Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Grief Observed: The Year the Hemlocks Died (Part 2 of 2)

Our walk to see the largest Eastern Hemlock on the planet had been a pleasant experience – a fairly easy jaunt with an occasional hard, messy stretch to keep things interesting. As we moved toward the gap between Laurel Branch and the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River, we reached the big hemlock, the Laurel Branch Leviathan. Tall, wide, and dead. Yes, dead.

We had been warned that this might happen, and we weren’t surprised. An Asian bug – the hemlock adelgid – has been ravaging hemlock forests across the eastern US and has, in fact, infested nearly all the hemlocks in the Smokies.

My friends and I had noticed a significant difference over the past year. In years to come, people will probably speak of 2008-9 as the year when the hemlocks died. Walking in a hemlock forest such as Porters Creek was still a shady, green experience in 2008. Taking the same walk a year later was noticeably different. The sun was now shining where shade had dominated. Looking up through the leafy branches in 2008, one could tell that something was amiss. The branches were beginning to look a bit sparse, but they were still mostly green. By the spring and summer of 2009, those same Hemlock branches were naked and dead, like corpses in a morgue.

The Leviathan had been well-hidden, being discovered only a few years ago by researchers whose passion is searching the Southern Appalachian forests for big trees. But being well-hidden was its death sentence. If the National Park Service had known about this tree sooner, they could perhaps have saved it by dousing it with the chemical spray that kills the adelgids who lodge themselves on the tree’s branches, but the NPS spraying program was too late.

As we walked around the tree, admiring its fading glory, I saw the tell-tale blue and white paint blazes on the tree. I’ve seen these on healthy hemlocks, so I’m pretty sure these marks indicate that these trees had been sprayed, and I’m also pretty sure that the spray usually works… but only if the spraying is started soon enough.
Laurel Branch Leviathan: Going, going, gone...

The NPS has also been experimenting with predator beetles, the sworn enemies of the hemlock adelgid. I’ve read that it costs $2 or $3 to raise a single predator beetle, so this natural, non-chemical approach is slow and expensive. I’m not an entomologist, so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’ll say it anyway: the idea of having to spend money to “raise” bugs doesn’t make sense to me. I would have thought that you could throw a male and a female on an infested hemlock, and they’d do what predator beetles do – eat hemlock adelgids and reproduce. Seems free and easy to me. But, like I said, apparently I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the predators get eaten by woodpeckers or killed by heat or drought. Whatever the reasons, it isn’t free and easy, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise, since nothing ever is.

Luckily, the hemlocks probably won’t become extinct because the adelgids seem to prefer older trees. So young hemlocks will continue to sprout, but they’ll die after a few years, only to be replaced by a new generation which will also die young. This may be good news for Yellow Poplars which compete with the Eastern Hemlocks for dominance at elevations below 4,500’. For the overall ecosystem there will undoubtedly be negative consequences, but of course, nature will do what nature does – adjust, adapt, and move on.

It’s ironic that just a few yards away from the Leviathan Hemlock stands a large poplar. In fact, because poplars grow larger than hemlocks, that less-than-record-sized poplar is actually larger than the record-sized hemlock. Talk about stealing a guy’s thunder and kicking him while he’s down…!

My hope is that the predator beetles will eventually become self-supporting and will feed on those nasty, little adelgids with zest and will reproduce with gusto. If that happens, then all those young hemlocks might survive childhood and grow into handsome adults. So there is hope, but probably not in our lifetime.

And so, after a leisurely lunch by those two big trees – one representing the past and the other the future – we continued our walk through the gap and on to the Middle Prong. The forest along the Middle Prong is deep, green, and open. Another sylvan cathedral. The ground was covered with mosses, ferns, and spring wildflowers, and most of the trees were hardwoods, not hemlocks. This untarnished piece of creation will probably survive and flourish, unaware that a plague is sweeping through the hemlocks nearby.

The surrounding forest is open and green.

With a little luck we’ll not destroy this forest by some act of greed or stupidity; although, the list of victims – chestnut, elm, fir, hemlock – continues to grow. Thankfully, Nature doesn’t grieve as we do. It simply notices that the fir or hemlocks are gone and goes about its business of filling in the gaps. Adjust, adapt, and move on. And, thankfully again, given an adequate amount of soil and water, it does its job with power and extravagance. Yes, I’ll grieve for the loss of the Eastern Hemlocks, and yet I’m confident that whatever Nature decides to do in the Smokies, it will be beautiful.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Laurel Branch Leviathan (Part 1 of 2)

The promise of seeing the largest Eastern Hemlock in the eastern US had drawn about twenty folks to the Ramsey Cascade trailhead on a fine spring morning. Our leader, a long-time local hiker who had somehow learned the exact location of this tree, would take us a mile or two into the old-growth forest between Laurel Branch and the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. There, in a gap at about 3,200’, stood a 156’ giant with an 18’ circumference – the Laurel Branch Leviathan. The fact that Eastern Hemlocks grow only in the eastern US means that it’s also the largest in America, the World, and the Universe, which is enough to get you out of bed on a Saturday morning to spend the day walking with people you don’t know.

Today’s hike would be a bit unusual for me because there would be about twenty of us. That’s about ten or twenty times as many hiking partners as I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I’d try to be on my best behavior and to hold up my end of any unprovoked conversations that I was subjected to. Of course, the fact that all the hikers were Smokies lovers (several had patches showing that they were part of the 900 Mile Club) meant that we could bypass the chatter about the weather and go straight to the interesting stuff – hikes we’d made, rivers we’d fished, and camping disasters we’d survived. It all worked out rather nicely, and by the end of the day I had made a few new acquaintances, some of whom could provide me with valuable information about the park. Big business isn’t the only place where networking is essential to success. Knowing the right people is also important in hiking, and three or four of these folks were definitely “the right people.”

We started on a small path that led up Little Laurel Branch and soon crossed a low ridge to Laurel Branch and followed this creek for about a half mile. Our line of hikers stretched out over 100 yards as some of our older members kept the pace slow, very slow. At first it felt excruciatingly slow, but after a while I shifted into a leisurely frame of mind and was able to appreciate the slow pace. Frustration over waiting for some of our older hikers (several were well into their 70s) quickly evolved into admiration. I wanted to tell them, “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m your age” but I know from experience that this is a left-handed compliment at best, and such remarks are not always received with gratitude. When someone says something like that to me, all I hear is, “Blah, blah, blah… you are really old and I’m amazed you can still do this… blah, blah.” (Remember the Charlie Brown TV specials? Remember the sound of the teacher? Yeah, it’s a lot like that.) So, I had to admire their determination to hike until the bitter end, to die with their boots on, but hopefully not literally and not today.

At an obscure fork in the creek we made a sharp turn to the northeast and made our way toward a broad gap in the ridge between Laurel Branch and Middle Prong. Somewhere in this stretch of the woods the path disappeared and we found ourselves walking in a sometimes-dry, sometimes-wet creekbed with rhododendron bushes choking the edges. This was probably the reason why the hike leader had called this a “moderate” rather than an “easy” hike.

One good thing about searching for a big tree in a forest is that the big tree is probably there for a reason – the reason being that much of this forest was not molested by the logging companies 80 years ago. It is either an “old growth” forest or was “selectively harvested.” That means there will be many mature trees, which holds the possibility of a deep, open forest with a minimum of underbrush. This open, cathedral feeling is not universal among old-forests, and I’m not sure of all the reasons why; however, this part of the forest near the Leviathan was definitely the cathedral type of forest. Although there were segments of rhododendron near the creekbed, there were many acres of open forest with a floor of green – moss, ferns, and wildflowers. It was like a Gothic cathedral with a soft, green carpet and a vaulted ceiling held aloft by living, wooden beams, exactly the kind of forest you’d hope to see on a trip that’s all about trees.

At about 3200’, as we neared the gap in the ridge, we found the Leviathan, standing tall and proud… and dead. [To be continued]