Whitewater River in Jocassee Gorges   Jess Riddle
  Dec 08, 2003 06:36 PST 

The Jocassee Gorges straddle the South Carolina-North Carolina state and
form deep incisions in the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The gorges, which drain
into lake Jocassee, were all owned by Duke power company. The two eastern
gorges are now part of Gorges State Park in NC and provide access to Windy
Falls, previously discussed on this list, and several other cascades.
Duke Power also maintains trails and bridges allowing public access to the
two cascades over 300' high on the Whitewater River, the westernmost of
the four gorges.

Prior to the establishment of the state park and the involvement of
conservation groups, the gorges were heavily logged. Major logging began
around 1940 and continued into the 1960's. Despite this major
disturbance, a series of studies conducted in the 1960's found unusually
high biodiversity in the gorges. That biodiversity results in part from
the climate of the gorges. The gorges funnel warm, moist air from lower
parts of the river system resulting in increased precipitation and warm
winter temperatures (Gaddy 2000). In one side gorge, over a three year
stretch, annual rainfall averaged 92" with 115" being the most recorded.
One report indicated the Whitewater River may receive as much as 125" of
annual precipitation. Maximum summer temperatures for the Whitewater
gorge may also be exceptionally low for the southeast.

The Whitewater River, which flows off of the Highlands Plateau, has older
forest between the two major cascades than is found in most of the Region.
Small flats line the west bank throughout that two mile stretch of river
on the state line, which also includes the Coon Branch Natural Area. The
natural area lies entirely or almost entirely in SC, and descriptions of
the area include both the river flats and the small tributary as old
growth. While the lower half of the tributary shows no signs of past
cutting, evidence of a road bed and only scattered old trees are present
on the flats. Farther upstream, flats support remnant hemlocks slightly
over 150' tall.

However, those hemlocks probably won't be around much longer. I saw
hemlock woolly Adelgid in the gorge on Saturday on trees separated by over
half a mile. No twigs that I looked at were heavily infested, and a low
proportion of twigs are infested. I have not heard about the scourge in
the Jocassee Gorges before, and I don't know if anyone at Duke Power is
concerned about the infestation. The infestation likely continues onto
national forest land in NC. I'll report the infestation if I can find out
who to contact.

Small hemlocks occupy the understory on the more open flats in the natural
area, while rhododendron mixed with some mountain laurel covers many of
the flats. Tuliptree, white oak, white pine, hemlock, black birch, and
northern red oak occupy positions in the canopy. Tuliptree is much more
abundant on some of the adjacent east-northeast facing slopes, and
northern red oak and white ash are most common at the slope-flat interface.

After seeing the big tuliptrees and hemlocks during my last visit to the
river, reading about white pine being in the area, reading about the
climate in the gorge, and seeing the flats on the map, I had high hopes
for finding large and tall white pines. Seeing pitch pine and red maple
over 110' on my way down to the river seemed like an encouraging sign.
When I got into the area, the paucity of old trees and the stout
appearance of the white pines was disappointing. I roughed out one pine
on the far side of the river that looked typical of the area to around
130'. I eventually measured 11'1" x 144.0' and 10'5" x 148.5' fairly
young white pines on the flats. Continuing up the river, I saw one large,
dead white pine that was 150' when alive and one pine that looked older
and substantially larger than the rest of the pines in the area growing
just upslope from the flat. Farther upstream where a few small coves
intersected the flats, I started seeing well formed northern red oaks at
the base of the slopes, and near the end of the trail well formed white
oaks. The tallest white oak came out to 8'9.5" x 136.6'. That
measurement was made from two positions using three triangles, and
probably includes an error in reading the clinometer. Shooting vertically
with the rangefinder puts the trees height at at least 140'! As I was
rushing out of I took a few vertical shots on what appears to be easily
the tallest of the northern red oaks in the area. Surrounded by young
tuliptrees, the oak reaches at least the mid 140's! One tree in the
Alexander Creek watershed in the Brevard Belt is the only northern red oak
that I've seen that may be taller. I also stopped in the waning light to
measure the big white pine I saw on the way in since the tree looked over
12' cbh. A very quick roughing out of the height puts the tree at 140.8'.
I may have been a little generous on the midslope position, but the
circumference is a whopping 15'3"! I have not seen another white pine in
the south east close to that diameter. The base is swollen, but the lower
trunk does taper. The upper portion of the trunk shows surprisingly
little taper through the lower portions of the crown. Detailed
measurements of these trees will be a top priority in January.

Jess Riddle