joyce kilmer memorial forest gives up the ghost

Welcome back to my continued Stories from the Great South series. It’s an impromptu sort of series. But also, seriously, a serious sort of series. So grab some biscuits, or grits, or gravy, or all three – or head to your nearest Shoney’s, if your stomach can handle it – and buckle down for continued tales and yarns from my recent southern adventures. It’s going to be a bumpy ride – but only because my car currently requires some expensive repairs.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, located in the western tip of North Carolina, and adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a day of eating some of the best food of my life, spending an inordinate amount on fine craft chocolate, and watching a bunch of dudes drink a plethora of pbr [the city abounds with on-the-fringe hipsters], I was excited to get out of the Asheville region and keep exploring.

Prevoiusly-local-pal had been to Joyce Kilmer before, but hopefully enjoyed the visit as much as I did. It was a fascinating area of virgin hardwood forest, which for that area of the country means some real whoppers of trees. Giant, giant trees. And, possibly more interesting to me, lots of beautiful understory vegetation. There were maidenhair ferns – my favorite plant, rattlesnake ferns (almost wrote rattlesnack: I must either be hungry, or overcoming my fear of snakes; i.e., I could eat snakes for breakfast snacks!), blue cohosh, and all sorts of other gems I was and wasn’t familiar with.

To give you an idea of how enthralling this place is to visit, the easy 2 mile loop trail took us at least two hours to complete. Perhaps closer to three. But we did chase a snake (chomp chomp), identify plants, admire tall trees, and measure some of the larger giants on the path with a d-tape. We appreciated an ecosystem so drastically different than the one we live and work in here in Maine. And we admired the power of nature to bring these giant trees crashing down to earth.

Eastern hemlock trees in the region (and across much of the eastern US) are falling prey to the hemlock wooly adelgid, a pest that feeds on tree sap to the extent that needles are killed. Without needles, these trees can’t photosynthesize, and under prolonged exposure to the adelgid will die. This was the fate of the hemlock trees at Joyce Kilmer, many of which were standing dead, providing great danger to all the slow, eager hikers such as myself. Here is where things get interesting: since Joyce Kilmer is listed as a wilderness, mechanized equipment such as chainsaws are prohibited. Conundrum!

The Forest Service decided to take a sneaky route and dynamite all of the hemlock trees along the trail. That’s right. They decided to take those trees down, and light up the forest, like it’s dy-na-mite. 28 to 35 pounds of dynamite per tree led to a patchy network of downed behemoths that looked as if they had snapped during a major windstorm. The trees that fell across the path had to be removed with crosscut saws. So primitive – so wilderness!

Had management not decided to preventively down the dead and dying trees, they would have had to close the recreational trail for three to five years to allow the same process to happen naturally. It seems much better, for all parties involved, to take the route that was taken. Visitors get to learn about management, while management lets out a sigh of relief that their chances of mortal tree kombat are greatly decreased. I only wish that I had seen more information while at the trail head on what exactly had happened. We were able to deduce that HWA killed these trees, that they were now on the ground, and that crosscut saws had been used to remove trees from the trail. However, it took online sleuthing to find out that the trees had been dynamited (in November of 2010). Perhaps information was posted and we missed it, but still. Dynamite seems like a great tactic to get kids interested in forest management!

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest {directions provided, as an address would do little good}

From the Graham County, NC website:

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is located about 15 miles from Robbinsville in the western part of Graham County. From Robbinsville, take Highway 129 North for 1½ miles to the junction with Highway 143 West (Massey Branch Road). Turn left and proceed West on Highway 143 for approximately 5.0 miles to a stop sign. Turn right onto Kilmer Road. You will drive for about 7.3 miles and arrive at the top of Santeetlah Gap and the junction with the Cherohala Skyway. Bear to your right and continue on for another 2½ miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Turn left into the entrance and it is about ½ mile to the parking area.

The ranger district that oversees the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness:

Cheoah Ranger District

Route 1, Box 16-A
Massey Branch Road
Robbinsville, NC 28771


And to read about dynamite in action, navigate here.

10 thoughts on “joyce kilmer memorial forest gives up the ghost

  1. Things such as this post remind me why I’m studying forestry. It’s fascinating! Dynamite, even. Well, sometimes. I bet Dr. Livingston would LOVE this!

    P.S. I love the first shot of the stump. What could you tell me about how that tree lived? Just kidding!

  2. Imagine that, the lead blaster Jon was from Minnesota…what an interesting story! I would never, ever imagine such a solution to giant dead trees. Thank you for the always beautiful photos.

  3. I must put forth what I believe is the most rational explanation for your “rattlesnack” typo: Psychic Kitty just saw something slithering outside the window.

    P.S. That dynamite story is fascinating!

  4. Brianne: Yes, this would make for a good Pests & Disease story, wouldn’t it? I was so pleased to find the explanatory article online, as we really weren’t sure what had happened.

    Hee heee, I included the cookie photo with the hopes that you would comment on it!! Which path would you take for COFECHA analysis? How would you deal with the crack running through the wood? How can you use northern Maine’s spruce-fir chronology and apply it to hemlocks in the southern Appalachians???

    Mum: Hah, yes! I was going to comment on the fact that the lead blaster was a Minnesotan, but I might have felt obligated to follow that up with a comment on how he must have been confused at the large size of the trees down there. What a crazy solution, huh? The noise must have been incredible. I didn’t include it here, but we saw the most delightful birds’ nest that had been built in between the shards of trunk on a stump. There were fragile little eggs in it and everything!

    Maris: I find it fascinating as well!

    Hannah: Ha ha:) Where is that Psychic Kitty..? She usually hangs out near me when I’m on the computer….?

    !!! :) She is hiding behind the computer screen, sitting on my coffee table, staring directly at me through the computer. Hah! How silly that it took me awhile to find her.

    What’s disturbing here is that kitty kittykins doesn’t often like to look out windows. So, if she saw/heard something slithering, it must be inside! Eeeeeek!

  5. Emma,
    I really dig that you combine your love of forestry and chocolate all in one blog:) And that second photo up the mossy tree trunk is amazing! Love the abstract foliage in the background.
    Keep em coming!

  6. Xiaolu: I would love to go back, too! Stunning is definitely the appropriate word of choice here.

    E: Thank you:) My thoughts meander way too much to focus only on chocolate or baking here – – or forestry for that matter. I’m glad you enjoyed the mossy trunk view, that’s one of my favorites from that day.

    It was no Istanbul, but backwoods North Carolina seemed just as wild and foreign to me!

  7. I want to celebrate and live my life.

    “Maybe compaction from the trail allowed some sort of pathogen to enter the trees through the roots therefore making those hemlocks closer to the trail more susceptible to windthrow…?”

  8. boyfriend: It’s cool, man. I throw my hands up in the air sometimes.

    Congrats on remembering all of the incredibly long, easy-to-make-fun-of-if-you-can-only-remember-how-extensively-long-it-is thought process of elimination we pondered when trying to figure out what we were seeing across the landscape. This is exactly why there should have been a very large informational kiosk with flashing lights around it or something, explaining what had happened. Maybe there was and I was still too freaked out about li’l snakey to take notice. Ay-oh.

And now I'd like to pass the mic / So you c'mon and do anything you like ...aka, Leave your reply.

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