Tsuga Search Report; "Winding Stairs Loner"   Will Blozan
  Jun 04, 2006 09:20 PDT 
The Winding Stairs Loner

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Base of Loner with big tuliptree nearby w/Jess at base

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162' (not that tall) stitch w/Crown = Whole tree from east side

During research for Tsuga Search scouting areas I located a record in my
notes of a giant hemlock on eastern Winding Stairs Branch, Cataloochee, NC,
GRSM from 1998. The record listed a very tall and large diameter tree,
clearly justifying a search of the area to relocate it. The first attempt
Jess and I made to relocate the tree was successful. We found the tree just
below the gravel entrance road into Cataloochee Valley, but the day was so
foggy we could not even get the laser to work. We cross-triangulated the
enshrouded top and estimated the tree to be between 158 and 166 feet tall.

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The foggy discovery day

We returned with laser and monocular in hand to document the tree. Laser
shots estimated the tree to be over 160' tall and the monocular suggested an
impressive volume of approximately 1223 cubic feet. The topographical
location of this tree defied all we previously knew about where the tall
trees grow. The lack of adjacent shelter, relatively high elevation, and
lack of tall canopy competition do not ordinarily support a tree of this
stature. Hence its pet name, "The Winding Stairs Loner". It truly is an
imposing tree as it stands unchallenged.

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Photo of Will by Bob Weber

As part of the Tsuga Search project we returned again to perform a climb of
the tree and a vegetation survey surrounding the tree. The climb would also
serve to assess the accuracy of the previous monocular measurements. We were
graciously assisted by Bob Weber, a two-time ISA International Tree Climbing
Champion and hemlock preservation enthusiast. He and I have wanted to climb
together for many years and this was a great tree in which to get further

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Will and Bob taking volume measurements (Jess Riddle shot)

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Bob Weber and tapes along the trunk

We set a rope and headed up. The top turned out to be split into four
reiterations, all of which were over 156 feet high. The tape drop revealed
the height to be 158'10", less than the laser shot had suggested. We were
hoping to confirm the only known hemlock both 15 feet in girth AND 160'
tall. Alas, it was not to be.

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Bob Weber at the base

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Bob Weber at the 100' point

Bob and I measured the girths aloft while Jess diligently sampled the
vegetation subplots and mapped canopy trees. The climb data indicated the
volume was slightly less than the monocular measurements. Bob Weber and I
measured the volume to 1180 cubic feet, 43 cubes (3.5%) less than the
ground-based shots. Still, this was well within our goal of no more than a
5% error. At this time it is the sixth largest climbed hemlock in the
Smokies, but will not likely remain in the top ten largest trees once the
Tsuga Search is complete. It is currently stationed as the 7th largest
hemlock documented thus far, with one larger tree outside of the Smokies.

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View of tree from the south (Bob Weber photo)

This tree grows in one of the few remaining green groves of hemlock
remaining in Cataloochee Valley. For this reason we have recommended that
the National Park Service perform some aggressive soil treatments to try to
preserve large sections of it. This same creek once contained the tallest
("Tsali"; 169'10") and the largest ("Yonaguska"; 1402 ft3) eastern hemlocks
in the Smokies, and at one time grew four hemlocks over 160'- with several
just a few feet less. Many huge hemlocks grow along Winding Stairs Branch
and this drainage may contain some of the finest hemlock forests remaining
in salvageable condition in the NC portion of GRSM.

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Stitch of adjacent tree and water below

Also of interest in this grove are three other trees, one of which is a very
nice 75' tall American chestnut (tallest in the Smokies). The two other
trees, both within the vegetation plots, are the tallest and oldest rosebay
rhododendron currently known in the Smokies. The tall tree is 32' tall and
the oldest is 141 years at 4.5 feet (sampling height). Within the Tsuga
Search, Jess and I are trying to sample rhododendron in all of the plots
that it occurs. Little is known about the maximum age of this species. We
have found several over 100 years old and I expect to break 150 years with a
few more samples.

Thanks go to the NPS for providing the means to chemically treat the tree
last fall. We hope to preserve the grove around it once some funding comes
through for the chemical. Every season lost is a potential win for the
adelgid.  (unattributed photos by Will Blozan)

Will Blozan

RE: Tsuga Search Report; "Winding Stairs Loner"   Joshua Kelly
  Jun 07, 2006 15:50 PDT 

Thanks for the update Will. I enjoy hearing about the detailed information
about the plots you guys are doing. I especially like hearing about the age
structure of these forests, so the info on Rhodo ages finds an enthusiastic
audience with me. I'm also very interested in the chestnut tree you guys
found. A friend of mine is spending the summer collecting pollen from trees
like that one for the American Chestnut Foundation's breeding program. Could
you provide me with UTM coordinates for that spot? Keep up the good work!