Wild Trees   

TOPIC: The Wild Trees...
== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Sun, Nov 11 2007 11:13 am
From: "Will Blozan"


Yet another post long over due. however, I was initially respecting a
certain anonymity requested by the vacationing party. Peace and quite was
needed after the success of The Wild Trees!

This past June 2007, I had the most fortunate opportunity to spend four days
with some of the characters (used intentionally.) of The Wild Trees. Drs.
Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, Steve's brother Scott Sillett and his wife
Kristine, both also professional biologists (Scott birds, Kristine aquatic
invertebrates) all visited the western North Carolina Mountains for some
old-growth exploration and tree climbing. Marie is an incredible tree
climber and studies lichens in the canopies of northwestern conifers.
Steve's work in redwoods and eucalypts is legendary 
http://www.humboldt.edu/~sillett/  . Scott works for the Smithsonian
Institution as an ornithologist 
http://nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationAndScience/MigratoryBirds/About_Us/Staff/sillett_more.cfm  ). 
Regardless of my humble and not-so-worthy status
among the upper echelon of canopy and ecological research I was contacted by
Steve in April for a visit. I was floored and honored at the opportunity, of
which I believe was spurred somewhat by Dr. Van Pelt who kept insisting that
we all should meet. The event was made possible by the most generous of
hosts, Tobe Sherrill and his wife Anne. Tobe is owner of perhaps the Worlds
largest arborist supply store, SherrillTree  
< http://www.wtsherrill.com/  > and producer of some of the most influential
magazines and magalogs ever produced. I think that Tobe may be one of the
most influential people on the planet with regard to properly caring for
trees. His catalogs are READABLE, reach thousands in the industry, and are
chock full of useful tips and great products for both commercial arborists
and recreational tree climbers.

Tobe, Anne, Scott, Kristine, Steve, Marie, and me

Day one brought in the rains that had not been seen for weeks. Tobe had
rented a gorgeous cabin in Maggie Valley, NC near Cataloochee, and after
arriving in the late afternoon we all instantly brought out climbing gear
from our packs like polypropylene and aluminum viscera. I showed Steve my
"redneck" motion lanyard as he shamelessly modeled his custom new one put
together by Tobe- several degrees of magnitude more expensive and
super-slick. "Dude, I LOVE this lanyard!" was the annoying phrase we all
endured for days on end, but I still managed to pick up a few new climbing
tricks between Steve's gloat-fests ;). We practiced setting the lanyards
into a red maple about 25 feet off the deck of the cabin- and when
successful, traversed to it and back to the deck without touching the
ground. Probably a first for the cabin and the tree!

The first full day we did the obligatory "Intro to Cataloochee 101" hike up
Caldwell Fork and the Boogerman Loop Trail. Steve was dead set on seeing
"The Boog", the east's tallest tree- the Boogerman Pine. On the way to the
trailhead we stopped at the Sal Patch overlook for an overview of the
"Valley of the Giants".

Steve was mightily impressed with "The Boog" and he studied it far longer
than I thought he would. I was pleased. The next target of the hike was an
off-trail side trip to see the Sag Branch Tuliptree that his good friend and
research partner Dr. Robert Van Pelt climbed with Ed Coyle and me in
February 2004. All in the party were very impressed and a group shot was
taken. Steve renamed the tree "The Stupkanator" after Aurthur Stupka, a
famous naturalist and past park biologist of Great Smoky Mountains National
Park http://www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/12_04/12_15_04/mtn_voices.html  
The impact of HWA was apparent along the trails and I could sense Steve's
growing concern.

The next day we climbed in the Jim Branch Conservation Area, Cataloochee,
NC. This is the site of first discovery of HWA in GRSM and contains the
first ten hemlocks treated for HWA in GRSM. The ten trees, first treated in
November 2002, were in much better health than those treated in fall 2005.
Steve, Marie and I climbed JB #8- a.k.a. the "Lichen Garden Tree". Steve and
Marie are both serious "lichen heads" and were extremely impressed with the
diversity of species in the old-growth hemlock canopy. They were also
impressed with the strength of the eastern hemlock as compared to the
western hemlock. This was a surprise to me, as eastern hemlock is one of the
toughest conifers I have ever climbed; Steve and Marie simply don't trust
western hemlock!

Meanwhile, Tobe climbed a nearby treated tree, JB #10 and photographed the
HWA carnage all around. The stark contrast of healthy, lush green to dead or
dying, gray, skeletonized trees was appalling. The HWA crisis and the extant
of the impact were becoming clear.

I had heard that a rare species of lichen was to be found on an old eastern
red cedar growing in front of the Woody House on Rough Fork. Steve took a
quick glance and instantly found it, even though I had no idea what the name
of it was or what it looked like. He knew though, and Marie found more on a
fallen branch. They know lichen like I know trees! On the way out we stopped
at a huge quartz boulder on Winding Stair Branch and had fleeting thoughts
of climbing the large tuliptree nearby. We didn't climb, but hung out
admiring the scene. All were impressed with the diversity of trees, plants
and lichens.

Our last full day was spent with two goals in mind: to see the high
elevation spruce forests and the superlative tuliptree groves of Baxter
Creek, NC. We drove the trans-mountain route on Highway 441 through the
heart of the Smokies and headed up to Clingman's Dome to see the spruce and
fir. Unfortunately, we were assaulted by masses of overweight humanity and
kids and chose not to hike to the top. The views were great and the
devastation of yet another introduced pest, the balsam woolly adelgid were
prominent. The poor health of the Smokies conifer forests was in sharp
contrast to those of the western US, and obviously on Steve's mind. As we
drove down towards Gatlinburg on 441 we rounded a bend and an entire slope
of dead hemlock came into full view.

(Green conifers are red spruce. Photos taken 10-2007)

The up close and powerful image of that scene resulted in Steve bursting in
expletives and frustration. The car fell silent as the impact set in. Within
minutes Steve had left a message on Richard Preston's phone. The ball was in

Tobe went fishing and the girls headed back in another car so Steve, Scott
and I headed to the Big Creek section of GRSM to see Baxter Creek. Steve
really wanted to see the "Rucker Tuliptree", just a few tenths of a foot
shorter than a black cottonwood measured by Dr. Van Pelt. For those of you
who don't know, Baxter Creek is a young hardwood forest, but very rich and
likely the tallest eastern forest given its small size. Over two dozen
tuliptrees exceed 170 feet and record or near record heights occur for
several other species. The Rucker Tuliptree is the tallest recorded specimen
of the species and vying with Bob's cottonwood as the tallest (native)
hardwood in the US. Curiously, neither eastern hemlock nor eastern white
pine breaks 150' on Baxter Creek, as they are often among the tallest
species in other areas. They don't even make it into the Rucker 10 index!

Steve trying to admire the Rucker Tuliptree.

Arrival at the Rucker Tuliptree was not heralded by an exclamation of
"Wow!", or even, "That's cool". Steve was not impressed by this scrawny, 11
foot girth beanpole! He stated it was not a worthy tree for such a title. I
disagreed, but he still allowed himself to be pictured with it. Remember, he
had the "Stupkanator" on his mind. Also, some of the redwoods he climbs
don't even have limbs at a measly 178'! On the way down we crossed over into
an adjacent small tributary to see a 158'+ triple-stemmed sycamore. Steve
and Scott seemed to really like the tree. I also showed them a 165'
tuliptree I cored to 69 years old several years ago.

We arrived back at the cabin and were soon joined by my parents and my two
children. My kids stayed over night with us all and had a great time getting
to know everyone. We even got in a short hike and swim before departing.
Tobe quickly became their greatest buddy as did Scott with his infectious
silliness. Upon leaving, copious invitations to visit our respective homes
were given. This meeting was such a great networking of people so passionate
about what they do. Although Tobe belittles his influence and contribution
to climbing and tree studies he is the one that can make it happen. He is
the facilitator, a task he seems to do effortlessly. He has a magnetic and
personable demeanor about him and as a result draws in such passionate
people and perhaps inadvertently forms these networks of such influential
people. He is a people person, but the underlying result is the best
possible care and studies of trees. For this I can't be appreciative enough.

Tobe's self portrait in JB #10

The call Steve made to Richard Preston made an impact. Richard called back,
they exchanged rants, and I was put in the line-up for a discussion about
the HWA crisis. Richard and I emailed a bit to get on track and we set up a
phone call. Our first talk was over an hour long. Richard, as a tree
climber- including the redwoods with Steve and Marie- was livid with the
dire situation. He pitched the story to The New Yorker and got permission to
pursue it. He flew down to NC in August for four days. On the way from the
Airport we went to Linville Gorge to see the Carolina hemlocks- a species he
had never seen. The treated trees were obvious- a living contrast to those
in the deathzone surrounding the treated area.

Since he was staying at my house, we had much discussion and sharing of
photos. We were in the woods everyday, including a great trip in Cataloochee
with Kristine Johnson (Supervisory Forester, GRSM) and Tom Remaley
(Forester, HWA, GRSM). On this trip we toured the Sag Branch Conservation
Area and discussed the NPS strategy with regard to the HWA. We were
impressed with the response of some of the trees to treatment earlier in the
year, although the drought seemed to have pushed some over the edge. Treated
trees were marked with a spot of paint, and some painted trees were dead.

The following day I took Richard to Jim Branch to climb in the area I had
climbed with Steve, Marie and Tobe. We decided to climb JB #10 and get an
overview of the deathzone while climbing in a perfectly healthy treated
tree. The contrast was perfect- climbing in a shady, healthy, cone-laden
hemlock with a dead one next to it with the bark being scaled off by

The quiet of the grove was occasionally broken by the yank of a red-breasted
nuthatch or the whir of an optimistic ruby-throated hummingbird exploring
the red webbing on my saddle. I think Richard was deeply moved by this
experience (which of course was my intention) and seemed reluctant to leave.
He likened the climb of the hemlock to that of the redwood canopy. I liked
that he appreciated the tree and at least in his mind the eastern hemlock -
near the top- was on par with the tallest conifers on earth!

As of this moment, the article resulting from our visit has been submitted
and should be running (hopefully) in a near-future issue. I look forward to
reading it, and hope that the resultant exposure of the HWA crisis will make
an impact. I have not read the article, but doubt that there will be any
surprisingly juicy details as in The Wild Trees! BTW, Richard also wrote The
Hot Zone, which I just finished and HIGHLY recommend!


== 2 of 2 ==
Date: Sun, Nov 11 2007 3:25 pm
From: James Parton


I never tire of reading about your adventures. Great pics! I gotta do
more exploration of the smokies.

James Parton.