Hiking with Catskills forest authority Mike Kudish is a great way to learn to identify trees, shrubs, ferns, and mosses and understand the history of the forests. Last fall I accompanied Mike up the backside of Graham Mountain in his ongoing project to map the Catskills’ first growth forests, those regions that have never been disturbed by human activities like logging or farming. We met again recently, together with my wife, Sue, and Odie the Labradoodle, to explore the Willowemoc Wild Forest, once again with the mission of mapping first growth.
We parked at the DEC trailhead just past Round Pond and were soon walking on Basily Road through a grove of hemlocks. Suddenly Mike gave a shout: standing alone and dwarfed by the taller hemlocks was a single, dead, balsam fir. I was perplexed, as one commonly notices balsam fir at elevations above 3,000 feet, where the soil is too thin to support taller trees, but here the elevation was only 2,300 feet. Mike explained that after the last ice age balsam fir had migrated into the Catskills from the west, and the Willowemoc valley was one of the corridors they followed. While today the taller deciduous trees have largely displaced the fir except at higher elevations, here and there you find a handful of fir at lower altitude, having held out over the years due to some quirk of the local terrain. We kept our eyes peeled for other members of the fir tribe, but did not find any.
We hiked on for a ways and then turned into the woods and followed blazes marking the boundary between private property and state forest, looking for the larger native trees that are the signature of first growth areas. Our findings were inconclusive. While Mike had mapped first growth down below in the Willowemoc river valley, here on a ridge we saw enough old tree stumps to suggest this area had been logged, and the trees, while beautiful, were not spectacular.
However, I was impressed by the abundant and healthy-looking black cherry (Prunus serotina), with large trunks soaring high above the canopy of beech, birch, and maple, and the branches so far away it was hard to see the leaves. I hadn’t even known of black cherry until my prior hike with Mike, who had pointed out that they have the darkest bark in the forest. Now Mike explained that black cherry and beech tend to battle it out for dominance, but in this section of the woods, we could see beech that had fallen victim to beech bark disease, which was part of the reason this ridgeline was “black cherry dominated,” to use the naturalist’s characterization. The black cherry had also beat out the sugar maple in this area, probably because sugar maples are less tolerant of draught, and this ridge was quite dry. In fact, we didn’t encounter a drop of water, not even a mud puddle for Odie to splash in; he had to drink from Sue’s camelback.
While the first growth eluded us on this trip, Mike shared with me some observations on ferns, which he has studied closely for forty years. In the clearings, where the sun shone through, as well as on the sides of the roads, we saw great luxurious masses of hay-scented fern, (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) growing waist deep, the fronds fluffy and curling slightly at the tips. In the forests shadows, the intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) was common, although not prolific like the hay-scented fern but rather growing individually or in small clusters. The intermediate fern is evergreen, but with a twist: its fronds wither and die in the spring, after new leaves have sprouted, and we could see last year’s leaves lying brown and curled up underneath the plants. Mike contrasted this species with one of its cousins, the mountain wood fern (Dryopteris campyloptera), which looks similar except that it’s taller and bushier, and it’s not evergreen. While the hay-scented fern flourished in the sun, and the intermediate fern kept to the shadows, we also found small, dainty New York ferns (Thelypteris noveboracensis), which are distinguished by leaves that narrow at both the tip and the base of the frond, mixed in on the edges of clearings, in areas that were partly sunny and partly shaded. Other treats included a huge clump of interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) growing almost chest-high in the middle of a field, so called because there are large gaps in the fronds where spore-carrying leaves have wilted, and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), so called because it is sensitive to the cold and collapses at the first frost or even before.
When we were done exploring the ridge, we studied the map, estimated an azimuth back to the cars, and headed out with compass in hand. Mike does navigating the old fashioned way — carrying detailed topographic maps and using barometers to estimate elevation through changes in air pressure — whereas I have gotten into the habit of using my smart phone with its GPS function. But this time, I had forgotten to bring my phone. So I listened to Mike and studied his map, got back in the practice of paying attention to minute changes in the lay of the land, and checked my compass frequently. Working together, we made a straight line back to the cars. Mike said he wasn’t worried about getting lost, and I had complete confidence in him.
On the way home, we stopped at the Peekamoose Tavern for a bite to eat. After hiking for several hours across rough terrain, it was nice to sit out on the terrace underneath a large willow tree. We discussed many things, including the threat of Japanese knotweed, which I had observed last fall growing in profusion along the streams. And we admired a large, graceful elm (Ulmus americana) rising from the courtyard. Over the years, 99% of elms have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease, but every now and then you discover a healthy specimen that is resistant to the disease or has never been exposed. Then it was time to say goodbye.
The next day during a long run, I encountered another elm growing next to a farm house and looking tall and stately. Two elms in two days must be a good omen. Or maybe when you hang around people who are very knowledgeable, you learn to see more.
The book of nature is like a page written over or printed upon with different-sized characters and in many different languages, interlined and cross-lined, and with a great variety of marginal notes and references. . . . It is a book which he reads best who goes most slowly or even tarries long by the way.
—John Burroughs, “The Art of Seeing Things”