Clontz Branch, Cataloochee, NC GRSM 4-18-2009 Will Blozan
April 19, 2009


Yesterday I made an epic 10.5 mile hiking/bushwhacking tour of Clontz
Branch, one of the last remaining unexplored coves on the south side of
Caldwell Fork. The drainage lies in the realm of the "Eastern Hemlock
Superlative Zone"- an area in Cataloochee Valley that contains the vast
majority of super-tall eastern hemlock as determined by Jess Riddle and me
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 ranges
conducive to tall specimens. A survey of this last cove has been nagging at
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 classic
clear, spring day. I made quick time up the Caldwell Fork Trail and paused
briefly to get waypoints for some trees and inspect the four hemlock
conservation areas I was involved with treating in 2005-2006. They were
mostly dead with scant sign of hemlock life. Treatments commenced too late
and the hemlocks are now reduced to huge, standing lichen gardens. Although
dead, the hemlocks with thick draperies of lichens were quite beautiful in
the crystal air and blue sky.

Lichen Garden hemlock snags

I choose to cut off trail between McKee and Clontz Branch to see the lower
flats of the ridge between them. Spunky old field pines and tulips were
already nearing 130' and 9 feet in girth. I passed over a dry ridge into the
eastern side of Clontz Branch and encountered a second-growth forest of
mainly tuliptree. As I headed up the creek the western bank began to harbor
some larger trees. I crossed over since the eastern side was west facing and
dry. The soils were very rich and spring wildflowers were raging. The trees
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 accompanied by
white basswood, black birch, black cherry, and scattered hemlock. One fine
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 or
non-settled area I encountered. A huge 16'1" X 155.1' tuliptree with little
taper dominated the cove with several others 12-15' in girth nearby. Large
red oak, buckeye, and more cucumbertree shared the cove with some impressive
hemlocks. One hemlock in the center of a dense grove was the tallest I found
all day and would have surely scaled close to 1000 cubic feet. It was 13'7"
cbh X 157' tall with sloooow taper.

16'1" cbh X 155.1' tuliptree

"Dutchman's Hammock"

I was mainly on a hunt for hemlock but the soils on Clontz Branch were much
too rich for dense or extensive hemlock forests. However, the hardwoods more
than made up for the lack of hemlock and were some of the most impressive I
have seen in the valley. The upper cove of Clontz certainly has the finest
collection of yellow buckeye I have seen in Cataloochee. The largest I saw
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 perhaps red
oak. Incidentally, a nearby unnamed cove has one over 151' tall- the tallest
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 that I
believe is a girth record for the valley. This giant tree stood 121.9 feet
tall on a stocky base 15'2" CBH. Just downstream from this beast grew a
massive ~900 ft3 hemlock 14' cbh X 149.4' tall. Not bad for 4000 feet
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 eastern
side. One of the other dense hemlock groves nearly hid huge tree that would
have been close to a volume superlative. The top was broken out and the
remaining trunk stood 136.3' high. The base however, was really chunky and
at 15'7" cbh enters an elite class of huge hemlocks. Taper was slow and
numerous reiterations would have put the volume in the 1,200 ft3 range. Like
every other large hemlock I saw on Clontz Branch, it was dead and oozing
black goo from the trunk flare. Wholesale HWA slaughter.

Not far from this giant hemlock was a sourwood that looked really, really
old. It was a relic in a former chestnut dominated flat and stood among the
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 didn't
measure anything else except for a really gnarly 17'5" tuliptree that was
completely balded and scarred with bear claw scratches leading to a huge
hollow in one of the broken off branches. I could have crawled inside the
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 wildflowers are
spectacular. BTW, I made a concerted effort to locate a specimen of
yellowwood but even though the perfect habitat was present, none were
spotted. I don't believe the species has ever been reported from Cataloochee
yet it occurs in rich coves just to the north in Big Creek and elsewhere in
the Smokies. Maybe the elevation was too high. Truly bizarre.

Will F. Blozan
President, Eastern Native Tree Society
President, Appalachian Arborists, Inc.


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