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New York’s Tallest Tree

A 1675 Grove white pine, photograph by Sandra Hildreth

Just above eye level, a tag the size of a quarter is tacked into thick, red-gray plates of bark. It is engraved with the number 103. The trunk is architectural: massive, straight and branchless for five or six stories. Then it disappears through limbs and needles, rising another 10 stories into blue sky.

Out of my pack I pull a spreadsheet that Howard Stoner, a retired mathematics professor from Troy, e-mailed to me. Over the past 10 years he has measured and tagged every big white pine in this grove. Stoner lists 103’s circumference at 13.1 feet, diameter at 50.1 inches, and height at 160.4 feet. He discovered that this is the tallest tree on record in New York State.

Fifty white pines at this trail-less site a short hike from Easy Street, in the town of Brighton, are 330+ years old. Five of them are taller than the Statue of Liberty, base to torch. Collectively they are known as the 1675 Grove (sometimes called the Elders Grove).

They germinated in the wake of a windstorm or some other disturbance that cleared a wide swath, according to “Doc” Michael Kudish, professor emeritus of dendrology at Paul Smith’s College. Kudish has known this grove since he came to teach at the college in the 1970s. He is now on a quest to map what remains of all primeval forest in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Kudish calculated the age of the elders by counting the rings of large, downed trees in the area. Because so many of them are the same age, he determined that a “great blowdown” struck the region between 1675 and 1680, two centuries before Paul Smiths was settled.

The 1675 Grove trees are among the oldest in the East. “Three-hundreds [300-year-olds] are hard to find,” Kudish told a standing-room-only audience who gathered at the college last week to hear the professor’s first lecture here since he retired in 2005. “Most don’t make it that long.” Fourteen of the tagged elders are dead or down. “We’re losing more every year,” Kudish said.

The woods on every side of the 12-acre grove have been cut at some point. So why do the elders get to die of old age? Stoner guesses that early loggers were unsure of property lines and may have decided to err on the side of caution, leaving a buffer zone. Today the stand is part of the Forest Preserve (a disjointed fragment of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest), where logging is prohibited.

“There are very few places in the East you run into trees that are this big,” says Stoner, who has measured trees all over New York State and the Northeast. With its ferny red-needle floor and the monumental silence of the trees, the grove does feel more like a redwood forest than any Adirondack place I’ve been.

Originally a farm boy from Iowa, Stoner has lived and taught in many places, most recently Troy and Hudson Valley Community College. The nearby Adirondacks led him into a subculture of citizen scientists who study charismatic megaflora.

“I got hooked up with people who were hiking the 46 High Peaks,” he explains. “So I did that, finished both the summer and winter 46, and was sort of looking for something to do. Then was the realization that I had been all over these High Peaks and didn’t really know the forest at all. I couldn’t identify trees.

“So then I linked up with the Eastern Native Tree Society, and the New York Old Growth Forest Association [now-defunct] and Michael Kudish. I wanted to learn this stuff. It was very fascinating. So then I spent 10 years or so pretty seriously measuring trees, most every other weekend, year-round. Instead of hiking every weekend I was out measuring trees someplace.”

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If you go:

There are no trail markers, and the trip entails a short bushwhack, so carry a map and compass or GPS (Latitude 44.431979º N; Longitude 74.221880º W).

Just east of the hamlet of Easy Street (where the speed limit changes from 40 to 55), park by a gated logging road on the south side of Route 86.

Walk in on the logging road to a large clearing. Orient yourself and follow another logging road south out of the clearing. About a quarter mile from Route 86 you come to a power line. Turn left on the power line and walk up the hill about a thousand feet. Fifty yards before the utility pole at the top of the rise, turn south and bushwhack downhill into the woods another thousand or so feet.

You have found the grove when you see large white pines marked on the north side with silver tags above eye level. Tree 101 is the most easterly.

The grove is part of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. The walk to the power line crosses land owned by Paul Smith’s College on which the state holds public recreation rights.

Links:

Author’s April 28, 2012 video, Tree 103, 1675 Grove:

 

Author’s April 28, 2012 video, 1675 Grove:

 

The Grandmother Tree at Pack Forest, Warrensburg

The Wanakena Pine

New Hampshire’s Tamworth Pine

Here is a list of the oldest trees on record in the East, including a 408-year-old white pine in Algonquin Park, Ontario, and a 367-year-old yellow birch in Raquette Lake, New York.

UPDATE: This article was updated to reflect that Michael Kudish, who identified the significance of the white pine stand in the 1970s, prefers to call it the 1675 Grove, because that is the year the pines were established and it avoids confusion with other Adirondack places named Elders Grove.

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