East Fork of Baxter Creek, GRSM, NC   Will Blozan
  Dec 06, 2004 08:30 PST 
ENTS, NPS, NC Champion Trees…

Yesterday my friend David Huff (who climbed the Sequoia hemlock with me in
1998) explored an un-surveyed section of the east fork of Baxter Creek. I
have long wanted to explore the area, but access was intimidating. Stoked on
great gorp and anticipation, we ascended the ridge to the east of Baxter
Creek from where we left the lower trail at 2,500’. We followed the ridge up
to 3,600’ where we located and followed the un-maintained Big Branch Trail.
The old trail was easy to follow and has gorgeous views. The entire ridge we
walked was covered in Table-mountain pine forests which unfortunately, were
mostly dead. A few ancient and super-gnarly trees were still alive, and were
the largest I have seen in the NC portion of the GRSM. Live trees reached up
to 7’4” in girth, and a few dead ones were over 8’. Gnarlage was off the

We followed the old trail up to 3,700’ and dropped into the NEE facing cove
which would be the east prong of the east fork of Baxter Creek. Due to time
concerns, we did not survey the west prong of the east fork which is
considerably longer, and will return on another trip. We were pleased to be
greeted by an old-growth cove forest dominated by northern red oak, hemlock,
silverbell, and black birch. Oak and hemlock both reached and exceeded 14’
in girth, with at least two hemlocks easily in the 1000 ft3 size range. HWA
was heavy and omnipresent even on seedlings. Heights were not exceptional,
but massive trees were common, with some oaks likely reaching 16’ in girth.
The most impressive tree in the upper cove was a huge black birch that was
9’9” in girth and 97’ tall. With a spread of 59’ this tree has 229 big tree
points, making it a co-champion with the 233 point tree on the Baxter Creek
Trail .5 mile away.

Anticipating huge trees since it was old-growth forest, we descended the
cove in a zigzag pattern to be sure not to miss any trees. The hemlocks were
massive and still had good color even though entirely covered in HWA. The
topography soon flattened out along the creek but the west slope steepened
into 150-200’ cliffs in one section. Apparently the cliffs are unstable as
the substrate of the cove was essentially talus debris, and it was very
loose and treacherous. Unfortunately, it did not support large trees at all,
and was in fact dominated by short, prostrate mountain maples. The herb
diversity was phenomenal, and the uncommon gooseberry and walking fern was
extremely abundant. Everything that stood still was covered in moss, and
sections of the talus shrub forests reminded me of the vine maple understory
of the Pacific Northwest. As we stumbled and slipped, I joked to Dave that
even the walking fern couldn’t stand up!

Since there were no trees to measure we carefully picked our way down
stream. While traversing one wide section of talus we both heard what
sounded like a distant jet or howling wind. It was an underground rushing
stream that was entirely invisible with no sign whatsoever of its existence
from above. As Bob would say- Way cool! Occasionally a tree would find a
toehold in the loose rock and actually grow straight up. The only tree of
note was a super gnarly cucumbertree that reached 8’11” X 139.1’ tall. Most
trees were shorter and overall nondescript as compared to the super coves
below. However, lower down when the talus thinned tuliptrees were
consistently over 160’. Tucked in among them was the tall basswood mentioned

The west prong of the east fork is nearly two miles long and originates at
5,200’. It may have some nice red spruce and hemlock, and will be the focus
of another hunt. It is a rather epic journey to get up that high (the trail
starts at ~ 1800’) and then descend off-trail.

We also remeasured the height record tuliptree which grows along the trail
and has indeed grown about 9 inches since last year, In fact, all the
tuliptrees I saw had excellent growth elongation this past year- a relief as
I had begun to think they would cease height growth. The tall tree now
stands at 178.2’, up from 177.4’ as measured last year. Incidentally, the
accuracy of the ENTS Method continues to impress me, with two widely
different angles and distances yielding 178.2’ and 178.3’ respectively. I
choose the lower number for no particular reason, perhaps just because it
was the first shot.

Before ascending the drainage, we remeasured a cucumbertree that Michael
Davie and I had located back in 1999 or 2000. I had been looking for the
tree this summer, but when the leaves are on it is invisible from the trail.
We had previously measured it solidly at 145’. Well, apparently the last few
years have been great for it, as it is now 151.9’ tall. This is the first of
the species confirmed over 150’, with the next tallest being 149’ in the
Deep Creek area of GRSM. I see no reason for it to slow down in height
growth. Baxter Creek know has the following species confirmed over 150’
tall. Note that none are conifers! White pine and hemlock both reach the mid
140’s, but that is it so far.
  • Tuliptree
  • White ash
  • Bitternut
  • Sycamore
  • Cucumbertree
  • White basswood
  • (Soon to join the club- n. red oak)

White basswood? YES! We found another basswood over 150’ tall (150.2’), not
much more than 100 yards from the switchback that steeply ascends towards
Mt. Sterling. This tree is only the second known to reach this exceptional
height, and the other tree (150.3’) is just Ό mile away on the adjacent
drainage. This species is so surprising, as three years ago I would have put
140’ as an absolute maximum, and that was based on only one tree known over
130’! Currently, only seven or eight are known over 140’.

So, on one small section of Baxter Creek, linearly only .75 miles long and
~100 yards wide, 6 species of trees can be found over 150’ tall, with close
to 2 dozen individuals over 170’ tall. And it appears that all this has
happened in around 100 years. I took some core samples from canopy trees and
remnant trees for growth releases. I have not counted them yet, but coarse
age counts of growth release and the tuliptrees indicate a disturbance and
initiation 100 years ago. This would mesh well with the trees cored across
Big Creek a few weeks ago that were 100 years old as well. Folks, I think we
have found the “Super Forest” of the East!

The current Rucker Index for Baxter Creek is 151.24

  • Tuliptree              178.2
  • Sycamore            156.9
  • Bitternut               154.3
  • White ash              155.2
  • White basswood     150.2
  • N. Red oak            147.0
  • Sugar maple          144.2
  • Hemlock                143.3
  • Red maple             142.4
  • Buckeye                140.7
Rucker Index=  151.24

Will Blozan
The Rucker Tuliptree   Will Blozan
  Dec 06, 2004 17:24 PST 

I would like to name, in honor of our dearly departed grand ENTS Colby
Rucker, the tallest known tuliptree on Baxter Creek the "Rucker Tuliptree".
Colby was a huge fan of the species, and often wrote eloquently of the
architecture and growth of the tree. His keen observations as an arborist
and a naturalist have inspired many ideas and thoughts in my head about
maximum height growth and the effect of age on canopy stature and form. I
feel it is a fitting tribute to the man and his passion, and will
memorialize his contributions to the understanding of our eastern forests.

May the tree continue to grow and teach us lessons we seek, and those we do
not yet know. Colby, may you rest in blissful peace my friend, in the
soothing shade of your arboreal companions.

Observations resulting from East Fork of Baxter Creek, GRSM, NC   Robert Leverett
  Dec 07, 2004 06:09 PST 

    You have defined for us another way of evaluating and comparing
sites using indexes related to increasing area. I was struck by the
small area associated with a rectangular swath 0.75 miles x 100 yards
wide. It is a little over 27 acres. So the Baxter Creek site earns
151.24 points in as little as 27 acres. This puts the extraordinarily
high numbers of the Smokies into better perspective. One does not have
to include tens of thousands of acres to get to the big numbers. Of
course you and I have known that for a long time, but your acreage
figure ties it down and draws our attention to the high density and
diversity of the tall species.

    It might be interesting to look at the clustering of tall species by
plotting Rucker points against increasing acreage. The X-axis would
display increasing acreage and the Y axis would display the Rucker index
for the corresponding acreages. The minimum value on the X-axis would be
that number against which 10 canopy species (or an alternate number)
were tallied. This approach could provide us with a simple means of
making site to site comparisons. The labor-intensive nature of the
analysis would necessitate doing this for only a modest subset of our
ENTS sites. What do you think?

Rucker-area curve?   tpdig-@ysu.edu
  Dec 08, 2004 13:41 PST 
Bob, Will et al.,

That's essentially the same concept as a species-area curve, but applied to tree
height index. Obviously surveying an entire area will give you all species
present, but there is typically some much smaller area that is meaningfully
representative in terms of species richness or diversity. Increasing the
sampling effort yields a steadily lower chance of finding new species (the
asymptote of the curve is the total number of species present). I think the same
would prove true for a Rucker Index. For example, the Rucker for Zoar Valley NY
is currently a little over 136', which includes about 70 acres of streamside
terraces. I believe the Rucker Index for the ~8-acre Skinny Dip Terrace (likely
the tallest) may be around 131'. I'd be curious to calculate the mean Rucker
Index for a set of small plots just big enough to encompass ten canopy species
each (on Skinny Dip Terrace these plots might be as small as 1/2 acre).
Labor-intensive, of course, but would probably yield some interesting results.