Lake Champlain High (Corrected)
   Aug 17, 2007 12:56 PDT 


     This is a long, corrected version of the earlier e-mail. Monica read it and caught my usual mistakes.


    If you post to the website, please use this version. Thanks.


    During the period of August 12-14, Monica and I had an opportunity to explore the land of Molly Hale's family located in the township of Westport, NY, which is on the western shores of Lake Champlain. Molly is a wildlife biologist, naturalist, and friend of Monica’s and mine who lives close to us in Florence, MA. Her family owns 800 acres of land in two parcels (500 acres and 300 acres) in New York State, the large tract bordering the shores of Lake Champlain and the smaller tract set back on the ridges overlooking Champlain. Family members are joint owners. There are about 80 of them. This presents management challenges for the group, but they have been excellent custodians of the properties. The 500-acre tract spans an altitude change of from 82 to 690 feet. This represents a 608-ft elevation change and bodes well for habitat variety.

      Molly graciously invited us to stay at her secluded cabin located on the ledges overlooking the lake. For the 4-day trip we had planned, our customary stay at the historic Essex Inn would have been a bit too pricey. So, staying with Molly helped out the budget considerably. During the stay, Monica and I had been planning to explore some old growth in the Adirondacks with John Davis, Mike Kudish, and Howard Stoner. The event was set for the 12th, but the toe I had squashed when I dropped the gas stove on it on June 30th was not sufficiently healed. I could hobble around, but not go on any extended off-trail explorations, as would be required on the Daks excursion. So Monica, Molly, and I explored the more benign areas of her land.

Old Growth:

      We started looking at Molly’s forest by exploring some lakeside old growth. I had seen the distinctive profiles of old growth white pines along the lakeshore from a distance at many points, but needed to see some of it up close and personal. Upon reaching a peninsula on Molly’s land named Rose Point, the OG characteristics proved better than I had expected. They include advanced tree age for all represented species and a heavy load of woody material on the forest floor. Rose Point does harbor what Lee describes as a multi-aged stand of trees, but the age distribution is skewed to a dominance of hemlocks and white pines probably exceeding 250 years in age. However, the old growth characteristics diminish as one moves off the peninsula and back from the shore of Champlain. The interior forest shows plenty of signs of advanced old-field succession. The ground loses its abundance of coarse woody debris.

     Whether old growth or mature second growth, I quickly came to appreciate that Molly has plenty of old trees of half a dozen species on the property. Many of the conspicuously larger, older trees in the second growth areas appear to date to between 1825 and 1875. A quick field count of an oak that fell across a trail and had been cut was about 160 years old. However, among the 150-year old class is a scattering of trees that appear to be over 200 years. So it isn’t a uniform age class.

      So far, I think we can conclude that there are two small areas of the bonafide old growth with trees in the 250 years and over age class. I haven’t determined the combined acreage of old growth, but I believe there is a solid 10 to 15 acres with another 10 to 15 in the undetermined class. The whole area needs an eye like Lee Frelich’s to make more refined calls.

Tree Size:

     In terms of individual tree impressiveness, for me, the showstoppers are the OG and mature second-growth white pines in the interior forest. The bulk of the old growth pines are concentrated along the ledges that border the lake. They give a primitive, natural look to the forests that frame Champlain, but the’re are quite modest in size. Few will reach circumferences of 8 feet. But the interior forest retains patches of very mature second-growth pines and a few isolated old growth specimens that are substantially larger. The oldest show advanced age characteristics including thick to plated bark, root flares, and highly irregular, flattened crowns. Outside of old boundary trees, these interior pines are the big trees of the property. We measured one old-growth pine to 11.2 feet around and a fairly respectable 123.0 feet in height. We measured another pine across a ravine in the vicinity of the former to 127.7 feet. I chose not to negotiate the ravine with my bum toe. I was tem
pting fate already and settled on an estimate of its girth at between 8.5 and 9.0 feet.

      In another section of Molly’s land called Glen Coon (a steep ravine with plenty of rich woods indicator plants), a younger white pine, but still over 150 years weighed in at 137.8 feet and 9.6 feet around. A second weighed in at 133.1 feet in height and 8.3 feet in girth. A third measured 132.4 ft tall and 9.2 feet in girth. More work needs to be done in the Glen Coon section of the property. It appears to have the best growing conditions.

     In terms of height, I should point out that on Molly’s land, there are many pines in the 110 to 120-ft class, some old, some not so old. In most areas, the clay-based soil simply won't support truly tall trees. There are some spots with pines in the 120 to 125-ft height class, but so far, we have located only five that break 130 feet. Two are in a stand at the north end of her property and three are in Glen Coon, as described above. In terms of girth, a fair number of the large pines are between 9 and 10 feet around. Several are between 10.0 and 10.5, but only one pine found so far exceeds 11 feet.

      If I sound as though the trees on Molly’s property somehow fall short of my expectations, that is definitely not the case. In terms of what we’ve measured in the vicinity of Lake Champlain, Molly’s trees capture three regional height records. They are listed below.

      Species          Height       Girth

      White Pine       137.8’         9.6’
      White Ash        117.0’         6.9’
      N. Red Oak      100.1         9.4’         

      Now for comments on specific species.

White Ash:

      The 117.0-foot ash referenced above is a real keeper. But it isn’t much taller than a second ash that we measured at 113.7 feet in height and 7.9 feet in girth. Both whites top the green ashes I measured last January on Eddy Foundation property. These white ash measurements allow that noble species to assume its rightful place as the tallest hardwood of the Champlain region. But then, the white ash also has this distinction in most New England states. BTW, Molly was the one who measured the 117-ft white ash after only brief instructions on measuring tree heights from yours truly. She caught on blazing fast. Molly has had plenty of time using a clinometer, but so have others who fail to catch on to the full ENTS procedure. Molly quickly comprehended the math. So she was set. I loaned her a laser and clinometer and she produced.


      Molly’s property has a small number of eastern cottonwoods. We didn’t measure any on this trip. Region-wide, the cottonwood ranks #2 in the hardwood height category. The champ of that species is on the Boquette River north of Willsboro and is around 110 feet. I have trouble locating its base from the other side of the Boquette. I had it at around 115 from my January visit, but couldn’t substantiate that on our June visit. But there are plenty of cottonwoods to measure, so eventually we may confirm a legitimate 115-footer.

White Pines:

     I was especially pleased with the 137.8-ft white pine in Glen Coon. It is the current ENTS height champion for all species in the New York area of Lake Champlain. Monica and I have now stopped at a number of sites along Champlain to sample the heights of conspicuously tall pines and they seldom make it above 120. The interior Daks have white pines over this height, but most pines along Champlain struggle to reach significant heights. The 137.8-footer is special.

       Despite the scattering of large pines, size or height is not the characteristics of Molly’s pines that command the most respect. It is their advanced age. A precise determination of maximum ages and age classes must await a future trip. But, I think that many trees will be prove to be the 130 to 180-year age range. And some in the old growth areas will exceed 300 years. Those trees look similar to Maine’s 300-year old Ordway Pines.

Red Oaks:

     Turning from the great whites, Molly’s land has an abundance of attractive northern red oaks. Most are in the 6-7.5 ft CBH range and consistently between 83 and 97 feet in height. So far, we’ve confirmed only one oak over 100. It is an old tree that measures 9.4 feet in girth and 100.1 feet in height. I do feel confident that we’ll locate a small number of oaks between 100 and 105 feet, but will be very surprised if we go higher.


     The hemlocks are surprising – not for size, but the lack thereof. Hemlocks apparently do not achieve large size anywhere on Molly’s land. Girths of mature trees consistently run from 5 to 7.5 feet and heights are below 100 feet. Maybe a few will exceed 100 with enough looking, but not by much. By contrast, north of Essex in Noble State Park, I measured a hemlock last January to 108.3 feet in height and 9.2 feet in girth. Several others broke 100. So the species can achieve moderate size in some areas along Lake Champlain. On Molly’s land, I think the hardpan soils limit the hemlock heights and girths even more than for other species.

White Oaks:

     There is a small population of white oaks on Molly’s land and they are generally smaller than their northern red cousins. However, we did measure a boundary tree to 13.1 feet around and 72 feet in height. A small white oak near the cabin just tops 76 feet. Lake Champlain and environs is not white oak territory. I’m pleased with what grows there.

Indian Influences:

      Rose Point has yielded many Indian relics over the years. One of Molly’s cousins has a nice collection. The artifacts are probably of Wabanaki origin - a federation of tribes. However, there are much older, paleo-Indian sites along the shores of Lake Champlain. According to a display in Westport, there are sites that date back 7,000 years. Based on the archeological evidence obtained to date and considering the later period of European settlement on Molly’s land, I would not be surprised if a few of her OG pines have an Indian origin – at least it is exciting to think about. However, an alternative view presented by one of Molly’s cousins is that all of the land was clearcut by the original white settlers with the exception of a narrow swath of lakeside trees and the timber in Glen Coon Ravine. Old drawings of the landscape reflect wide-scale clearing to support a European origin for the largest old pines. Only an increment bore can settle the issue for sure.

Species Diversity:

    Around Molly's cabin and along the shores of the lake, by the end of the 12th, I had identified 27 species of trees. Molly confirmed one more that I hadn’t come across for a total of 28. Then on Aug 13 and 14, we added 7 more species for a total of 35. I expect that there are 2 or 3 left to catalog. I think this is pretty fair diversity for the latitude. The current list is given below.

    Silver Maple
    Sugar Maple
    Red Maple
    Striped Maple
    Mountain Maple
    White Pine
    Red Pine
    Northern White Cedar
    Northern Red Oak
    White Oak
    White Ash
    Green Ash
    Witch Hazel
    American Basswood
    Black Birch
    White Birch
    Yellow Birch
    Shagbark Hickory
    Bitternut Hickory
    Pignut Hickory
    Staghorn Sumac
    Hop Hornbeam
    American Hornbeam
    American Beech
    American Elm
    Black cherry
    Bigtooth Aspen
    Eastern Cottonwood
    Willow (Species ??)
    Alder (Species ??)
    Quaking Aspen
    Bigtooth Aspen
    Flowering Dogwood
    Common Buckthorn (invasive)

     I hope to confirm chestnut oak and black gum before we’re through hunting. Maybe we’ll add slippery elm. There is a chance the tree species list could eventually reach 40. However, this species diversity must be qualified. Most of it is concentrated around the lakeshore, which supports a variety of habitats and niches, foremost being the extensive rock ledge environment, with its abundance of light, rock crevices, ravines, and drainages. But, the lakeshore area is essentially a shallow soil, dry environment with some lovely glades dominated by hickory and hop hornbeam. As one moves away from the shores of the lake and deeper into the woods, the forest type quickly changes to a relatively few hardwoods and a mix of hemlocks and white pines. The diversity in this interior forest drops dramatically. It is easy to trace pasture boundaries. There are many fairly large boundary trees, oak and ash, in particular, that stand conspicuously out and serve as reminders of the pervasive Eu
ropean American influence of the 1800s.

     In terms of the ground layer, Molly has identified 19 or 20 species of ferns so far. There are rich woods indicators that suggest some source of calcium. I imagine that she will discover a few more in time. There is a wetland that she has not fully explored, which will probably yield new species of trees and shrubs, as well as ferns.

     In terms of tree species, they are good, but for me, on the lakeside cliffs, the northern white cedar and red pine are special treats. The red pines are unquestionably old, but the cedars don't look particularly advanced in age. However, I’m no expert at eye dating that species. The other tree species are pretty much standard stuff. However, at spots near the lake, sloping land glades dominated by sedges, hop hornbeam, and hickory present themselves. These glades are visually appealing and provide unusual habitat variety. The glades are almost as appealing to me as the profiles of the old white pines that dominate the ledges along the lakeshore. But, I suppose if I had to choose between the two, I’d go with the pines. The old pines have so much more character than the young stuff. The patriarchs, small and large, have been shaped over a couple of centuries and more by the land and its climate. They carry many imprints of past events and can be considered to be the eldest resid
ents of Molly’s land.   

     Downers for Molly’s property are two invasive species – one plant and one animal. Common buckthorn and Zebra mussels are problems, especially the latter. The mussels are a result of people just having and moving their damned boats around the landscape without using the necessary precautions against transporting those miserable, sharp-spined little hitchhikers. It is a shame, but I am coming to the sad acceptance that invasive species are an unavoidable fact of life. There is no way for us to avoid them. Government can’t protect us from them, and won’t, in the case of the present administration, and far, far too many people won’t cooperate. We’re sentenced to an ever-increasing flow of the invasive species that will compete and often replace the natives.


    I’m unsure of the geology of Molly’s land. There is a rock ledge a few yards from her cabin in which we stayed that is typical of the surrounding bedrock. I am fairly sure it is a metamorphosed mix of quartz and feldspar. I used a simple test with a steel knife to confirm a hardness of over 5.5 on a simple hardness test that is based on a scale of 1 to 10.               


     A secluded lakeshore cove known as Partridge Harbor that we visited adjacent to Molly’s land had purportedly been a hiding place for Benedict Arnold when he was still in the Continental Army aspiring to a higher rank – I think general. But, as one account of history records, he didn’t get the promotion and so he bolted to rejoin the British, insuring his name would remain in infamy. The story of his hiding is very interesting and adds a touch of color to the local history. Basically, according to an account, Arnold hid his fleet from the British in Partridge Harbor on October 13, 1776. When the British passed, according to the accounts, Arnold sailed across the lake to Arnold Bay in Vermont and sunk his boats to prevent capture by the British. Other accounts dispute the story. However, one fact is undeniable, Benedict Arnold got around the northeastern countryside and there are stories about him in unlikely locations to include the historic Charlemont Inn in Charlemont, MA.

      Today, a conspicuously old white pine in Partridge Harbor is home to an osprey family. The nest was originally built by bald eagles. I find the ospreys to be good and deserving residents of the little harbor. I hope their unmistakable calls will continue to ring through the harbor.

Lake Champlain:

       Lake Champlain is a geologically interesting and very historic body of water. The basin of Lake Champlain is very old - several million years. Its more current history is that of a glacial lake filling the old depression. Champlain’s length is given by one source as 107 miles long and 12 miles wide at its widest point, which is near Burlington, VT. Another source lists the length as 118 miles. A third source gives 125. I think the head of the lake in Canada is indistinct. Some distance measures may include part of the river that feeds the lake. The surface acreage of the lake is given by Wikipedia as 435 square miles. That is respectable, but Lake Ontario, the smallest by surface area of the Great Lakes is 7,540 square miles. Utah’s Great Salt Lake covers around 1,700 square miles. Man made Lake Powell has a surface area of 266 square miles. Lake Mead has a surface area of 247 square miles Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah covers 65 square miles. So, while Champlain is no heav
yweight, neither is it a lightweight.

       Present day Lake Champlain is the remains of a once larger lake named Lake Vermont. Modern Champlain has a maximum depth of 399 feet, east of the town of Essex. Lake Vermont was at least 200 feet deeper. Champlain’s surface is a mere 98 feet above sea level, so that its deepest point lies 301 feet below sea level. That is slightly lower than Death Valley’s -282 feet. I don’t know what the average depth of the lake is, but Champlain is a deeper body of water than Lake Erie, which has a deepest point of 210 feet. Interestingly, Lake Champlain has its own version of the Loch Ness Monster, a character named Champ. I guess a local Nessie, or Champ, is to be expected. Gullible visitors with money are always tempting catches for local residents dependent on tourism for their livelihood. However, for the sufficiently attuned, Lake Champlain has ample charms to negate the need for gimmickry and silliness. The lake is in a very attractive setting. Framing its eastern shore is the long
line of Vermont’s Green Mountains, punctuated with the distinct profile of Mansfield to the north. Camel’s Hump, farther south, is even more distinct. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump have touches of alpine tundra on their summits.

        From Molly’s land, the Green mountains are too distant to make much of a visual impact. By contrast, the western side of the lake is framed with the more dramatic and closer Adirondacks. But within the broad Champlain Valley, and from either side, there are many compelling vistas of the Lake and its surroundings. However, it is the New York side that appeals most to me and that is primarily due to the abundance of old growth forest and the dramatic relief of the Daks. In old growth acreage, the Adirondacks have no equal in the East and only one in the eastern forest type. That one is up Lee’s way and is considerably more than the Daks.

     By contrast, Vermont forests have very little old growth. I relish comparisons. I guess there is not much news there. I just can’t seem to resist comparing and contrasting – especially natural land features. Mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, and individual trees are standard grist. So where does Lake Champlain fit into the grand scheme of things? As a large body of water, previously cited numbers show that Lake Champlain cannot be compared with the Great Lakes. It would be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Sections of it have development on its shores, but large areas of it still present a very natural look and the many inlets are interesting places to visit. Overall, Lake Champlain far exceeds the zoo-like atmosphere of its southern neighbor Lake George. I unhesitatingly recommend Lake Champlain for a visit by anyone who has not seen it.

Northern V.S. Southern Forests:

     I’ll now present some observations on the forests of central and northern New England and New York State, and particularly the Adirondacks, in comparison to the forests of the South. The northern forests are handsome woodlands and they have become one of my spiritual homes. Their distinctive mix of hardwoods and conifers is somehow comforting to walk though, and of course, the New England-New York autumns with their abundance of red and sugar maples are world class. The haunting call of loons on their lakes is matched by few sounds in nature.

     I have frequently heard the New England and New York woodlands described as exceptionally pretty. I agree. But, so are the forests of the southern Appalachians. Comparing and contrasting the two areas can be an exercise in choosing sets of competing adjectives, each chosen to capture unique moods. In the northern woods, the darker appearance of the conifers against the lighter colored hardwoods gives them sharper edges, greater contrast, and for some of us, a less friendly look than that imparted by the more uniformly lighter green of the predominantly hardwood vegetative cover of the southern Appalachians. In the end, it is a matter of preference. As for me, I rate them equal in visual appeal.

     However, at the level of individual trees, the northern forests fall well short of their southern brethren by most any measure one might choose. There are substantially fewer species in the northern forests than in the southern woodlands and the northern woodlands have markedly smaller trees. When in big-tall tree mode, I must change my focus in the northern forests or I lose interest. So, I concentrate on local maximums except when purposely doing regional comparisons. But I sometimes need a compensating feature when tree size and/or height drops dramatically. For north versus south, age isn’t it. Maximum species ages are about the same north or south. The compensatory feature for the Adirondacks part of the northern forest is their sheer abundance of old growth and the numerous glacier lakes - and the presence of loons on those lakes, according to Monica. The Daks have a lifetime’s worth of mature and old growth forest to fuel my interest within a 4 to 6 hour drive of Floren
ce, MA. That is why, in my new state of retirement, Monica and I will frequently return to savor the timeless quality of the Adirondack forests, the solitude of the lakes, and the dramatic, glacier-carved relief of the mountains.

The Rucker Index:

      For the final topic of this Lake Champlain narrative, the Rucker Index must be addressed. It must, and especially now, because I have enough tree measurements to do a first Rucker calculation. Below, please find the Rucker Index calculation for a small area of the New York side of Lake Champlain. The index determination is in its infancy and will undoubtedly go up, but here is the starting point.

     Species          height    girth     Location

     White Pine         137.8      9.6    Molly’s land
     White Ash          117.0      6.9       “
     Cottonwood       115.0    11.5    Boquette River
     Hemlock            108.2     9.2        “
     Green Ash         104.5     7.2     Eddy Conservation Property
     A. Basswood      103.8    7.7     Eddy Conservation Property
     N. red oak          100.1    9.6     Molly’s Land
     Pitch Pine            94.4   8.1       Boquette River
    Bitternut H.           92.0   5.3      Eddie’s Property
    Bigtooth Aspen     88.4   6.4          “

    RHI = 106.13

      I will now go soak my toe.

Re: Lake Champlain High   Lee E. Frelich
  Aug 16, 2007 12:11 PDT 

We have some comparable lakes in Minnesota:

Lake of the Woods, 1679 square miles, 14,000 islands (several thousand of
which look pretty much alike; serves as a natural maze).
Rainy Lake, 331 square miles, 1600 islands
Millacs Lake (also Mille Lacs), 200 square miles

Rucker indexes are probably only about 60 feet for the former two, since
they are on the Canadian shield with almost no soil at the edge of the
boreal forest. Millacs is further south, has real soil, and has decent red
oak and sugar maple mixed with white pine that might reach 120 feet, but
the Rucker index is probably still only about 80 feet.