Dunn Creek buckeye- found it!    Will Blozan
   May 16, 2005 15:59 PDT 

Jess Riddle, Kristine Johnson and I went up Dunn Creek May 15th to search
for a giant yellow buckeye I found 12 years ago. I had recently found a
photo of the tree and was determined to revisit it and obtain new
measurements. As a forest giant I strongly feel yellow buckeye is an
extremely underrated species. It is very likely that buckeye is the fourth
largest tree (by volume) in the Smokies, exceeded only by Tuliptree,
northern red oak and a single cucumbertree. Buckeye commonly reaches 10'-12'
in girth and 120'-130' tall with several trees known over 15' in girth and
140' tall. It may enter the "150 Club" with enough searching, but the
mid-140's seems to be its height limit. Yellow buckeye is a southern
Appalachian endemic, not known from the Northeast even though it grows to
the highest elevations in the Smokies. It represents a large percentage of
the trees in the park's northern hardwood forest type, and it is also a
common associate in cove forests. It has one of the largest elevation ranges
of any tree in the park, being found from 800' to over 6500'. The current
National Champion grows in the Smokies, and has an astounding 378 big tree
point total. In 1998 it was 19'1" in girth and 136' tall.
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Rainy day at Dunn Creek

Dunn Creek is a large creek on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park. It drains the north face of Pinnacle Lead which is
a western spur off Old Black (6320') and Mount Guyot (6621'). The highest
elevation of the drainage is about 5900' dropping to below 2000' at the park
border. Dunn Creek is in the heart of the temperate rainforest section of
the park, receiving untold amounts of rainfall. Most, if not all of the
watershed has had some logging disturbance but the upper reaches are "nearly
intact" old-growth forest (see below). The vast majority of the area we
covered was rich cove and northern hardwoods forest which transitioned into
spruce above 4000'. Yellow buckeye, red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch,
cucumbertree, white ash and mountain silverbell dominated the canopy.

Eastern hemlock was scattered here and there but was still a significant
component of the forest and reached massive sizes. Mountain and striped
maple were very common especially on the numerous talus slopes and boulder
fields. Witch-hobble and occasional gooseberries disguised the pit-fall
traps between the sphagnum covered rocks. Notably lacking were bitternut
hickory and yellowwood. These two species are typically very common at such
elevations and topography- yet not a single tree of either species was seen.

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Twin buckeyes on Dunn Creek


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Basswood Rib:  Jess spotted a huge single stem basswood.  It was a hair over 12" cbh and had an  awesome rib of wood continuing way up the trunk.  Basswoods that large are very  uncommon as a single stem.


Selective logging evidence was frequent, with black cherry and probably
sugar maple cut. Severed tops and notched stumps of the cherries were still
plainly visible and common, and large sugar maples were nearly lacking. We
have no idea how the logs were extracted as it is a very remote area and no
roads were observed. Disappointingly, we were not in true old-growth forest,
and the extremely heavy hemlock woolly adelgid infestations will further
diminish the integrity of the forest. Unfortunately, beech bark disease has
hammered most of the beech. On a positive note, the National Park Service is
chemically treating many hemlocks on the Albright Grove Loop Trail further
downstream from where we were. In fact, the park is aggressively treating
sites throughout the Smokies to save some fine trees and stands. Two huge
hemlocks found on this trip will likely be added to the list (see below).

The temperate rainforest was in full force yesterday even though the weather
report indicated otherwise. It rained for 8 of the 10 hours of our 9+ mile
expedition, and the temperature dropped into the 50's. Unpleasant as it was,
we covered some new ground and found and measured a few noteworthy trees. I
have to agree with Jess that Dunn Creek is the "epicenter" of red maple
development. We located two trees over 16' cbh, one over 17' and the
National Champion which is just ~100 yards from Dunn Creek on nearby Indian
Camp Creek is over 23' cbh. Huge maples are common and in a density neither
Jess nor I have ever seen before. Perhaps they are a relic of selective
logging nearly 100 years ago. (Note: Using core samples, I documented
selective logging dates on a creek nearby to ca. 1910.)

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16.7' red maple Dunn Creek

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Jess and 16.7' red maple with huge roots

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Kristine and a 17'+ red maple Dunn Creek

The first two hours or so we could not measure anything. Our rangefinders
would not penetrate the thick cloud enveloping the forest. This cloud
apparently was an unheeded sign to abort the mission but we slogged onward.
The rain became steady and heavy when we reached the site of the huge
buckeye we had come to find. It was still there, but had literally just
fallen. Fresh scrapes on the surrounding trees and un-wilted leaves on the
fallen limbs indicated a recent fall. The tree was totally hollow and a
large portion of the top was already dead. 

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BEFORE- Dunn Creek buckeye ca. 1993

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AFTER- Dunn Creek Buckeye May 15 2005

While Kristine and I were having
fun with dendro-forensics Jess spotted a huge hemlock just 30 yards upslope.
We all debated going into the thick rhododendron surrounding it since we
were already soaked. I was fine with it being a huge tree around 16' cbh
that we could mention in this report. Jess, however, thought that we should
have a firm measurement to post so he and Kris went over to check it out
while I measured the height. Well, it turns out the tree was a new National
Champion! Way to go Jess! The hemlock was not ~16' cbh but a huge 17'6" in
girth. The height to a very gnarly top was 144.1'. Without a doubt this tree
will scale 13-1400 cubic feet in wood volume- maybe more.

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17.5' x 144' Hemlock champion

Near the giant hemlock grew a huge, perfectly-formed yellow birch. It had a
beautiful root flare that supported a massive, straight trunk with a slight
lean. The crown was very thick with newly expanding leaves all over. Jess
measured the height from uphill and I measured it from the side. Measuring
the same top, he put it at 102'2' tall and I put it at 102.1' tall. I was
very pleased (as usual) with the consistency of the laser method, and
furthermore we confirmed a new Tennessee State Champion (279 points vs.
255). It is also among the tallest yellow birch known in the Smokies.

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Kristine and a 13.7' X 102' yellow birch Dunn Creek

We then continued upstream but were deterred by the rain so not much more
was measured. We had just started to get into the spruce when the rain and
cold turned us back. We roughed-out one nice spruce to over 130' but did not
look for the base in the saturated rhododendron. Huge hemlocks poked up here
and there with several undoubtedly reaching 15' in girth. On the way down we
relocated a huge twin hemlock I recalled from 1993. It was a respectable
16'7" in girth. We did not measure the height but it looked fairly tall.
Point-wise, it would be a co-champion with the huge one mentioned above but
I believe it to be two trees rather than a low fork. However, it could be a
single tree- it was just so huge that the evidence was not visible in the
bark patterns anymore. By volume, this twin would probably have less than
75% of the other tree. Regardless, it is an imposing chunk of wood with an
unusual trunk form.

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16.7' hemlock twin, Dunn Creek

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Kristine and the 16.7' hemlock twin Dunn Creek

Several more huge red maples were spotted and measured. One exceptionally
thrifty tree had a beautifully fluted trunk with a huge crown. Though not
particularly tall (119.5') it was impressive growing on the edge of a steep
bank with a huge columnar trunk and scaly bark. We believed the tree to be
fairly young and vigorous even though it was over 16' in girth.

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16.2' red maple stitch

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Kristine and a 16.2' X 119' tall red maple Dunn Creek

On the way out we went around the Albright Grove Loop and measured several
tuliptrees. The tallest was 167.2' and certainly among the exceptional for
the area. Heights were 150' or less in general. This grove is well known for
the giant tuliptrees along the trail. Two of them exceeded 22' in girth;
however, of these trees one has fallen (ca. 1996) and the other has just one
live limb left. There are lots more to replace them, but they have a lot of
growing to do!

Will, Jess, and Kristine