Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

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pdbrandt
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Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by pdbrandt » Thu Apr 17, 2014 9:28 pm

Last week I took a 3 day solo backpacking trip into the Deep Creek watershed of GSMNP with three purposes in mind.

1. to get some rejuvenation time in the woods
2. to check up on the Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar - the tallest known Tulip Poplar in the world.
3. to do an exhaustive ground search in 7 other coves within a 1.5 mile radius of the FRTP that correspond to 7 additional 190 foot+ LIDAR hits.

I accomplished points 1 and 2 and had a fair amount of success with #3 as well. Here’s my report.

The FRTP was measured in April 2011 by tape drop to be 191.9 feet (see http://www.ents-bbs.org/viewtopic.php?f=74&t=2423). Until Bart's recent post on the Grandfather Oak in Costa Rica, the FRTP was the tallest accurately measured native angiosperm in North America (see http://www.ents-bbs.org/viewtopic.php?f=93&t=6256). I remeasured the FRTP using my Nikon 440 to 191.2 feet tall -- well within acceptable error of the 3 year old tape drop value. The tree is magnificent and shows no signs of damage from the past winter that was marked by plenty of ice storms and snow.

Here’s a panorama of the cove that holds the FRTP: http://photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=f7c ... d685e0c782

And here’s a video pan up the FRTP taken one evening during the fog and drizzle, as well as a stitched picture taken when it was a bit clearer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjx-3vu1Txs


Click on image to see its original size

The FRTP towers 20 feet or more over 5 other tulip poplars within just 50 feet of it. This degree of dominance over adjacent trees of the same species seems unusual to me. The eastern facing cove with its ample sunlight, protection from prevailing winds, and other cove characteristics combine -- with the FRTP’s favorable growth habit (unforked trunk up to 120 feet tall) and the good fortune of having evaded storm damage that has clearly affected neighboring tree -- to make a truly unique and apparently unrivaled specimen.

Not far from the FRTP is another superlative tulip poplar – a 21’1” CBH tree that I measured to 172.7’. It is undoubtedly much older than the 18’ CBH FRTP and it likewise towers 20 feet or more over the rest of the surrounding canopy. This tree is referred to as the Polk Patch Giant and was mentioned by Will Blozan in his post linked above wherein he detailed the tape drop of the FRTP. I believe they got a height of 179'. Here are a number of pictures of that tree. The first one was taken by Josh Kelly and shows Will Blozan at the base of the tree in 2011. The others are current pictures I took last week.

For perspective here is a panorama of the cove that holds this giant tree: http://photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=62d ... af5b3bce94

Here is Will at the base (Josh Kelly photo)

Click on image to see its original size

The entire tree

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The cove uphill of the tree

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The emergent crown of the same tree as seen from across the river

Click on image to see its original size

Ian Beckheimer and Josh Kelly have both spent some time searching for trees in the coves and mountainsides surrounding the FRTP. They never found anything taller than the FRTP, but both suggested that further exploration was needed. Before detailing my most recent attempt to ground truth LIDAR hits I should point out that the LIDAR data I have access to computes the ground elevation based on 60 foot squares. LIDAR data density for the GSMNP theoretically enables an footprint squares of 30 feet per side. The 60 foot squares create a more manageable GIS file, but it tends to over estimate LIDAR hits on steep terrain. That said my LIDAR file shows the FRTP as a 194’ hit – remarkably close to its actual height. There are 7 other 190’+ LIDAR hits that I was hopeful would result in the discovery of a second or third 190’ tall tulip poplar.

I set out to find visit those 7 sites early on my first full day after reaching my base camp. However, I severely underestimated the difficulty of bushwhacking in this area. Many times I had to scramble through or over rhododendron thickets and more than once I had to retreat and backtrack after encountering briar patches over 5 feet tall. I also had to navigate 4 crossings through 40 degree temperature rivers that were swollen from the 2 inches of rain that fell the day before. I hiked over 5 miles that day, off trail for most of it, with 1800 feet of cumulative elevation gain as I scrambled over 3 mountain ridges.

One beautiful mountain stream. Crossing it was daunting to say the least. Notice the nearly impassable rhododendron thickets on both sides.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2MHDo-Kf6M

Because of these challenges I was only able to visit 4 of the 7 coves I hoped to before exhaustion and nightfall striped me of all desire to continue. These 4 were coves that harbored promising LIDAR hits of 192, 192, 195, and 200’. In each case the LIDAR hits corresponded to superlative tulip poplars but in no case were they as tall as suggested by LIDAR. As I approached the GPS coordinates of each hit, the tulip poplars would get larger and larger. 140 and 150 feet tall poplars were a dime a dozen and I soon learned not to “waste time” measuring any but the largest trees. One particularly disappointing cove that suggested a 192 footer only contained a 142 tall tree. The other 192 LIDAR hit corresponded to a 165.3’ tall tulip poplar on the side of an unbelievable steep part of a ravine. The 195’ LIDAR hit ended up guiding me right to a 173.5’ tall, 11’8” CBH tulip poplar. Here is a picture of it:


Click on image to see its original size

The highest LIDAR hit, a tantalizing 200 footer, resulted in the discovery of a 170.3 foot tall 19’1” CBH tulip poplar. The full size picture I have is not very good quality. I refer to this as the grumpy old man tulip poplar because of a burl on the trunk near ground level that looks to me (or at least it did in my delirious state at that time) like a grumpy old sour puss face.


Click on image to see its original size


Click on image to see its original size

Even though I didn't find any new 180 or 190 foot tulip poplars on this trip, it was a real treat to visit the 191 foot tall FRTP. I slept soundly that night, regaining my energy for the long, uphill hike back to the car the next morning. On the way back I took time to take some pictures of the forest floor awakening to the promise of Spring.

Unknown flower

Click on image to see its original size

Trilium

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"Spring beauties"

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Yellow violets

Click on image to see its original size

Unknown flowers

Click on image to see its original size

The sun finally came out just as I was getting back to the car.

Click on image to see its original size

Once back at the car, I drove the 10 miles or so up to Clingman's Dome on the NC/TN boarder and was surprised to see this in early April:


Click on image to see its original size


Click on image to see its original size

Entire photo album from the trip: https://plus.google.com/photos/10416999 ... LOK3te9pgE
Last edited by pdbrandt on Sat Apr 19, 2014 5:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
Patrick

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Jess Riddle
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Jess Riddle » Thu Apr 17, 2014 10:03 pm

Patrick

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I think you've done a nice job of capturing the challenges and variety of big tree hunting in the Smokies. You also seem to have learned one of the truisms of hiking off-trail in the Southern Appalachians: it's not how far you hike that matters, it's how thick the rhodo is.

Seems like pixel size is really limiting the accuracy of your lidar data in the mountainous terrain. I'm glad you persisted in checking out the hits though. The 19' x 170' tree is a significant find and a rare combination of height and girth for trees in the east.

Your first unknown flower looks like wood anemone, and the other is some species of phlox.

Jess

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pdbrandt
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by pdbrandt » Thu Apr 17, 2014 10:18 pm

Jess Riddle wrote:Patrick

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I think you've done a nice job of capturing the challenges and variety of big tree hunting in the Smokies. You also seem to have learned one of the truisms of hiking off-trail in the Southern Appalachians: it's not how far you hike that matters, it's how thick the rhodo is.

Seems like pixel size is really limiting the accuracy of your lidar data in the mountainous terrain. I'm glad you persisted in checking out the hits though. The 19' x 170' tree is a significant find and a rare combination of height and girth for trees in the east.

Your first unknown flower looks like wood anemone, and the other is some species of phlox.

Jess
Thanks for the wildflower ID, Jess. Being a Yankee by birth I certainly have never experienced Rhododendron thickets like I did on this trip! My shins were black and blue by lunch time. If I ever do this again I will wear soccer shin pads under my pants! The crazy things is that there appears to be no way to predict where the Rhodo thickets will be. Some steep slopes have them, others don't. Sometimes they seem thicker in shaded areas, sometimes in direct sun, sometimes on North facing slopes, sometimes on Southern facing slopes. One thing is predictable -- rhododendrons thrive on all moist bottom lands! One observation that was true for each cove that contains a 170 foot plus tulip poplar (at least in the deep creek watershed) is that these super coves DO NOT have rhododendron overgrowth. As you can see in the panoramas and pictures, the forest floor of the super coves is uncluttered and almost park-like. It's getting to those coves that is the challenge!
Patrick

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Will Blozan
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Will Blozan » Fri Apr 18, 2014 6:37 am

Patrick,

Great trip, welcome to tree hunting in the Smokies!

I disagree with your age thoughts. I think the Fork Ridge Tuliptree (I refrain from the misleading term "poplar") is older than the Poke Patch Giant.

Bummer on the LiDAR overage... but now we know!

Will

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Larry Tucei
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Larry Tucei » Fri Apr 18, 2014 8:33 am

Patrick- Great posting! Tulip Trees are fantastic and the dominate species in that region of the South. I had the privilege of hiking with Will and company a few years back I believe 09 and your post reminds me of how much I hate Rhododendron. It was funny we all went in along a creek flanking a ridge it was so difficult to climb over, under, through that junk. On our way out I asked Will if we could go out down by the Creek. He chuckled and so we went out that way. I had gained a real appreciation for Will and all those who measure trees in this environment! Larry

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bbeduhn
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by bbeduhn » Fri Apr 18, 2014 8:04 pm

Larry, Patrick,
I've had similar experiences with Mr. Blozan. I wore sandals once. Shin guards would be a fine idea.

I've found rhodo hells along ridge tops that open into beautiful parklike coves completely devoid of undergrowth. Rhodo is certainly more common on north facing slopes and along streams but it often surprises me in other areas.

Patrick,
Extremely fine work in documentation and in relating the often arduous journey of bushwhacking.
Brian

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Ranger Dan
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Ranger Dan » Fri Apr 18, 2014 8:57 pm

Awesome trip report, Patrick!! Thanks for the extensive work in sharing the experience with us...almost like being there! I've been on lots of Smokies crosscountry treks myself, so I know the pain and despair that Rhododendron maximum brings and the feeling of profoundly isolated paradise when you reach those flower-filled open groves.

Coincidentally, I'm in the Smokies now. My hat's off to all who have worked so hard to keep the hemlocks on life support. The Cosby area still has magnificent ancient hemlock groves as a result. There are many other fine trees here, too, and floral wonderlands. Creeping phlox, P. Stolonifera, is the species in the image you posted. Funny how both digital and film photography seldom reproduce shades of blue and purple. This species varies from white to pink, lavender and purple, but is never true blue.

Keep up the good work.

Dan Miles

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Josh Kelly
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Josh Kelly » Fri Apr 18, 2014 9:38 pm

Patrick,

Great trip report! One correction: That photo is of Will at the bottom of the Poke Patch Giant; I took the photo. When last measured, the Poke Patch Tree was 179' tall, I wonder if it lost a leader?

The 19' gbh x 170' poplar is a very significant tree, as Jess commented. I would be curious if the tree is on "Anti-Social Branch" (name obscured intentionally) because that is a spot I've wanted to get to. I did a trip a few years ago to "Ursa Cage Ridge" to check on the 185' hit there and found a 17' x 185', amazingly ill-formed poplar.

Again, awesome post!

Josh

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pdbrandt
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by pdbrandt » Sat Apr 19, 2014 5:17 am

Josh Kelly wrote:Patrick,

Great trip report! One correction: That photo is of Will at the bottom of the Poke Patch Giant; I took the photo. When last measured, the Poke Patch Tree was 179' tall, I wonder if it lost a leader?

The 19' gbh x 170' poplar is a very significant tree, as Jess commented. I would be curious if the tree is on "Anti-Social Branch" (name obscured intentionally) because that is a spot I've wanted to get to. I did a trip a few years ago to "Ursa Cage Ridge" to check on the 185' hit there and found a 17' x 185', amazingly ill-formed poplar.

Again, awesome post!

Josh
Hi Josh,

I had that 185 footer in mind as I searched because you mentioned it to me in an email a while back when we were trying to set up a similar trip a year ago. I will send you and Will a map of my wanderings as well as GPS coords of the trees I measured in a separate email since I understand the park service has requested that exact locations not be made public. I fixed the reference to the Poke Patch Giant in my original post too - thanks for the clarification. The Poke Patch tree didn't seem to have any crown damage. It may be that I am measuring trees a little low for some reason or maybe I didn't get the right leader. If I'm measuring low it is possible that the 19' x 170' is the same one you found a couple years ago. I hope I'm not that far off though!
Patrick

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Jess Riddle
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Re: Visit to Fork Ridge Tulip Poplar and nearby LIDAR hits

Post by Jess Riddle » Sat Apr 19, 2014 11:11 pm

So there is a little reason to the madness that is rhododendron. Rhodo is essentially a species of moist acidic sites. It does occasionally grow on dry sites, (where it is more upright in habit for some reason I've never been able to determine), but those areas are unusual. The species is also scarce in more nutrient rich or higher pH areas. My hypothesis is that competition with herbs limits it in those areas, but I don't have anything to back that up. The other trend in rhododendron density is with elevation. On a scale of 1 to 10, you will rarely see rhodo above an 8 in the big tree zone, below about 4000'. If you want to see class 9 or class ten 10 rhodo try bushwhacking in the spruce forests. There's a good reason so much of the prime red spruce forest remains unexplored for tree heights (or any other objective).

Interestingly, people seem to have two fundamentally different styles of walking (flailing) through rhododendron thickets. I've heard many people talk about black and blue shins, but others consistently come out unscathed.

Jess

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