Colllins Creek, GSMNP, NC    Jess Riddle
   Feb 12, 2006 07:42 PST 

Thomas Divide juts southeast from the main ridge of the Great Smoky
Mountain for, and maintains an elevation of approximately 5000' before
finally descending below Newton Bald. Collins Creek flows east off
Thomas Divide and north off the adjacent Newton Bald. Prior to the
formation of the park, a logging railroad snaked up the main stem of
the creek from the stream's mouth above Cherokee, NC at 2400'
elevation; however, little logging occurred on the stream's north
fork, and farming was scarce in the rest of the watershed. Previous
forays up the north fork located a hemlock over 150' tall, northern
red oaks to 140', a swollen tuliptree with a 23' cbh, and the tallest
known serviceberry.

Moderately inclined, north facing slopes along the stream support a
rich second-growth forest with an open understory. Tuliptrees
comprise most of the canopy, but basswoods grow along drainages and
black locusts, many of them dead, occur on the upper slopes. Several
of the young tuliptrees reach three feet dbh, and many approach 150'
tall; however, significantly taller trees are absent.

Farther up the stream, around 3500' elevation, the forest becomes
unusually mixed for second growth. Tuliptree still occurs, but only
as scattered emergent individuals. White ash probably has the highest
canopy coverage of any species, but sugar maple, black birch, yellow
birch, basswood, cucumbertree and silverbell are also common. The
current abundance of cucumbertrees partially results from the loggers
of the watershed passing over the species, an uncommon practice.
Hemlocks provide green to the midstory, and shrubs have not invaded
the understory.

The railroad did not penetrate above about 4000', so large hardwoods
still fill the upper coves. Hemlocks and rhododendrons cover some of
the higher ridges, but hardwoods occupy much more of the undisturbed
portion of the watershed. Not surprisingly, white ash, northern red
oak, basswood, yellow birch, and yellow buckeye dominate the open

Kanati Fork lies farther up the Oconaluftee River watershed, and
drains a smaller portion of the east side of Thomas Divide. The
watershed resembles the main stem of Collins Creek in both disturbance
history and in having high, sheltering ridges to the south. The
Kanati Fork trail, which winds along slopes above and northwest of the
stream, traverses three distinct sections of forest. The upper trail
passes through steep, open coves with sugar maples and large northern
red oaks. The middle part of the trail traverses drier, younger coves
filled with chestnut oak, black birch and rhododendron. The lower
trail weaves in and out of narrow ravines and small coves that support
rich, hardwood forest.

Species Cbh Height Creek
Basswood, White 7'7.5" 133.3' Collins Creek
Basswood, White 7'4" 133.6' Collins Creek
Basswood, White NA 142.1' Kanati Fork
Birch, Yellow Coppice 98.8' Collins Creek
Buckeye, Yellow 13'3" ~111' Collins Creek
Buckeye, Yellow 13'3.5" 133.7' Collins Creek
Buckeye, Yellow 15'4" 137.6' Collins Creek
Locust, Black NA 156.9' Kanati Fork
Magnolia, Cucumbertree 12'10" 127.9' Collins Creek
Oak, Northern Red 17'3" NA Collins Creek
Oak, Northern Red 6'9.5" 134.2' Collins Creek
Oak, Northern Red 7'4" 142.4' Collins Creek
Serviceberry, Allegheny 5'4" 101.3' Collins Creek
Serviceberry, Allegheny 4'6.5" 104.9' Collins Creek
Tuliptree NA 167.1' Kanati Fork

The 15'4" buckeye swells below two burls on the lower trunk, so the
tree has a Coke-bottle shape. However, the tree is still a potential
North Carolina state champion, with a long spread of 51.4' and an
average spread of 48.3'. More remarkably, the tree grows at at least
4400' elevation; where in most of the Smokies, buckeyes only reach
three feet diameter and 120' tall. The black locust is the second
tallest so far found. The tree fills something of a gap since the
record locust, at 162', was nearly ten feet taller then the next
tallest known. The large northern red oak is remnant tree along the
middle of Collins Creek with a dead top. The tallest northern red oak
is nearly dead. The current record serviceberry had also seemed
something of an anomaly. The two tall serviceberries both grow in the
diverse second growth forest along Collins Creek, and they have
reached unusually great diameters for such low elevation. Collins
Creek now has three of the five tallest known serviceberries.

I was rather tired by the time I reached lower Kanati Fork, so I only
measured trees from the tree. The forest in the east facing coves
along the creek resembles the recently found grove on Bradley Fork and
Chasteen Creek more than lower Big Creek. The exceptional forests on
lower Big Creek are similar in age, but more diverse than the Kanati
Fork coves. Streamside areas and north facing slopes along Kanati
Fork have not yet been explored, so the stream has great potential to
hold exceptionally tall trees.

Jess Riddle