been cruising the Smokies via Terraserver alot lately looking at
aerial photos, and noticed that the upper part of McKee Branch
looked promising for hemlocks. McKee is a branch running SSE to
NNW, flowing into Caldwell Fork. It is one of a series of
branches that drain into Caldwell Fork from the south side. The
other branches that drain on that side in generally the same
manner are Den, Palmer, Sag, Snake, McKee, Clontz, and Double
Gap. The Park geology map shows that side of Caldwell Fork as
being Thunderhead sandstone.
They are mostly similar in many ways, dense hemlock stands in
darker, wetter areas, with stands of open hardwoods pretty
consistently showing up, white pines shooting up on the ridges
above. They're all a little different as well, partly due to the
fact that each is generally higher in overall elevation than the
last. Palmer, Den, and Sag have more white pines down lower in
the coves. Double Gap Branch, farther upstream, has I think
comparatively the largest undisturbed northern hardwood type
stand in the upper flats- NROs, sugar maples, and ash. To my
knowledge, McKee and Clontz haven't been really looked at yet.
Clontz shows up on disturbance maps as mostly undisturbed, but
looks as though it has less hemlock than most of the others. I'm
curious to see that one soon.
The lower flats of McKee were all farmed, but the upper reaches
were left alone. There is a large flat area between the upper
forks and along the west side that looked full of hemlock on the
aerial photos, and they didn't lie. While the area was not
mind-blowing or record-breaking, it was an impressive forest of
many consistently large (10-14 feet circumference) 130-140 foot
hemlocks, interspersed with a few moderately large and very old
tuliptrees, with a smattering of birch, sugar maple, and buckeye
all coming from a dense thicket of rhododendron. Abruptly, just
on the east side of the east fork, the forest was practically
devoid of hemlock and rhododendron, totally open with very old
but not very big tulips, lots of cucumbertree, northern red oak,
chestnut oak, bitternut and pignut hickory, sugar maple, a
little blackgum, black birch, and more big downed chestnut
corpses than I've seen anywhere in Cataloochee. The understory
had a good bit of buffalo nut, mountain holly, and flame
I did not explore the flats thoroughly by any means. I avoid
dense rhodo solo backcountry bushwhacking, so I only went
through the lower half of the flats between forks before taking
the easy way out and heading out to the open side and traveling
up a ways beside the flats. There is more territory, and worth
checking out again- I might try to access it next time from
Cataloochee Divide above to get in faster. I got fairly accurate
heights on a few, but I could not see the bases of most of the
trees in the flats because of rhodo, so I just took girths and
shot up into the crowns to approximate height.
In the flats between the forks:
Tuliptree- 14'4" cbh, app. 135'
Hemlock- 12'6" cbh , app. 140
Tuliptree- 17'7" cbh broken top, app. 110'
Tuliptree-14'5"cbh app. 150'
Tuliptree-app. 15'cbh, 156' (base unclear)
Tuliptree 15' 10" app. 145'
Buckeye- app. 135'
Cucumber magnolia- 135.4
Black birch- 100.6'
Hemlock- app. 11'cbh, 142.3
Blackgum-7'8" cbh, 114.9'
Tuliptree-app. 13'cbh, 124.8
On the way up to McKee Branch, along Caldwell Fork trail, I
counted rings on a couple of trail-cut hemlocks. One was cut
about 10' from the base, and I got 432, another was cut about 40
feet from the base, I counted twice and got 461 and 470, I guess
it's somwhere close to that. The rings in the center, that far
up the trunk, were really tiny. That is one old tree. It'd be
nice to cut slabs off some corpses up there, and I suppose soon
enough there will be plenty. Of course the forest floor was
dusted with adelgid fuzz. The hemlocks up McKee like the ones in
most of lower Caldwell are, while infested, not as far gone as
the ones in upper Caldwell fork I saw last summer.