down-to-earth woman with no interest in things supernatural. After the incident, however, she no longer accompanied the family during its frequent trips to the crooked trees.

"She was quite shaken up," says Lange, "and we used to go there 10 or 15 times a year."

Rick Sawatzky, a plant breeder with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, touched on the mystery of the crooked trees through a research project focusing on the clone propagation of plants using softwood cuttings, or slips.

'Wild' aspens are notoriously difficult to transplant, says Sawatzky. They propagate by sending out shoots, and digging up one of these interconnected individuals usually kills it. Sawatzky used advanced techniques to generate roots on slips cut from the crooked aspens, and then he planted the cuttings.

A summer dance.
A summer dance.

"Here's the clincher," says Sawatzky, "these things grow the same way here, on our plots, as they do out there."

Soil conditions at the university are similar to those at Magowan's farm, he added.

"So we know one thing. The factor -- whether it came from Martians or it's genetic -- the factor for this growth habit is in the plant. It can be propagated, and it has nothing to do with location or soil."

Sawatzky strongly suspects the 'crookedness' in the aspens is the result of a genetic change in one of the earliest trees in the stand. What caused that change is anybody's guess.

"If the Martians did do it," he chuckles, "they were great environmentalists. They didn't ruin the soil or anything in the area. They just changed the plant."

As for the human visitors, well, not all of them have been so respectful.

Skip recently observed a man loading one of the crooked trees into his van as a woman and two children looked on.

"It was a dead one," says Skip. "They didn't kill a tree to take it, but he could have had the courtesy to come and ask. I would have told him 'go ahead'."

The dilapidated barbed-wire fence that stands between the road and the aspens does little to deter foot traffic through the area, nor was it intended to. As more people tread the small stand every year, however, the unique trees are becoming threatened.

In order to preserve them, and to explore the potential of a new revenue opportunity for the farm, Skip and Linda have decided to control access to the crooked trees and charge a loonie (a Canadian one-dollar coin) for admission.

"We're going to put a fence around it which, according to the guys at the university, we have to do anyway because the roots are coming up and it's harming the trees," says Skip.

"We'll build pathways and post signs reminding people to stay on them," adds Linda. "Maybe we'll even get some souvenirs going -- we're not sure. We've never done this kind of thing before."

Linda says she and Skip won't have the time to staff their little attraction on a daily basis, so it's likely access to the crooked trees will be on weekends only.

"We'll have a sign set up down there showing people where to come if they want to see it on a week day," says Skip. "They could just come down and get one of us."

Judging by the level of interest in the unusual trees, the Magowans may well be busier than they expect.

If you're interested in visiting the crooked trees, please phone the Town of Hafford, during business hours, for directions: 306-549-2331.

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