In search of the 150-foot spruce April 15, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Eastern Native Tree Society, Enloe Creek, Raven Fork, red spruce, Simmons Branch
Ever since I read a trip report by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society about finding a record-size red spruce in the Raven Fork area, I’ve wanted to go there myself. In a way my mission was silly. I don’t have the scientists’ instruments for measuring the height of trees. Maybe what it boiled down to is that I just wanted to wander around in that incredibly wild area in the quadrant northwest of the Raven Fork/Enloe Creek junction.
The ENTS team found a spruce in the Simmons Branch valley that they measured as 146.7″ tall and 12’8″ cbh (circumference at breast height). Those dimensions combined make it a national champion, they said. They found another leviathan even taller, 155’3″ tall, but not as thick (10’7″ cbh). They also found all kinds of other wild, weird, gigantic trees, such as an enormous yellow birch with adventitious roots like those of a strangler fig.
But what is it about spruces? When my friend Brian Worley and I went exploring up there yesterday, we saw skeletal hemlocks that were bigger. But spruces are not usually as large as hemlocks, and I’ve developed a special fondness for these dark, dense evergreens that crown the heights with their sharp pointed tops. I always look for the first spruce when I climb a mountain, though it’s usually a baby. And I always look for those dark shapes on the remote beckoning tops of the farthest heights.
On an overcast day with refreshing cold winds, we climbed up the Hyatt Ridge trail and descended to Raven Fork. It was my pleasure to introduce Brian to these places. He is a long-time bushwhacker who lives in East Tennesse and had never visited this area.
We stopped for a rest and a snack at the hemlock boulder on Raven Fork—the one where the Park Service has treated the landmark trees for the woolly adelgid. We admired the stream.
Here came the tricky part—the ENTS report said the team left the Enloe Creek trail “about a third of a mile” past the metal bridge. I actually spent time with my maps and an architect’s ruler, measuring the trail against the map scale. I came up with a plausible departure point. But even if I’d identified the correct spot on the map, we then had to match it to the actual location. I still can’t be certain we selected exactly the same route visited by ENTS, but we left the trail at a nice little stream valley and started to climb.
We climbed from about 3800′ to 4800′ up this valley, finding it remarkably free of thick brush. It seemed too good to be true—and in fact the rhodo-free conditions didn’t last. As we climbed, we found the forest floor carpeted with the infinitely variable shapes of new green leaves.
The way grew progressively steeper, and we passed a cascade.
As we reached the top and got into thicker brush, I took a photo looking south, toward Hughes Ridge and Ace Enloe Ridge.
Suddenly we found ourselves in dense rhodo, standing on the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the Simmons Branch drainage. The ENTS route took them down toward the stream to the northwest. But their description said they’d emerged on the ridge in a heath bald, and we saw no heath in any direction. And as we gazed into the incredibly dense, snarled, wild forest between us and Simmons Branch, we realized that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. We’d gotten a late start, and we were facing the possibility of getting caught out in the dark looking for the national champ.
Since the second 150-foot spruce was located near a saddle between Simmons and the next stream drainage to the west, we decided to keep to the high ground and head over to the saddle. We worked our way through the enchanted forest, seeing many tall spruce and one of the largest sugar maples I’ve ever come across. Even the fungus growths were larger than normal.
We crossed occasional stretches of open ground, but most of the time we fought through rhodo and blackberries. The going was very slow. We reached the saddle and turned west, soon finding the spruce pictured at top. Rhodo hemmed in its base. But as I gazed up the towering trunk, I felt that we were in the presence of a giant. Of course, we’ll never know its actual height or whether it is the second one mentioned in the ENTS report.
We made our way down into the unnamed tributary of Enloe by a small draw choked with rhodo and the thickest blackberry canes I’ve ever seen (thick in their diameter, I mean). Things finally opened up and we were able to make faster progress.
This valley had the opposite gradient than the one we’d ascended by, being steepest toward the bottom. The stream cascaded down over attractive waterfalls, and we finally returned to the trail.
Enloe Creek was plunging along with high water levels. It was beautiful.
All through the day, we saw countless white trillium.
We stopped for a snack beside my favorite Raven Fork pool before making the climb back up to Hyatt Ridge.
We descended along Hyatt Creek in a light, gentle rain. All the plants were once again being nourished by the rain clouds so that they will grow and thrive. Ah, the Smokies in April. Indescribable.