Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

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Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by edfrank » Mon Apr 26, 2010 9:02 pm

Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

On Tuesday April 20, 2010, Carl Harting and I visited three islands that are part of the Allegheny River Island Wilderness in north-central Pennsylvania. Originally the trip had been planned for three people, but at the last moment Dale Luthringer was forced to drop out because of problems with a kidney stone. Perhaps this was all for the better, because while I have had successful trips with either Carl or Dale, each time the two of them are on a trip it seems to rain. Today, whether the result of the missing third or not, it was a beautiful day. I had visited the wilderness on several previous occasions. We planned to visit three major islands Courson Island, King Island, and Baker Island and perhaps some smaller ones if we had time. Carl had not been to any of these islands before.

Courson Island

We stopped and borrowed Dale’s canoe early in the morning, loaded it atop my van, and we were off. Carl drove his vehicle as well, so that we could accomplish the needed logistics. The first goal of the day was Courson Island. This is the fourth of seven islands that make up the wilderness. It is 62 acres in size, 0.9 miles in length, and 0.1 miles in width, and generally paramecium shaped.
Courson Island

The goal for the day was to look for new larger trees than had been previously documented and to try and measure additional species that were not documented on the previous trip. I had visited the island once previously on a trip with Dale Luthringer and Anthony Kelly on September 4, 2007 ... w2007b.htm Because of limited time and the goal of visiting several different islands today, Carl and I decided to put in at a Fish Commission access point named Bonnie Brae immediately upstream of Courson Island. We dropped Carl’s vehicle off at the Tidioute Borough Access and headed north. The river level was down and flowing slowly. The water surface was still and mirror-like. The island was but a short paddle and soon we reached the upstream end of the island. Debris from the winter flooding formed a barrier across the tip of the island and behind it laid a mass of multiflora rose briars. I joked with Carl that we needed to go forth and surmount this insurmountable barrier. Carl has a quiet personality, reminiscent of Clark Kent, and serves as a foil for my flights of hyperbole and rambling as we explore. Just beyond the flood debris barrier is a catalpa tree we found on the first trip. This is the only one we have encountered on any of the islands and seems out of place here. Unfortunately the leaves had not yet opened and I am still unsure if it is a northern or southern catalpa. If native it must be a northern catalpa, but on the other hand southern catalpas are commonly planted as ornamentals. We continued down the main portion of the island. Carl located a slippery elm another addition for the species list. I added a nice black willow, another unmeasured species, near the downstream end of the island. The black willow was a respectable specimen at 8. 4 feet in girth and 74.5 feet I height. We measured a few other tree specimens along the way. Carl pushed the height of the previously measured white ash a couple of more feet. We measured a nice fat butternut not located on the previous trip as well. This tree turned out to be just over 86 feet tall - the tallest yet found on any of the islands.
Butternut and Carl Harting, Courson Island - at 86.02 feet it is the tallest butternut measured on the Allegheny River Islands.

On my first trip to the islands I had become fascinated with the large hawthorn trees growing in the islands. Looking at them last year while on Crull Island with Dale, I became convinced that there were two different species of hawthorn present. They had distinctly different branching patterns, but at the time, and again this spring the leaves and flowers were not yet out. The large specimens we had identified as Dotted Hawthorn (Crataegus punctata), but the other species has yet to be identified. The identification of hawthorn species is a mess with as many as a thousand varieties identified by some sources, and at least a few dozen listed by more conservative accounts.
False Hellebore

Exploration in the early spring is much easier than in the autumn after a season of growth. We found ourselves hiking across open areas of newly opened Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Intermixed with the native skunk cabbage were masses of False hellebore (Veratrum viride). Scattered here and there were Virginia bluebell flowers (Mertensia virginica) and likely are white-flowering Cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine [Dentaria] concatenate). Invasive plants were pervasive on the island. There were large open areas of matted down invasive fields Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) was present. We pushed through clumps of multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora), some of these roses reached twenty feet or more as they climbed into the trees. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) bushes were ever present. On this trip, fortunately for us the 12 – 15 foot high barrier of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) that thwarted much of our travel on the first trip had been knocked down by the winter season and we were able to explore several new areas.
Cluster of large trees in new section, Coutson Island. Carl is standing beside the 136.5 foot tall sycamore.

One of these newly accessible areas was a small semi-island section that intermittently separated from the main portion of the island during periods of high flow. On this occasion a shallow stream a few inches deep was all we needed to cross to see this section. There were some really nice sycamores and silver maple trees here. Carl measured one sycamore to just over 135.5 feet, while I simultaneously found a top in another 43 yards straight up, from a position 7.5 feet above the base of the tree. From the side I achieved a similar result for this tree with a height of 135.8 feet. There were several others in the 130 foot class. These two trees were ten feet taller than any we found on the initial trip two years ago.
Carl’s 123 foot silver maple, Courson island

Immediately adjacent to these trees was a nice silver maple Carl found at 123.2 feet in height. In 2005 Dale documented a silver maple near King Island at 123.3 feet tall making it the tallest known in the northeast at the time. This was a silver maple of almost the same height. However on April 02, 2009 Dale and I found a taller silver maple at 128.9 feet on Thompson Island, a few miles upstream and also part of the Allegheny River Island Wilderness, but this specimen is still an exceptionally tall silver maple. From this point we headed back to the canoe. Since the water flow was relatively still Carl and I opted to paddle back upstream to the van. Ducks and geese swimming in the river fled before us as we paddled. I gave Carl the title of “Duck Frightener.” The original plan was to continue down to McGuire Island and on to the Tidioute takeout. This change saved us some car shuffling quite a bit of time we could devote to King and Baker Islands later that afternoon.
New measurements from April 20, 2010
Rucker Height Index - the black willow at 74.5 and the butternut at 86 fet are the tallest of each species we have found in the Allegheny River Islands system.

King Island
We dropped Carl’s vehicle off at the takeout at the Tionesta Fish Hatchery, and grabbed quick bite to eat at a Subway nearby before heading back on the river. I hoped to find someplace we could put in above Baker Island to save us the long paddle down from West Hickory. This would bypass King Island, but in low water the island can be reached wading across a short and shallow cut-around the west side of the island. So I opted to drive out the dirt road along the west side of the river. Unfortunately the terrain was steep and the only good place to put into the river was from a grassy area posted by the inhabitants. So we ended up putting in at the west Hickory Access anyway. From here we paddled down to King Island. King Island is 36 acres in size and nestled against the western bank of the Allegheny River. In spite of several trips to King Island we had not yet collected enough tree species to generate a R 10 Height Index. The main goal of hitting King Island today was to locate and measure at least a tenth species for the index, and hopefully to replace the relatively short dotted hawthorn on the list with a taller species.

From visiting many islands in the Allegheny River, including not only islands in the Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, but on several U. S. Forest Service islands, and private islands, certain assemblages of trees can be expected to be found. The predominant species found on the lower sections of the islands are American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum). Black willow (Salix nigra) and American basswood (Tilia Americana) are also found in these areas in more limited numbers. These are all species that survive or thrive from the periodic flooding of the river. They often have multiple stems in the lower areas from this flood damage, or in some case continue to grow after they have fallen on their side. Their growth is not limited to these low areas and the largest specimens of each species are often found in higher areas in central portions of the islands. Other species found commonly on all the islands include Dotted hawthorn (Crataegus punctata), hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), butternut (Juglans cinerea), white ash (Fraxinus americana), and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Species found on most islands, but not all include Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Other species found sporadically included Red oak (Quercus rubra), Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Black walnut (Juglans nigra), American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), and Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). White pine (Pinus strobus was found on three islands that had particularly high areas that rarely flooded, and was absent from all the other lower islands. A number other species were only found on a single island or were only found on Hemlock Island, a private island with a large area much higher above the flow level than any of the other islands visited.

Carl and I put into the island about midway down the east side. Here is a large open area fringed by some of the largest trees on the island. These include a large single stem silver maple to 18.1ft CBH x 104.3ft high, a bulbous six stem silver maple at 20.8ft CBH x 103ft tall, several more large silver maples, a couple of beautiful sycamores, and a dotted hawthorn with a girth of 6.1 feet, height of 39.3 feet, and a spread of 43.5 feet.
National champion dotted hawthorn, King Island

I submitted it as the national champion dotted hawthorn in 2007, but it has yet to show up in the American Forests listings. The accounts of my first trip on September 5, 2007 can be found on the ENTS website: ... w2007c.htm
Carl Harting and a 18.1 foot girth, 104.3 foot tall silver maple, King Island.

I wanted to show Carl this pocket of magnificent trees. The trees across most of this island are nice, but not particularly tall. The island can easily be reached by wading during times of low water, so I did not want to spend large amounts of time remeasuring already documented trees. The goal was to add a couple of species to those already documented from the island so that a Rucker Index could be calculated. With the wide variety of species found on these islands I was optimistic we could add several new species to the list. Carl and I made a quick circuit of the island and looked pretty hard, but unfortunately the only new species we managed to add to the list was black locust. A cluster of trees in the 100 foot range was located near the upper end of the island.
This 100.72 foot tall black locust is the tallest we have measured in the Allegheny River Islands

This made ten species for the island, but the last species - the dotted hawthorn – was still only 39.5 feet tall and the resulting RHI10 will be depressed in relation to those of the other major islands. I will need to return again sometime and find another taller species.
Rucker Height Index for King Island

Baker Island

From King Island we pushed off and headed down to Baker Island. Baker Island is one of the larger islands in the wilderness at 67 acres. I had previously visited Baker IslandOn September 5, 2007 on the trip reported above. In addition Dale and I managed to wade to the island in June 2008 to remeasure the tallest sycamore found there. This American sycamore is 147.7 foot tall, 12.1 foot girth making it the tallest American sycamore in PA. (Dale remeasured the tree in October 2009 to a new height of 148.3 feet.)
On the paddle down to the island the stark contrast could be seen from trees on the river shore ad those on the islands themselves.
Eastern bank of the Allegheny River.

Along the shore side of the river the trees consisted of a large percentage of hemlocks. White pines were present. The dominant deciduous tree was red maple. Here and there were scattered bright white flowering Juneberry and black cherry. On the forest floor we had found areas just covered with white flowered trilliums and ferns. All of these species were absent or very uncommon on the islands. A scene of the island shorelines included sycamores, silver maples, maybe some willows and hawthorns. There were open areas of invasive reed canary grass and the remnant stems of Japanese knotweed. There was a completely different character between the two areas.

Again as with the other islands the goal was to add some new tall trees and add some additional species to the data set for the island. We put in at the top end of the island. Almost immediately upon entering the forest Carl came across a white ash. This was a species missing from the island listings. This was not so much the case of not seeing any on previous trip, but simply one of bypassing a modest specimen in anticipation of finding a larger one later. The species simply was not measured. Carl is an excellent at tree measurements, and I believe he is better at tree identification that I, especially when many of them have not yet leafed out. In the open areas covered by reed canary grass mats we commonly found bitternut hickory. These mostly were young specimens with relatively smooth bark. Unopened buds had their distinctive yellow buds. Butternut was also present. Its bark looks similar to the diamond patterns of white ash, but with the ridges appearing as if they were smooshed flat by a butter knife.
Old butternut on Baler Island

We headed down the length of the island adding a new tree here and there. I led us to the location of the tallest sycamore to show Carl. In the immediate area were several other trees noted on previous trips, including a slingshot shaped sycamore, a very nice common hackberry, and a sugar maple. I directed us over to several basswoods along the western side of the island. Baker Island was hit by the major category IV or V tornado that swept through the state in 1985. Dale had a book with a nice photo of the damage to the downstream half of the island from the tornado. It turned out that Carl had given him the book. Near the edge of where the tornado winds had knocked down most of the tree I had previously documented a fat 10.7 foot girth, 68 foot tall basswood which had had its top ripped off by the tornado. On this trip I found that again the tree had lost about half its remaining height to wind damage. The fallen tree top lay on the shore.
Large dotted hawthorn

There was a large spreading hawthorn nearby. I am always impressed by the twisted trunks. In these larger specimens they look as if they are made of a series of thick ropes twisted together to form the trunk. From here we headed down toward the downstream end of the island. There were several fallen trees I had noted on previous trips wanted to photograph. Carl measured a nice slippery elm along the way.
Black willow with fallen trunk

I measured a black willow toward the end of the island at 57.10 feet. This particular black willow had fallen over at some time in the past and branches grew upward the fallen 10 foot trunk lying on the ground to form new trunks.

Sycamore with new trunks formed from former limbs.

Also in the area were a series of fallen sycamores lying on the ground. These also had former branches growing from upward from fallen tree to form new trunks. One thing I had wanted to check out was whether or not these new trunks were growing new root systems or whether they were just feeding off the roots still remaining from the original tree.
The first of several specimens examined did not appear to be regrowing roots; however one fallen tree had two large branches that did seem to be growing new roots from their base. I did not have a shovel to dig them up, but to all appearances these secondary trunks were growing their own root systems. I had previous described these types of trees in my multitrunk and other tree form classification system as “Category 6: Fallen trees”:
Fallen American sycamore with apparent rooting new trunks

As we walked back to the canoe we passed several trees with shaggy bark and very fine branching. After some debate we decided these were simply willows that had not yet leafed out.
Black Willow

In an old meander channel cutting across a portion of the island was a water pond complete with lily pads and many, many turtles. These dove into the water and hid upon out approach, thus earning Carl the additional approbation of “Turtle Scarer”. Walking back to the canoe I could think about the day.
April 20, 2010 measurements from Baker Island
Rucker Height Index for Baker Island

Things had gone very well. The weather had been beautiful. We had accomplished most of the goals I want to complete. We found big trees and small. We had a day with the background filled sound with sounds of flowing water, wind, and waterfowl. We had seen a mature bald eagle flying across the river and geese winging northward. Carl had caught sight of an otter and ducks swam before our canoe as we paddled.
River scene from Baker Island looking upstream

We returned to the canoe and headed downstream to the pull out at Tionesta. We passed No Name Island – the last of the islands making up the wilderness on our way to Tionesta. None of us had visited the island yet, but from the canoe it can be seen that it is a low lying island. The trees are generally short and do not appear to be young in age. We could see sycamore, silver maple, and black willow. It was getting late and we opted not to stop. There is a highway pullout on Route 62 along the eastern bank of the river with a sign dedicated to environmentalist Howard Zahniser. This pull out lies immediately opposite No Name Island and a canoe can be put in there on a future trip to hit this 10 acre island to complete the last of the wilderness islands. The rest of the trip to the pull out was uneventful. We loaded the canoe and returned it to Dale back at Cook Forest.
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by dbhguru » Tue Apr 27, 2010 6:39 am


OUTSTANDING!! I salute the western PA team. You all took on the challenge of the islands an now we know what is there. I'm impressed with the silver maples. I'm tempted to return to that species and remeasure the big ones around western Mass. It is the ones species that forms natural coppices and forces us to think about how we should treat that form.

Again, an absolutely outstanding report. And Carl is way cool. He's quiet and unassuming, but darned effective.

Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder, Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
Co-founder, National Cadre

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Larry Tucei
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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by Larry Tucei » Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:20 am

Ed, Wow! That silver maple is Huuuge! Great report as usual. Fallen trees that grow like that have always fasinated me. You guys did some exploring, wish I could have been there wiht you! You guys didn't fall overboard this time? Larry

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James Parton
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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by James Parton » Wed Apr 28, 2010 6:26 pm


Damn Killer report! Your skills at documentation are well beyond my own.

I love the Hawthorns. They are probably the most outstanding examples I have seen any ENT post.

I think Courson Island is a fossil of Paramecium Giganticus. It is so complete that even the oral groove can be seen! It lived during the Paleozoic Era and died out at the Extinction Level Event at the end of that period.

James E Parton
Ovate Course Graduate - Druid Student
Bardic Mentor
New Order of Druids ... Itemid=145

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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by edfrank » Thu Apr 29, 2010 4:05 pm


Thanks for the compliment. I try to write a complete and interesting trip report. There are may others who write excellent reports including yourself. Bob Leveratt mixes philosophical essays with the tree descriptions. Jess Riddle before he be came a recluse at the university was among the best with fantastic detail of not only the the trees but other flora found in the understory. Will Blozan's essays are full of energy and excitement when he has time to write. many other write great reports. People just need to try and do a good job and to write in their own voice.

"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by djluthringer » Thu Apr 29, 2010 9:48 pm

Great job, guys !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


P.S. I'm two kidney stones lighter now...

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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by djluthringer » Thu Aug 05, 2010 1:37 pm



On 10/8/09 I was able to re-measure the tall sycamore on Baker Island. It's now up to 12.2ft CBH x 148.3ft high. This brings the RI up on Baker Island to 88.16.


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Re: Allegheny River Islands Wilderness, PA

Post by edfrank » Thu Aug 05, 2010 1:45 pm


The Rucker Height Index I posted for Baker Island includes the 148.3 foot sycamore measurement. (Even though I did not include it in the original text of the post.) I re-edited the post text to include an acknowledgment of the later measurement.

I am not sure what other measurement you have that accounts for the 1.8 foot difference between my value of 87.98 and yours or 88.16. Please check out the numbers above and try to pin point the source of this difference.

"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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