Saturday, August 11, 2012

Red Spruce: Queen of the Adirondacks

There is a well-known story included in the wonderful Adirondack Reader (a collection everyone on the planet should own, in my humble opinion), which happens to be one of my favorite Adirondack tales.  It is a narrative account of the journey of a young teacher and his student on the Raquette River in 1843 when its course was still largely unknown to the white man.  Teacher and student made it as far as they could on a raft until they were stopped by debris clogging the river near approaching rapids.  There on the banks they were come upon by the soon-to-be-famous guide Mitchell Sabattis.   Sabattis and party agreed to guide the young travelers, saving them from their predicament.

The two men needed a proper craft to continue their voyage, so Sabattis and his companions built them a canoe.  They selected a tall conifer with a straight trunk and a diameter of a foot-and-a-half and felled it.  From that trunk they easily spudded off a sheet of bark roughly five by fifteen feet in dimension.  With careful cuts of the outer layer of the bark they folded the whole into a canoe shape, then sowed it in place using the roots of the very same tree as thread.  To seal the threads and make the craft watertight they chewed the sap of this tree and made gum which they pushed into the holes. Thus it was that one tree – a conifer of marvelous qualities – supplied the hull of a canoe that carried four men and their gear down the rapids of the Raquette River.

More than fifty years later, at the very end of the nineteenth century, Wilbur and Orville Wright began a concerted effort to build a powered flying machine that could carry a human being.  After six years of experimentation, innovation and struggle they achieved the first sustained flight in December of 1903.

There were numerous problems facing the Wright Brothers, from mastering basic aerodynamics to designing and driving propellers.  Certainly one of their biggest challenges was weight.  They needed to make the craft light enough so that it had any chance of leaving the ground, yet it had to be strong enough to withstand multiple and complex stresses unprecedented in engineering.  Much investigation and a variety of trials led them inexorably to the light, flexible, wood of this self-same conifer, a wood described by a forest products publication of the time as possessing a tensile strength greater than steel, ounce for ounce.  This particular tree became the go-to wood for almost all of the pioneering aircraft in the dawning of flight.   For the same reasons it was coveted by shipbuilders for decades.

The same tree has been a preferred wood for many musical instruments and soundboards for more than two hundred years, especially guitars, and its perfect musical characteristics have essentially defined the term “tonewood.”  Described as “mythic” in the history of American guitar making, the wood of this tree is prized to this day for making superior guitars and lutes.

Various parts of this essential conifer have been used for centuries for flour, jerky, gum, tea and various healing elixirs and poultices.   It is said by some that the great British explorer Captain James Cook earned his undeserved reputation as the man who defeated scurvy because while exploring the Atlantic coast of Canada he learned from Native Americans how to make beer from the needles of this tree, which harbor excellent quantities of vitamin C.

Were one to have a contest to select the Queen of Adirondack Forests, the tree most emblematic of the park and its history, there would be some marvelous contenders.   Among the nominees would surely be the Eastern White Pine, for example.  Tallest and most impressive of all Adirondack trees, the first targeted for felling to supply masts to the British, an iconic sight along shorelines and the author of an unforgettable canopy should one have the privilege of finding a mature grove, the Eastern White Pine would garner numerous supporters.   Undoubtedly the ubiquitous and exquisite balsam would have many champions.  Its soft branches, canonical shape, high-altitude dominance and most of all its magical scent would make it hard to beat.  Some would vote for the brooding hemlock or the resilient, tough cedar.  Among deciduous trees the sugar maple and yellow birch would be certainly be high on the list.

However, if one gives a fair reading of the ecology and natural and cultural history of the Adirondacks, there is really only one choice for Queen of the Forest: Picea Rubens, the Great Red Spruce.

At Lost Brook Tract we have beautiful trees of several varieties but the red spruces command the scene.  Our favorite, which we named “Basecamp Spruce,” and which I celebrated in a previous Dispatch, has a two foot diameter and a height somewhere on the order of ninety feet.  These numbers are huge for a spruce at our elevation in the Adirondacks.  In the vicinity of our lean-to there are perhaps a dozen similar-sized spruces.  Just below our property line there are two groves that have even taller ones.  I walked up to a red spruce in one of these groves that any casual observer would have first taken for a white pine.  I have not yet measured its height but it is well over a hundred feet, astounding for a tree whose roots hold fast at 3,200 feet in the high Adirondacks.

The dominance of the red spruce on the lower portions of Lost Brook Tract is most noticeable from two vantage points: when standing next a big one, feeling small and hushed, or when standing at Amy’s Lookout with its commanding view.  From there one sees spire after spire of perfectly formed cone-shaped tops bursting dozens of feet up from the lesser canopy of balsams and birches, all of them healthy and vibrant.  For whatever reason – some lucky accident of soil, terrain and wind patterns – the spruces of Lost Brook Tract have weathered acid rain, their particular enemy, without a visible casualty.  I have not seen a single dead spruce crown on the land.

Red spruces are long-lived, often achieving ages of hundreds years.  Our spruces and yellow birches are the principal markers of our primeval forest.  Having been prized by loggers, our giants would not be standing had the logging industry made it to our ridge.  Although red spruce has great utility, including for us, we will never cut one whose diameter exceeds eight inches.  These great trees will live as long as nature allows.

Our lean-to, built decades ago, is made of red spruce.  Though durable and strong, spruce does not hold up against decay as well as some woods, especially if it is not kept dry.  The lean-to was near collapse when we first saw it, the roof caved in and the walls teetering.  We rebuilt it from the proceeds of two trees, one of medium size and one small.  The wood was a joy to work with, the bark easily stripping and the fibers holding spikes fast and strong.  Now our lean-to is rock solid.

We will make our own furniture.  Some may be birch but most will be spruce.  The occasional medium spruce, downed by natural forces, will easily  supply more than enough for a bed frame and a couple of chairs.

A variety of animals make the spruce their home or their food supply.  Bovines ignore it but hares, chipmunks, shrews and squirrels eat seedlings and buds.  Spruce Grouse are called so for a reason: not only are spruces common in their habitat but spruce needles form their winter diet.  Boreal chickadees eat seeds right out of the cones.  At some point Amy and I plan to try our hand at syrup, flour, tea and spruce beer, joining the forest creatures who look to this tree for sustenance.

Spruces were logged heavily throughout the Adirondacks and the giants that once populated lower areas are all but gone.  Being a cornerstone tree in the mountain-conifer forest community, spruces remain numerous in smaller form at higher elevations, mixing with and eventually yielding to the balsams.  Acid rain has taken a horrific toll on these mountain spruces, something every serious High Peaks hiker can see from any summit view.  Of late there has been some recovery as the intensity of acid rain has begun to wane, a happy reversal indeed.

Basecamp spruce greets us every morning as we rise and wash.  It overlooks the area where we cook.  The path to our privy winds nearby and requires a greeting with every visit.  It and our other mature spruces, hundreds of them scattered over Lost Brook Tract and onto State Wilderness, constitute our most precious asset.  Long may they live.

Photo: The trunk of Basecamp Spruce dwarfing its neighbors

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

9 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    Very interesting article. Another local tree with high vitamin C content is the eastern white cedar. In 1534-35 Jacques Cartier and his men, spending the winter near what is now Montreal, were saved from scurvy when the Indians showed them how to make a tea from the leaves of the white cedar. Hence its other name, arborvitae, or tree of life.

  2. Harold Sperazza says:

    Thanks again for a very informative and thoughtful article. Your mention of the Easter White Pines that stand majestically along the shores of so many of the beautiful Adirondack lakes gets my vote as the quintessential Adirondack conifer. My memories of the first kayak trip I made on Lake Lila many years ago are dominated by these impressive trees. Next time out however, I’ll be sure to take closer notice of the Red Spruce. Thanks again for the this great series of articles.

  3. Nice piece. Enjoyed the history interwoven with nature. And it explains the ‘Spruce Goose.’

  4. Wally Elton says:

    Really enjoyed reading this and learned much about the wonderful red spruce. BTW, “rubens” in Picea rubens should not be capitalized.

  5. Phil says:

    While canoeing with Bill Frenette one time, we stopped along the Raquette and he cut some sap from a spruce, handed it to me and asked me to chew it. It chewed just like gum and even turned pinkish. Clarence Petty said back in the day people would collect spruce gum and sell it to stores. He called the gum pickers the hippies of his day.

  6. spruce knee says:

    I don’t believe it was used in ship building except for spars. It wasn’t rot resistant enough for structural or planking pieces. But how could we forget the ribs and stems for that Adirondack icon the guide boat!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Indeed, spruce does not resist rot as well as many woods. Nonetheless spruce was used heavily for several decades in Northeastern shipbuilding, particularly in the Nova Scotia shipbuilding industry. Historical records show that the shipbuilders deliberately accepted reduced longevity of the ships they built in order to take advantage of the great availability of spruce at the time and benefit from its superior strength-to-weight ratio.

  7. spruce knee says:

    P.S. on lighter built boats the trunk wood was also used to fashion the rails oars and paddles, instead of the usual cherry and maple.

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