The Parklands

Wolves in the Parklands

Last year Kentucky briefly saw its first wolf in 150 years. Gray wolves roamed the state and all of North America until shortly after European arrival when the newcomers extirpated them from 95% of their range south of Canada.

But I’ve been finding wolves in The Parklands for years.

Not the four-legged type, but wolf trees—the biggest, oldest, most interesting trees in our eastern forest. They picked up the name wolf tree, the story goes, from foresters who didn’t value the trees’ open-grown form. Foresters were in search of timber trees: straight, tall, and marketable. The term, however, goes much further back, to Viking times when wolves were sacrificed to the Norse god Odin by hanging in trees. These were the original wolf trees.

Nonetheless, today’s forest dwelling wolf trees get their spreading form from the fact that they lived much of their lives in open settings, often pastures. With full sun and no competition, the trees reached branches wide so they could photosynthesize at maximum rates. Once farming cows on small plots became uneconomical (mid-to-late 1900s in our area) the forest returned, and the wide-spreading trees became surrounded by young, tall, straight trees. Timber trees.

The Parklands has dozens of wolf trees in its forests. Many of these are presettlement trees, meaning trees that were alive before American settlement. These trees predate Daniel Boone, John Floyd, and the Long Run Massacre. Some of these trees, I have confirmed, date back four centuries to the 1600s.

During the middle portion of their lives, they shaded cattle on hot summer days. Today they house raccoons, and warblers, and a mother coyote and her pups as seen in this video from Turkey Run Park. Not quite a wolf, but awesome, nevertheless.    

Have a look at this longer story on wolf trees I wrote for the recent issue of American Forests magazine. You’ll find photographs of a handful of Parklands wolf trees. To see them for yourself, take a walk on the Big Beech Trail and look for crooked old chinkapin oaks on the way up the bluff over Floyds Fork. Next year you can go in search of centuries-old trees in Turkey Run and Broad Run Parks.

Long live the wolves.

For more on wolf trees from Michael Gaige, visit:


Photo by Dan Dobson, Parklands Volunteer. 
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About the Author

Picture of Michael Gaige

Michael Gaige

Michael Gaige became involved with 21st Century Parks in 2007 on a recommendation from his graduate adviser, Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape. His first project was to groundtruth the nearly 4,000 acres around Floyds Fork to discover and document interesting places park users will experience and learn about. He then compiled a Natural Areas Plan to ensure that the parks’ forests and meadows are well-tended, and park infrastructure is designed in accordance with the landscape’s history and ecological detail. Michael now works as a freelance ecologist and educator and lives in upstate New York. He returns to Louisville periodically to share with others his favorite places in The Parklands, and to visit his cherished old trees.