The January-February issue of the Wildlife Volunteer included a photograph of two unusual natural objects that washed up on a Lake Superior beach last October. We invited our readers to guess what they were, and several people submitted answers that were in the “ballpark” but not as specific as the “larch ball” one we were seeking.
These objects are called larch balls because they basically consist of needles from
’s native eastern larch or tamarack
tree. Larch are one of the few conifers
that shed their needles in the fall, and the needles float when they end up in
water. Then they get compressed into
larch balls when waves wash large numbers of needles back and forth against a
sloping beach in a certain way. Michigan
The compacted needles of the western larch are also called larch balls. In fact, most of the internet references to larch balls come from Montana because tall western larch grow on slopes above several Montana lakes and drop huge numbers of needles into them. One of these internet items mentions an old Flathead Indian legend that goes like this:
“In the past, before the white man came to claim the land, the Flathead Indians crossed the Seeley-Swan Valley to reach their hunting grounds in the South Fork of the Flathead River Valley located in today’s Bob Marshal Wilderness. If an Indian found one of these rare larch balls, the lucky finder could have the ability to place all of his wrong-doings, or “sins”, into the ball – cleansing him and allowing a new start in life. Still it was a risk to pick up a “sin ball” which had already had sins placed in it.
The Indian brave that picked it up would be given all the sins held within.”
Picking up a larch ball can be risky.
The closest answer to the mystery question came from Janet Dorin Roe, of Lansing, daughter of a long-time Conservancy member and volunteer, Larry Dorin. Janet called the objects “whale burps” or “surf balls”. Janet, you get a gold star.