“That’s where we want to go,” Kelly said, still tracing his eye across the mountainside. Digging one boot into the foot of the bank, he launched himself forward, lunging for a root protruding from the soil overhead.
Kelly’s research partner, Dan Entmacher, hitched up his backpack with a quick tug of the straps and followed suit, plunging into the deep forest and leaving all semblance of the rocky overgrown trail behind.
For these old-growth tree hunters, bushwhacking over rough terrain goes with the job. They disagree with the long-held notion that early loggers clear-cut their way across the Southern Appalachians in the early 20th century. By their calculations, pockets of virgin forest are still scattered across the region, some with trees more than 300 years old.
They hope to find these last vestiges of a bygone ecosystem before forest service loggers do. Logging in the national forest has picked up the pace in recent years, sometimes jeopardizing undiscovered ancient trees. But if the team finds the old trees first, they can intervene and stop logging from claiming them.
The old-growth project is sponsored by the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, WNC Alliance, and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project.
Last week, the old-growth team was on a scouting expedition to Wildes Knob in the Nantahala National Forest above the Burningtown area of Macon County. The contour lines for the slopes of Wildes Knob were packed tight as tree rings, usually a good indication loggers didn’t go there.
Trees untouched by the timber era were often those hardest to reach on the steepest, most rugged of slopes. The team can spend hours scrambling up banks and sliding down ravines without finding an old tree.
After a stint of hard huffing, they lodged against the uphill side of a tree for a quick break and survey of the forest. This section definitely wasn’t it. The trees were all the same age, about 30 years old, signaling a former clear cut. They were mostly tulip poplar and red maple — the first trees to sprout back. These types of clues come second-nature to the team, requiring little more thought than the average person spends processing a stop sign.
They pushed off their resting tree. The mountain rose like a wall before them. Walking was not possible head on. Instead, they zigzagged up the mountain — three steps one direction, pivot, three steps in the other — sidestepping up the slope. Kelly soon careened off course in pursuit a large stump.
“Chestnut,” he said, crouching down eye level with the stump. The American Chestnut blight that moved across the region in the 1930s is an amazingly useful tool for the old-growth hunters. The wood is so rot resistant this stump was still standing 75 years later. The top was level, not jagged. It was fallen by man, not by lightening, old age or the blight. This forest, too, had been cut in its past.
They wailed back into the slope, slogging along on the side-edge of their boots. When their balancing act was foiled by a deceitful pile of rocks or loose leaf duff, grabbing for a sapling or branch offered the quickest save. If none were within reach, they leaned in to the mountain and pressed their fingertips against the ground, hovering there until the risk of sliding passed.
At this pace it seemed hard to imagine that 80,000 acres of old-growth forest have been documented since the project’s inception 11 years ago. Today’s team — responsible for mapping 3,000 acres so far — is just the “the latest edition” in a decade of tree hunters carrying the torch for the on-going project, Kelly said. Kelly grew up in Madison County after his parents settled there during the ‘70s back-to-the-land movement. Entmacher is a 21-year-old environmental science major from Asheville.
The forest grew increasingly muggy as mid-day came and went. Little air stirred beneath the canopy. The south face soaked up the sun. The higher they climbed, the steeper the slope got. Walking gave way to crawling on all fours as they hoisted themselves up the mountain, lunging from one tree to the next for support.
Suddenly something piqued Kelly’s interest.
“Chestnut,” he said again, only this time there were no stumps. Kelly tugged on the branches of waist-high twiggy shoots while surveying the canopy overhead.
“I’m pretty sure this spot hasn’t been logged,” he said. “There wasn’t much here they wanted and it was so steep.”
The dry south face was home to a colony of chestnut oak, a poor wood by timber standards and not worth the early loggers’ time. The biggest clue lay below ground. Kelly tugged on shoots, remnants of an American chestnut. They keep sprouting from the roots and grow only a few years before succumbing to the blight.
The lack of a chestnut stump suggests the original tree died from the blight and simply fell over. Nearby the remnants of a rotten chestnut log cemented Kelly’s hunch this section had never been logged.
To be sure, the team would take a tree ring sample by drilling into a live tree and extracting a slim core. Unlike rich moist coves, the dry southern slopes have poorer soils. Trees grow much slower here, reaching a ripe old age without being very big. Deeply furrowed bark is one sign of old growth with balding around the base where the furrows are rubbed smooth. There were several such candidates.
“Enee, meenee, minee, moe,” Kelly said, before picking a lucky chestnut oak for the test drill.
The team swung off their packs and began pulling out their equipment. They reeled out a tape measure and passed it around the tree. Next, Kelly produced an auger with long hollow drill bit and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
“I’m worried about spreading fungus if one of the trees is sick,” Kelly said, sloshing a drill bit around in the bottle to sterilize it.
“Did you bring the beeswax?” Kelly asked.
“Of course,” said Entmacher, tossing him a black film canister. Kelly dabbed his fingers in the canister and rubbed wax into the drill bit. He ponied up to the chestnut oak, eyeing the bark for a thin spot to start drilling. As he drove the auger into the tree, cranking a long cross handle a half-turn at a time, a long low bellow reverberated up the trunk and out through the forest like the eerie call of a loon. The deeper the auger went, the louder the sound of the drill twisting into the wood got, echoing off distant coves. Entmacher wears earplugs when it’s his turn behind the drill.
Meanwhile, Entmacher took coordinates with a GPS unit and began recording data in their log book. He rifled in his pack for the most unusual paraphernalia yet: McDonald’s straws. He arranged two straws end on end and bound them in the middle with masking tape, making a plastic straw tube to hold the core samples. Only McDonald’s straws are wide enough to accommodate the core sample, a tip passed down from the previous big tree hunters in the project. They’ve considered stocking up in case McDonald’s changes their straw design some day.
“It could jeopardize the whole project,” Kelly said.
Kelly cranked for five minutes before reaching the tree’s center. He slowly backed the core sample out of the tree, ticking off tree rings as he slipped the thin strip of wood into the straw tube.
“These rings are really tight. It’s hard to count,” he said. “That’s good though. It means it’s a really old tree.”
As Kelly counted the rings — 25, 50, and soon 100 — it was like walking back in time. The invention of flight slipped by, the Civil War came and went, the Trail of Tears, and the first settlers of Macon County. When the American Revolution arrived, Kelly was still counting and showed no signs of stopping — 250, 260, 270. At 280, Kelly finally looked up. The tree rings were too faint to tell whether he had reached the center of the tree yet. Back home, he would shave off a thin plane of the wood and polish it, making the rings easier to count, and tally the final number.
This magnificent chestnut oak had lived a long time — and still was — quietly adding a new tree ring with each passing year. Only time will tell how many more it has to go.