Total Pageviews

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Exploring Big Reed Forest Reserve - New England’s Largest Virgin Forest

Those who know me well know I have a penchant for exploring virgin eastern deciduous forests (i.e. my posts on virgin forests of the Smoky Mountains, White Mountains, and Adirondacks). They paint a picture of what America looked like prior to European settlement and, to me, there is nothing that peaks my imagination more. Rampant forest clearing in the 19th century has made virgin forests (forests that were never logged) so sparse that not even all forest communities are represented in such a way anymore. Thankfully, Big Reed Forest Rereserve in Piscataquis county (Abanaki word meaning "at branch of river"), owned by The Nature Conservancy, was protected and exists in northern Maine some 38 miles away from the nearest town. It occurs in the center of a heavily logged forest where the majority of visitors are loggers and bear hunters, reachable only via 50 miles of unpaved logging roads or by float plane. This relatively small 98 acre kettle pond is unique for having arctic grayling, arctic char and blue-black trout - a species only known to 14 Maine water bodies. Although I love fishing, I left my fishing gear behind; on this day, I was after New England's largest contiguous virgin forest (5,000 acres) across the pond, which makes up two-thirds of New England's old growth.

It began at 3am when I left the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket owned and operated by Paul Sanders or "Ole Man" - his trail name. The lodge was filled with Appalachian Trail thru hikers who were about to summit Katahdin to finish their long journey from Georgia. I headed north three hours on unpaved dirt roads where the occasional logging truck flew by. My sense of awe grew as the sun came over the rolling hills filled with the most brilliant peak foliage imaginable.

After 80 miles of driving, the road took me to a laminated The Nature Conservancy (TNC) sign that read, "Recreational boat storage at Big Reed Pond is not allowed. . . Please use complementary canoe that is stored at the end of trail." It was an exhilarating and comforting feeling being so far away from civilization knowing that only a handful of people know about this place, and that I have arrived. I couldn't wait to explore.

I grabbed my paddle and headed down the lightly maintained path until I reached a Big Reed Forest Reserve sign overlooking the crystal clear pond. What a sight to see!

I couldn't have asked for better mid-October weather with 61 degrees, sunny and light breeze. I hopped in an aluminum canoe courtesy of TNC and paddled all along the pond's edge. I saw fish surfacing, dragonflies buzzing, whirligig beetles haphazardly moving on the water's surface. The foliage was as bright as could be in the surrounding hillsides, and white cedar, tall white pine and red spruce lined the pond's edge. Nature was the only sound I could hear.

I landed the canoe along the northern edge of the pond and headed north slowly admiring the forest until I reached the logging road 3/4 of a mile away. I was greeted with a gradient of forest types from towering red spruce-white pine, mixed woods dominated by sugar maple and yellow birch, and ancient white cedar forests. On the south facing slope of a moraine with Telos-Chesuncook-Ragmuff association soils, I encountered this mixed woods scene.

Having visited several virgin forests throughout the country, I knew to expect characteristics that, when taken together, are are common to virgin forests in America. For example, most virgin forests seem to all have tall, straight trees of uneven ages with exception to alpine zones. Whole trees are snapped like toothpicks by wind creating forest gaps for other trees to regenerate.

Virgin forests also have a high abundance of downed trees that have fallen over naturally. Here, they were strewn everywhere and often times stacked on top of each other like lincoln logs. As ecologists, we call this coarse woody debris - a crucial part of a high functioning forest system.

Trees were completely uprooted in many areas causing tip-up mounds - another characteristic of virgin forests. Over time, a forest floor will exhibit an uneven surface creating micro topography and niches for many species. Tip-up mounds are very prevalent in this forest perhaps because of having low topographical relief (thus, no protection from strong winds). Notice the sugar maple in the background. They are straight as an arrow and over likely over 150 feet tall. A researcher found some around 400 years old!

As trees die of old age or snap from the force of microburst winds, they begin the slow process of decaying, becoming homes and food sources for wildlife. Pileated woodpeckers have gone to town on this tree looking for insects. Eventually, wildlife species will utilize the cavities for homes if they haven't already.

Over time, coarse woody debris covers the forest floor at various levels of decomposition. Moss, lichens and fungi first move in. Moss retains water - the universal solvent - on the log like a sponge; the fungi and lichens decompose it. As this happens, nutrients are released providing a perfect place for seedlings to grow. We ecologists call these nurse logs. Nurse logs are another common trait in American forests from coast to coast.

Although we can expect certain characteristics in any true American virgin forest, there are also unique features that differ from forest to forest. These nuances are what capture my interest the most: the diversity of tree species, wildflowers, anthropocentric pressures, wildlife dynamics, size of trees and other facets that differ across the country with changing latitude and longitude. 

Big Reed Forest Preserve has a tree canopy consisting of late-successional northern hardwoods tree species. Northern hardwoods is a broad forest community that forms a tension zone between the oak-hickory forest to the south and boreal forest to the north, so there is a healthy mix of deciduous and evergreen species. Another virgin forest somewhat nearby is The Bowl Research Center in the white mountains, NH. There, similar species are present except for such large white cedars and hop hornbeam and that forest is protected from wind by Mount Passaconway and Whiteface while this site displays evidence of a lot of wind disturbance. Thus, even in virgin forests of the same general community type, there are many subtle differences based on species ranges, soils, climate, herbivory, ect. I was pleasantly surprised to see such large and tall deciduous trees so far north.


Take this towering sugar maple for example. In a virgin forest with topography, you can leave your compass at home. The moss clings to the northeastern side of the tree where it exhibits cool, damp conditions longest throughout the day. On southwest facing slopes, the leaves are crunchier and species composition differs. For example, here, the sugar maples were the biggest I had encountered. Sugar maples are shade tolerant and depend on forest gaps to be released. they can be suppressed for years in the understory before shooting up quickly. Foresters and ecologists call this "advanced regeneration."

Yellow birch is similar in that they exhibit an intermediate tolerance to shade. Thus, they flourish in forests that have sporadic disturbances and canopy openings, but can also do well in shade. As you can see, this forest seems to have a lot of sugar maples at the seedling level and not in the sapling level - we'll get into that later.

The red spruce are large and straight but not as large as they could be thanks to the eastern spruce budworm. They are as big as those I encountered in a virgin forest at 5 ponds wilderness in the Adirondacks, which are not very large relative to some hardwoods on this site. The budworm is native to North America and has devastated balsam fir as well. 

The white cedars here are very large and old. Cedar are slow growing. Groves here congregate around water, whether on the edge of Big Reed Pond or along seeps.

One of the most unique traits of this particular forest is the abundance of very large and old hop hornbeam trees. A researcher recorded one in this vicinity at around 289 years old! This tree grew tall and straight reaching the sub canopy. In all my time in a forest, I've never encountered such large hornbeams, which provide some of the toughest wood in eastern North America. You would be hardpressed to find this species large and old enough to form buttressed roots anywhere else in the country.

Virgin forests consist of more than just trees. Lichens, mosses, fungi and herbaceous plants were all around and in high diversity. I've never seen so many tree lungwort lichens. Look how big and vibrant this one is! 

The most striking trait of this forest was the sheer abundance and amount of fungal species. They were nearly everywhere, and that's only for species seen above ground. I can only imagine the diversity in mycorrhizal fungi clinging to plant roots. The coarse woody debris, untouched soils, and moisture held below the canopy all aid in fungal diversity. This mushroom is called "honey mushroom," a devastating parasite of trees that forms white rot. However, like eastern spruce budworm, this species is native and has been around for thousands of years.

They were found on living trees and dead logs including these poisonous jack-o-lanterns, which closely resemble edible chanterelles. This species has been shown to glow in the dark.

But what's with all the sugar maple saplings? And why are they sparse in the sapling level?

As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Moose have increased greatly since the Europeans arrived and hunted their main predator - the grey wolf. Wolves were once abundant throughout much of the country. Today, no wolves or wolf packs exist in the state of Maine. As a result, moose have greatly increased and prefer sugar maple. This forest will see the effects for years to come as less palatable species will gain a competitive advantage over sugar maple. Nancy Sferra, Director of Stewardship and Ecological Management at TNC's Maine chapter, says that moose mortality the past several years is around 70% on yearlings because of winter tick. She hopes for some recovery of vegetation with reduced moose populations.

Another change caused by humans - even in such a remote virgin forest - is the loss of American beech from the canopy due to beech bark disease. The disease was spread by humans from Europe and has decimated the beech population here. However, you can still see some infected saplings and the beech drops plant - a plant that is parasitic the the American beech - feeding on decomposing beech roots below.

As I head out of the forest, I can't help but to take a moment to admire this gem in autumn. 

The tall, old cathedral of trees displayed here nearly as they were prior to European settlement.

As I hopped in the canoe to head back, I admired the old gnarly white cedars. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to experience this wonderful place. Thank you to Robert L. Crowell who donated 1,000 acres of the preserve to The Nature Conservancy to help protect it. May it exist forever as it was intended, and may the effects of humans keep out.

Alas, another dot to connect the puzzle of what America looked like previous to European settlement. After doing my thesis in a hemlock splash community with virgin stands, exploring the virgin stands in the heart of the Adirondacks, white mountains, smoky mountains and now Big Reed Forest Reserve, some characteristics stand out to me. First, all of these had similar traits associated with virgin forests. The composition consisted of late successional species and the structure entailed uneven aged stands with an abundance of coarse woody debris. Nurse logs, tip-up mounds, trees snapped from wind; and tall, straight and old trees dominated. These systems had low to no observed exotic invasive plant species. Nuanced differences from forest to forest pertained to range differences of species. However, perhaps the most glaringly obvious and disheartening observation is that, even in the most remote tracts, the anthropocentric influences are conspicuous. Whether it's higher moose or deer herbivory because of wolf extirpation, competition from invasive plant species, exotic pests and pathogens that have taken the American chestnut, American beech and threaten ash and hemlock - even our most protected vestiges of wild America are diminishing. We need to do all we can to study the common and nuanced differences of such forests before they change.