Feb 25, 2005 18:39 PST 

I've 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 azaleas.

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'
East side:
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.


McKee Branch and questions for Mike   Robert Leverett
  Feb 28, 2005 06:32 PST 


Kudos to you. Excellent field trip report, as always. You are a key
member of ENTS and we always look very forward to your reports. Any
chance you could head up my way in the spring and stomp the woods with
me for a few days?

Your datings of the hemlocks and other datings I've encountered
substantiate the Smokies as a repository of many, many hemlocks over 400
years of age and certainly no small number over 500. If the age of a
hemlock is 460 years at 40 feet up trunk, I would imagine that the full
tree is 50 to 100 years older than that.

I'm unsure of what the distribution of old Smoky Mountain hemlocks
means in terms of past disturbance regimes. Tom Bonnicksen probably
believes that an army of Cherokee Indians went forth and burned down the
entirety of the Smoky Mountains around 500 years ago. However, I don't
buy Bonnicksen's arguments - not to the extent he pushes them. I would
not argue that fire has played a persistent role in shaping many of the
vegetative communities of the Smokies, but the patterns and importance
of fire in any one locality varies significantly - often suggesting the
absence of pervasive fires than the opposite as the key to understanding
the present composition.

   Mike, what are your thoughts on this subject?

Re: McKee Branch and questions for Mike   MICHAEL DAVIE
  Feb 28, 2005 21:03 PST 

Well, I don't know how much my thoughts are relevant or correct, but since
you asked... The patterns of fire I've noticed seem to be about what you
would expect. The large areas of ancient hemlocks in Cataloochee are
predominantly on the north sides of the coves and other sheltered areas, of
course. Many of the flats have multiple seeps and mucky sunken areas that
would alter the course of any of the fires rare enough to come down into
those flats. The biggest seepey flats have really big and ancient Kalmia that
probably wouldn't survive any fires. There are fire scars sometimes in the
coves- for instance, right around the Boogerman pine there are some pines
and hemlocks with fire scars fairly low in the cove- but down closer to
Palmer Branch it's damp and dog-hobbly. I think the only fires in those
coves are rare drought and lightning combos that probably aren't that
intense (though I've seen a few coves in the mountains that seem to have
been burned pretty intensely in the past).

I doubt the native population was great enough to have a need to set fires
up coves in the mountains, except maybe in the big valleys like the main
valley floor of Cataloochee, but obvious evidence of any ancient human
disturbance is pretty hidden by later European settlement and subsequent
activities. I'm pretty sure there was some native activity in the valley. I
think there's a little archeological evidence from Little Cataloochee from a
couple thousand years ago, and from nearby Raven Fork about ten thousand

No offense to humans of any era, but I'd love to have seen some of the big
protected river valleys in the mountains before any humans at all came
around. That must have been amazing.