Dismals Canyon, July 2010

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#1)  Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby Zachary S » Tue Jul 27, 2010 1:21 am

ENTS,

Dismals Canyon is a hidden natural gem, surrounded by mundane farmland in rural Franklin County, Alabama. Within the space of a few dozen vertical feet, the landscape changes from typical oak-hickory woodland to canyon old-growth hemlock and tuliptree.

Though reminiscent of Sipsey Wilderness, this tiny natural wonder holds a distinctive charm that I believe cannot be found anywhere else. This is probably one of the most unique privately-owned places in the world. It also contains a remarkable number of species, both animal and plant - perhaps the most famous species here is the tiny dismalite, found in few places on earth outside of Appalachia and Oceania.

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2008/oct/05/dismals-canyon/

The history and general description of the site can be found at the above page and other locations throughout the Web; truth be told I haven't read up enough on it to detail this amazing place, but I do have a lot of tree information to share from this location. I strongly suggest looking up information on the park's many caves and waterfalls - these features alone are well worth the visit!

The dominant tree species of the canyon include hemlock, tuliptree, sweetgum, beech, and oak; holly, magnolia, and mountain laurel fill the understory. The most impressive tree here, however, is certainly the eastern hemlock. The disjunct population in northwest Alabama produces some fairly hefty specimens, and very healthy trees at that. Adelgid has NOT been reported at any location in the state yet, and numerous hemlock trees are present along certain waterways in valleys throughout northwest parts of the state. The trees in Dismals Canyon are bigger than any other I have measured in the state, but I have only been to a handful of sites containing hemlock. Regardless, the trees present an awesome sight. Dismals Canyon contains what once was Alabama's champion hemlock (The Bankhead NF now contains Alabama's champion) , at 138' tall, 8'9"cbh, and a 50' spread; however, I doubt the height on the tree was ever much over 100', if that much, and I measured other trees in the area with a circumference over a foot thicker. Regardless, one of the big tree's two trunks (connected at the base) was pretty much destroyed in an ice storm a few years back. I believe I found the 'big tree' on the trail, and it appears that the dead trunk has peeled off the tree, leaving a single trunk standing.

PHOTOS


Image
A large (>8.5'cbh) hemlock with a partly dead top and two large reiterations, not far into the trail.

Image
Spreading beech roots cover a bank near the Fishing Hole. Seen in the foreground are remnants of a mill built at Rainbow Falls that was destroyed in a flood in the 1950s.

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Large ancient-looking hemlock with a species name plate. The moss and lichen covering the trunks of the hemlocks evoke images of the Pacific Northwest.

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Another large hemlock right along the main trail.

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A fallen tuliptree and beech become the base of a new creek crossing, under construction when we were there.

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A huge hemlock snag, presumably either victim to an ice storm or destroyed by a falling giant hemlock just uphill.

Image
Image
Image
The hemlock that I presume to be the former Alabama champion. These pictures could easily be mistaken for photos of a Sitka spruce in the Pacific rainforest!

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The splintered base of a large fallen hemlock alongside the tree presumed to be the former champion.

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Very tall sweetgum along the latter part of the trail; 8'7"CBH

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Gnarled old mountain laurel such as these are abundant throughout the Canyon. I would love to know the ages of such individuals!

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Big sweetgum; 10'2"CBH, though two trunks above about 7'

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Rainbow Falls, at the entrance to the canyon.

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View of the canyon from the visitors center and entrance. As can be seen, the canyon is very easy to miss! Hemlocks are visible behind the scraggly pines near the center of the image, and Rainbow Falls lies to the left of the deck. The water in the pool behind it is used as a swimming hole on hot days.


SWEETGUM
8' 7"
10' 2" (Two trunks above ~7')

HEMLOCK
8' 6"
9' 0"
8' 3"
9' 6"
9' 5.5"
9' 9.5"

I'm pretty certain that there are hemlocks in the Canyon over 10'CBH, but some parts of the canyon were not open to the public. The trees in the area are generally not as tall as those in the Sipsey Wilderness, but have comparable trunk diameters, and appear older. Still, the comparative isolation of this site makes it a truly remarkable place; no other valley or gorge in northwest Alabama that I am aware of can compare in any way, though I imagine Little Rivers Canyon in northeast Alabama is beautiful as well. Seeing the massive hemlocks growing along the creek only further increased my concerns of HWA eventually arriving in the state. I do not believe that the isolation of this population will save the trees here from devastation, but I do think that the relatively small number of trees would make treatment less difficult. Unfortunately, the rangers that I have spoken to do not seem particularly concerned at the present time with the threat. One suggested that HWA could not survive in Alabama's high humidity but I doubt that is the case; the only saving grace I see would be the isolated nature of the stands. Also I am not well-versed in the population dynamics of the adelgid - would the adelgid arrive in large numbers to these stands and quickly decimate the area, or would the small number of trees keep the population very low? What happens when they reach the southwesternmost part of hemlock's main range? Would they skip on over to NW AL on planted specimens? I fear these questions will be answered in due time by the sucking bastards, but at least for a little while there is an excellent opportunity to observe mature hemlock stands here in the southern reaches of the Cumberland Plateau. I suggest that anyone wanting to see them should visit soon.

I eagerly await returning to Dismals Canyon later this year, where I will hopefully have more time to measure and photograph!

~Z

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#2)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby edfrank » Tue Jul 27, 2010 3:28 pm

Zac,

I am wondering if the hemlocks were producing cones, and if you found any seedlings of hemlock?  Robert Jetton of Camcore reported that he was having difficulty in gathering seeds from several of these disjuct or isolated hemlock populations because they were not producing cones, or at least were not producing viable seeds.  Also how fat were the mountain laurels?  Maybe you can check on the status of hemlock reporduction when you return the next time.

Ed
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#3)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby Zachary S » Tue Jul 27, 2010 3:54 pm

Ed,

Good question - I can't recall seeing very many hemlock seedlings in Dismals Canyon, if any at all. If I recall properly, though, there were a few trees around a foot around, that wouldn't have been too old. I don't know if the trees there were producing cones, at least not this year, though I didn't think to check. However I know that hemlocks appear to be reproducing fairly well in Bankhead NF, where there are a lot of cone-producing trees and seedlings in scattered pockets. Then again I suspect the Bankhead NF hemlocks have a larger gene pool to draw from, with a larger total area of trees than the tiny population in the Canyon.

Unfortunately I didn't measure the mountain laurels; some appeared to be over 1' CBH, but the huge number of mtn. laurels in the area made it difficult to determine which ones were bigger than the rest. A couple of snapped trunks near the creek that I think could have been mountain laurel were larger than that.

~Z
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#4)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby Marcboston » Tue Jul 27, 2010 4:28 pm

Dismal Canyon is a gem of a place! I love Mt Laurel it is by far my favorite native flowering shrub.
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#5)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby James Parton » Wed Jul 28, 2010 12:20 am

Zac,

Cool post! It looks like a beautiful area. It is nice to see an area of healthy hemlocks. I just hope it stays that way. As far as the humidity having an effect on the adelgid, I doubt it. The Great Smokies are among the wettest and dampest places in the east and the hemlocks there have been decimated by hwa. Dismals Canyon may be hotter though. Does anyone know if heat has any effect on hwa or a combination of heat and humidity? Those little sap-sucking vampires are tough. It takes sustained temperatures zero or below to kill them in winter.

Nice Sweetgums too!

James
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#6)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby greenent22 » Sun Oct 24, 2010 2:35 am

wow, looks like an awesome place

and those mossy hemlocks do look like the PNW

i doubt humidity kills HWA :( if it did, then the Smoky Mtns and basically NJ and on down would be fine, yet again even in NC with the awful, awful humidity they thrive
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#7)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby jamesrobertsmith » Sun Oct 24, 2010 10:29 am

The arrogance of people in charge of forest welfare often stuns me. They don't have the adelgid infestation so they think it can't happen there. Humidity obviously has no effect whatsoever on the insects because they thrive in such environments. The southern Appalachians are among the most humid places on Earth. Highlands NC has one of the highest rainfall totals in North America and the hemlocks there are all dead from hwa.

Since it's private land, the opportunity to sneak onto the property and treat the hemlocks in outlaw fashion is probably too risky to attempt. Unless someone can talk some sense into these folk, the trees are doomed.

The pair of hemlocks in my mother-in-law's back yard produced TONS of cones this year. They do every year. But there has never been a seedling produced in my experience. One year one did pop up and one of her neighbors asked for it and she let him dig it up and re-plant it in his yard. That neighbor moved away, and she doesn't know the folk who bought his place so the fate of that seedling remains a mystery.

Why don't these trees produce seedlings when they produce so many cones?
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#8)  Re: Dismals Canyon, July 2010

Postby edfrank » Sun Oct 24, 2010 12:42 pm

James,

It may be a result of the lack of genetic diversity in certain populations and the result of inbreeding of the species.  There is one decent report about the genetics of teh Eastern Hemlock populations:  http://www.camcore.org/publications/doc ... iation.pdf  It really isn't clear from the document why these specific populations aren't producing more cones.  They haven't changed since the existing trees sprouted, so I don't know why seedlings are uncommon. Maybe they only can only produce viable seeds, or that the seeds produced sprout under certain optimal conditions that aren't present currently.  I don't realy know - just speculating.

Ed

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