Cliff Creek   Jess Riddle
  Dec 02, 2004 21:07 PST 

Cliff Creek flows past a series of steep, short, north facing slopes on
the streams way to the Chattooga River, the northernmost section of the
Georgia-South Carolina state line. Despite the rough topography along the
creek, the creek's gradient remains low, around 100' per mile, and broad
ridges and shallow valleys make up most of the surrounding section of
Rabun County GA. Bedrock exposed in the shows that either granite or
granitic gneiss, with some prominent pegmatites, underlies at least part
of that area.

Both private land owners and the Forest Service own large sections of the
watershed. Since no state parks or trail networks promote activity in the
area, public interest in the area is largely restricted to the immediate
vicinity of the one highway through the area and whitewater rafting on the
Chattooga river. However, the forest service has not forgotten about the
area. Dirt roads extend throughout the region, except in the Wild and
Scenic River corridor, and many more clearcuts have occurred in the past
thirty years there than in most sections of the Chattahoochee NF. The
gentle topography also allowed easy access for earlier logging efforts, so
a survey for old growth conducted in the mid 90's included only a few
small stands from the area. Consequently, a mosaic of second and third
generation forests occupy the area.

The flats along the creek, probably the most productive forest in the
area, are structurally and compositionally reminiscent of Pine Flats in
the smokies, but have not reached the same stature yet. White pines,
scattered but common, reach far greater heights than the other species in
flats. Young hemlocks, usually under five feet cbh, form most of the main
canopy layer; tuliptree, black birch and sourwood frequently grow amongst
them along with smaller numbers of shortleaf pines, red maple, and
sweetgum. Patches of dog-hobble and small clumps of rhododendron grow in
the hemlock shade, but little vegetation impedes travel through the flats.
Christmas fern grows in the acidic much, but most other herbaceous plants
in the flats have ceased activity for the year. In Pine Flats, more
abundant white pine forms a supercanopy rather than a collection of
emergent trees. Hemlock, while possibly the most numerous species in pine
flats, generally has not reached the main canopy level yet, so the second
most prominent group of species at Cliff Creek, forms the main canopy at
Pine Flats. The understory at the latter site probably includes more
small trees, but is overall very similar. The herbaceous layer along
Cataloochee creek may also be somewhat richer. Some rock piles and
various small, old, man-made paths on the adjacent slopes suggest farmers
may have occupied the flats along Cliff Creek, but the flats are fairly
small for farming and no evidence of larger structures is immediately
evident. The disturbance that cleared pine flats 125 years ago has not
been determined as far as I know.

While one small section of the slopes along Cliff Creek resembles the
flats with a white pine-shortleaf pine-hemlock canopy, most of the slopes
differ markedly from the flats. The steep north facing slopes also
support white pine and hemlock, but at lower densities than the flats.
Those conifers grow amongst a mixture of hardwoods that includes beech and
northern red oak as well as many individuals that appear larger in
diameter and older than the trees in the flats. A dense understory of
rosebay rhododendron also gives the north aspect slopes a different
character. Contrastingly, only a few small patches of dwarf rhododendron
grow in the understory of the south facing slopes. White oak occupies the
greatest proportion of the canopy on those slopes, but several other
hardwoods and small stands of shortleaf pine also inhabit the slopes.

Cbh Height Species
4'1" 104.2 Birch, Black
NA 127.0' Hemlock, Eastern
NA 135.5' Hemlock, Eastern
3'5" 55.8' Hornbeam, American
5'7" 107.7' Oak, Southern Red
8'3" 139.6' Pine, Eastern White
NA 151.8' Pine, Eastern White
NA 152.6' Pine, Eastern White
7'9" 156.9' Pine, Eastern White
7'11" 157.4' Pine, Eastern White
NA 118.8' Pine, Shortleaf
5'0" 128.8' Pine, Shortleaf
5'3" 134.7' Pine, Shortleaf
3'4" 95.3'+ Sourwood

[ed note:  RI5 = 127.9]

The black birch is the second tallest known of the species in the state.
While the hemlocks do not approach the state height record, they are
exceptionally tall for second growth trees. I'm very curious to see what
heights the white pines have reached on richer or older sites in the area.
As far as I know, 121.2' was the previous height record for shortleaf
pine in Georgia, but entire stands at this site may average that height.
The sourwood is also a new state height record. All of these trees were
measured in a couple of hours along a section of creek less than half a
mile long.

Cliff Creek flows through the lower section section of the Chattooga River
watershed where the river has cut down into an old plateau. I had
previously assumed that that section of the watershed was too far away
from the high rainfall center farther up the river and the gentle
topography would offer two little shelter from storms to allow trees to
reach great heights. Cliff Creek and a similar site on the other side of
the Chattooga that likely has slightly taller conifers have shown the
error of that assumption. The upper part of the Chattooga, in particular
the lower East Fork, has long been recognized as exceptional conifer
habitat. However, I am beginning to wonder if the lower Chattooga has
even better growing conditions. Growth rates for white pine appear
comparable along both sections of the river, but young hemlocks may grow
much faster at the lower elevation sites. Also, shortleaf pine appears
more competitive on good sites in the lower section than on good sites in
the upper section, so the species can take greater advantage of the
overall good conditions. Only more data will tell.

Jess Riddle