Yesterday I made an epic 10.5 mile hiking/bushwhacking tour of
Branch, one of the last remaining unexplored coves on the south side
Caldwell Fork. The drainage lies in the realm of the "Eastern
Superlative Zone"- an area in Cataloochee Valley that contains the
majority of super-tall eastern hemlock as determined by Jess Riddle
during the course of the Tsuga Search Project. Aerial photos and
remote-sensed data indicated a few small but dense groves of
hemlock-dominated forest lying in the topographic and elevation
conducive to tall specimens. A survey of this last cove has been
me for quite some time.
Clontz Branch in center of map
The day started at a cool 36 degrees but quickly warmed up into a
clear, spring day. I made quick time up the Caldwell Fork Trail and
briefly to get waypoints for some trees and inspect the four hemlock
conservation areas I was involved with treating in 2005-2006. They
mostly dead with scant sign of hemlock life. Treatments commenced
and the hemlocks are now reduced to huge, standing lichen gardens.
dead, the hemlocks with thick draperies of lichens were quite
the crystal air and blue sky.
Lichen Garden hemlock snags
I choose to cut off trail between McKee and Clontz Branch to see
flats of the ridge between them. Spunky old field pines and tulips
already nearing 130' and 9 feet in girth. I passed over a dry ridge
eastern side of Clontz Branch and encountered a second-growth forest
mainly tuliptree. As I headed up the creek the western bank began to
some larger trees. I crossed over since the eastern side was west
dry. The soils were very rich and spring wildflowers were raging.
reflected the soil quality and the older relic specimens of tulip,
cucumbertree, red oak, and buckeye were getting impressive. The
first tree I
measured was a fine, "stovepipe" cucumbertree 10'6" cbh X 139' tall.
Surrounding tuliptrees were approaching 150' tall and were
white basswood, black birch, black cherry, and scattered hemlock.
birch hit 107.8' tall on a stem 5'2" in girth.
As I ascended the west bank a small rich cove was the first uncut
non-settled area I encountered. A huge 16'1" X 155.1' tuliptree with
taper dominated the cove with several others 12-15' in girth nearby.
red oak, buckeye, and more cucumbertree shared the cove with some
hemlocks. One hemlock in the center of a dense grove was the tallest
all day and would have surely scaled close to 1000 cubic feet. It
cbh X 157' tall with sloooow taper.
16'1" cbh X 155.1' tuliptree
I was mainly on a hunt for hemlock but the soils on Clontz Branch
too rich for dense or extensive hemlock forests. However, the
than made up for the lack of hemlock and were some of the most
have seen in the valley. The upper cove of Clontz certainly has the
collection of yellow buckeye I have seen in Cataloochee. The largest
was 14' cbh X 141' and MASSIVE. This species is unjustly underrated
as a big
tree species; among the hardwoods- second only to tuliptree and
oak. Incidentally, a nearby unnamed cove has one over 151' tall- the
specimen in the valley.
Crown of 14' cbh X 141' buckeye
Base of 14' cbh X 141' buckeye
Sharing the upper cove with the buckeyes was a giant black cherry
believe is a girth record for the valley. This giant tree stood
tall on a stocky base 15'2" CBH. Just downstream from this beast
massive ~900 ft3 hemlock 14' cbh X 149.4' tall. Not bad for 4000
elevation. A sugar maple nearly was 9'5" cbh and 131.1' tall.
15'2" X 121.9' cherry
Crown of 15'2" X 121.9' cherry
I headed back down the stream and explored the side coves on the
side. One of the other dense hemlock groves nearly hid huge tree
have been close to a volume superlative. The top was broken out and
remaining trunk stood 136.3' high. The base however, was really
at 15'7" cbh enters an elite class of huge hemlocks. Taper was slow
numerous reiterations would have put the volume in the 1,200 ft3
every other large hemlock I saw on Clontz Branch, it was dead and
black goo from the trunk flare. Wholesale HWA slaughter.
Not far from this giant hemlock was a sourwood that looked really,
old. It was a relic in a former chestnut dominated flat and stood
carcasses of its former, fallen cohorts. At 6'4" cbh and 101 feet
tall it is
the largest I know of in the valley. I headed out from there and
measure anything else except for a really gnarly 17'5" tuliptree
completely balded and scarred with bear claw scratches leading to a
hollow in one of the broken off branches. I could have crawled
branch if I climbed up there- it was that large.
6'4" X 101' sourwood
17'5" tuliptree base
17'5" tuliptree crown
Clontz Branch has a fine collection of hardwoods and is
relatively easy to
traverse. The rich soils keep the rhododendron out and the
spectacular. BTW, I made a concerted effort to locate a specimen of
yellowwood but even though the perfect habitat was present, none
spotted. I don't believe the species has ever been reported from
yet it occurs in rich coves just to the north in Big Creek and
the Smokies. Maybe the elevation was too high. Truly bizarre.
Will F. Blozan
President, Eastern Native Tree Society
President, Appalachian Arborists, Inc.