Last week we spent a few precious days at Lost Brook Tract. It was a cool, overcast stretch of weather that reminded me of the Adirondacks of my youth, when impending fall could at any time push and urge its way into lazy August days, into the fading summer.
During nearly all of the time we were on our land the cloud ceiling remained low and Keene Valley enjoyed gray days and rain. But at our lean- to at 3,300 feet we were immersed in the clouds themselves, the daylight hours gloaming, exalting the primeval feel of the forest.
We are accommodated to – though ever awed by – our cathedral of ancient forest giants: red spruces that lift from thick-barked trunks to as much as a hundred feet in the air. At Lost Brook Tract stands of old-growth trees tower and brood as in few other boreal forest communities in the park. To sit among them is for me to feel both old and ageless, all at once. These groves are for patience and contemplation.
We were in our second full day, enjoying lunch at the lean-to. I was reclining against the apron log, a spent hand of cards at my side. There was wood to cut but I lingered in the thick air. The dim understory dripped with moisture; the crowns of the two tallest trees that can be seen from the front of the lean-to were barely visible far above me, vaulting from the deep, tannin-brown duff down slope.
This is my fourth summer at Lost Brook Tract and though I know the land well enough to feel deeply that it is home to me, yet every turn of perspective invites a surprise or some new experience. There I sat, looking out from the lean-to as a hundred times before, the opening beyond the fire ring layered with ferns and low balsams, then young pioneer birches and a lonely mountain ash, then taller balsams and spruces and finally the two lofty coniferous cones, irrationally high above all else, barely defined in the thick cloudscape. It came to me with a sudden gasp, before I had the realization fully formulated. “My God,” I said to myself. “Those aren’t spruces.” That I could have sat there so many times and made such a simple mistake is a testament to the illusionary power of habitual assumption. I suppose my brain simply dismissed out of hand any deeper examination of trees that could only have been tall enough to be spruces.
But they weren’t; they were balsams.
Now I am no tree expert, but a balsam of such size is all but unheard of, much less at 3,300 feet. Flushed with excitement I stepped over to the wall where we keep our tools, grabbed our sighting protractor and measuring tape and heading out into a light rain. There was hardly enough light to see fifty feet in the forest.
I slid and slithered down below the lean-to, easily finding the trunk of the first giant. I set the protractor at 45 degrees and scouted in all directions looking for the promise of a sight line; finding one I anchored the tape measure at the balsam’s base and began to unspool. The earth was saturated and numerous sinks and rills impeded my passage. I stumbled over downed trunks and flailed through thickets, keeping the tape as clear as I could until I had a guess that the protractor might sight the pinnacle of this mighty fir. My first guess was too close but a few adjustments put it dead in the sights. I carefully checked my levels and recorded the length of the tape. The 45-degree protractor angle would give me a first estimate of tree height equal to the length of the tape. This preliminary result sent a thrill through me.
I raced back to the lean-to and sighted the tree from straight on to get its pitch: 3 degrees. For the nerds in the readership, here is a drawing:
Having the baseline and both adjacent angles, the law of sines quickly gave me the estimated height: 84 feet. This was of course subject to error, but I have measured lots of tree heights over the years and I strove to be conservative. This first balsam certainly exceeds eighty feet.
My anticipation to measure the second one is acute. It stands behind the first and to my eyes looks a few feet taller – certainly no shorter. But it is further down slope as well. I did a quick triangulation of the bases and it starts roughly ten feet lower than the other one. Could it exceed ninety feet? I think so.
I invite knowledgeable readers to comment: do you know of any stands of balsams in the park that are especially lofty? I now know our stands a little better, sheltered by Burton’s Peak: dim, lonely, pristine, magical. We return to Lost Brook Tract in the fall. I can hardly stand the wait.
Photograph: Lost Brook Tract, 8/21/14