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Swamp Quest.

Searching for big trees amid mosquitos, bear scat, and water up to your chest.

A Forest Service employee smiled when I told him of my plans to hike into Bradwell Bay. The 24,600-acre wilderness area in North Florida's Apalachicola National Forest features two national co-champion Ogeechee tupelo trees (Nyssa ogeche) along with huge slash pine, pond cypress, and swamp tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica var. biflora). Sometimes it also features wet, swampy, almost impenetrable conditions.

"You're a month too late," he assured me. "You'll be swimming in there."

It was early October 2000 and Tropical Storm Helene had hit two weeks before, eliminating drought conditions in a matter of hours. It hadn't rained since the storm and the weather had been warm and sunny; I was hoping that the floodwaters might have subsided. There was only one way to find out.

As I began negotiating the Florida Trail through pine flatwoods in an effort to traverse the three miles to Bradwell's "big tree area," a huge pile of seed-filled hear scat greeted me after going a scant 20 yards. Bradwell Bay and its adjoining areas are one of the last strongholds of the Florida black bear, a threatened subspecies of the American black bear.

Bear signs are everywhere in Bradwell Bay, from fresh footprints to scat to mauled trees, marked by hears to show territorial boundaries. The bears are shy around humans, however. At least, that was my past experience.

Another key component of Bradwell Bay's welcoming committee is the mosquitoes. In fact, I'd wager that Bradwell Bay on that day had more of the pesky critters per square meter than any place north of the Everglades. As I pushed and climbed my way through countless bleached and charred remains of titi trees--testament to intense wildfires that swept through the upland and wetland fringe areas in the summer of 1998--mosquitoes swarmed over my sweaty skin as if I wore a "bite me" sign around my neck. Long-dormant eggs in the once-dry swamps had hatched after the big storm, and the insects were taking advantage of this new, albeit temporary, warm-blooded addition to the food chain.

At the first little dip in the trail, I encountered my first wet obstacle. The water was dark and I couldn't see the bottom, hut since I had often found this area dry or holding maybe 2 or 3 inches of water in the past, I ventured forth. Water was well past my knees after only a few feet. I stopped and stared at the mirror-like corridor before me.

The mosquitoes whined louder. I waved and blew them out of my nose and eyes. I could deal with mosquitoes, black hears, blow-downs, and, quite often, water moccasins, but I knew that if water were this deep along the swamp's perimeter, it would be chest high in the swamp's heart. In other words, swimming conditions. I turned around. There are some places you just don't venture into during high water. Bradwell Bay is one of them.

As I hiked hack to my car, I didn't feel terribly disappointed. After all, the same impenetrability that kept me out had repelled both turn-of-the-century loggers and intense wildfires. It was the swamp's integral self-defense against threats, and one that keeps out hordes of Sunday strollers as well. Bears probably use the Florida Trail through Bradwell Bay more often than people.

Even during relatively dry periods, Bradwell Bay is a challenge. Stepping into small pools of swamp water only 3 or 4 inches deep can result in sinking down past your knees in black muck. It's not exactly quicksand, but it can still suck off a boot. Then there is the swamp itself, where everything seems like a metaphor for struggle. Countless vines weave death grips around trees. Plants and saplings fight to dose openings made by fallen giants. Shadows seem to devour sunlight.

Everything in Bradwell Bay seems to be choking, swallowing, or crowding something else. A human path through the swamp is carved with a machete, although the resulting trail often seems like a feeble attempt at penetrating the hidden blackwater ponds and the massive jungles of titi, smilax, gallberry, cypress, and gum. Except for the orange blazes, a summer's growth can almost obscure the path.

Besides providing a sense of adventure, the major reward for plunging into Bradwell Bay is simply to admire the trees. Many are massive. Delicate shafts of light often slant through the thick overstory, highlighting bright green moss that has wrapped around swollen buttresses of gum and cypress. Dragonflies flit in the air. Unseen birds sing from high above. And a sweet smell, from a source I can never quite ascertain, seems to permeate this perennially damp green place.

In 1993, two national co-champion Ogeechee tupelo trees were verified in Bradwell Bay by Robert Simons, Daniel Ward, Dale Allen, and Gary Hegg. For a species that rarely exceeds 60 feet in height, the tallest of the champions was about 93 feet with a circumference of almost 14 feet. Two other trees nearby were only slightly smaller. The champion tupelos have immense, gnarled bulbous bases--each with hollow sections. Good places for hobbits, it seems.

The area once boasted the Florida state champion slash pine before it was struck by lightning. A state champ pond cypress was discovered in 1983, but, not surprisingly, researchers were unable to locate the tree again 10 years later to update verification. Finding your way into Bradwell Bay off the Florida Trail requires a detailed map, a compass, good fortune, and perhaps, a touch of foolhardiness.

It is likely that the great swamp will continue to boast champion tupelo trees for decades to come. The three largest tupelo-gums in the country are found in the same stand, so if one were struck by lightning, neighboring trees could fill the void. And these swamps are such good fire breaks that the U.S. Forest Service is counting on them to help control prescribed burns in the upland portions of Bradwell Bay without mechanical equipment.

"We've divided up the wilderness area into five burning blocks based on the hardwood swamps as natural fire breaks," says Gary Hegg, sivilculturist with the U.S. Forest Service and one of the chroniclers of the champion trees. "These types of swamps traditionally don't burn. There is very little understory to carry a fire and they are usually wet. That's why they were never logged."

Early loggers were frequently bogged down and frustrated in Bradwell Bay. Remnants of old tram rail lines used to haul timber abruptly end where the big swamp begins.

Hunters poke into Bradwell Bay on occasion, but they are ever wary. The area is named for an early hunter named Bradwell who is said to have wandered lost for several days in the thicket before making his way out, tired but alive. He abandoned his shotgun in the crook of a tree so he wouldn't have to carry it. No one ever found the old gun.

The second part of the swamp's name comes from a little-known definition for bay: "a broad stretch of low land between hills." There are no hills on either side of Bradwell Bay, just higher ground. A change of a few feet, or inches, in

this country can have a profound effect on vegetation and the water table. Topographically, Bradwell Bay has been described as a huge, irregularly shaped saucer, one that easily holds water. Because of its large size and shape--more than 30 square miles--it has been classified as a basin swamp.

At one time, Bradwell Bay was part of an ancient shoreline, perhaps a saltwater bay. Beneath the dense vegetation are layer upon layer of sand, clay, and limestone that were deposited or created by ancient seas. In the northeastern part of the area is a sand ridge supporting turkey oak, sand live oak, wax myrtle, Chapman oak, and longleaf pine. According to noted plant ecologist Andre Clewell, this vegetative mix is normally found on the coast--more than 15 miles away. The sand ridge may be a relic of a Pleistocene seashore.

Tramping through the primeval swamp, you re not thinking of ancient seas or planetary evolution. You're forcing yourself to focus on navigating the terrain--tough with all those big trees to distract you. That's assuming you manage to get into the swamp, a challenge that's part of the lure. Just don't attempt Bradwell Bay after a big storm. AF

Doug Alderson is a freelance writer and photographer near Tallahassee, Florida.


In the old days, a tree's height was determined by a sophisticated process of squinting, guessing, and exaggerating. Today, in the 61st year of the National Register of Big Trees, we no longer accept stories of 600-foot-tall trees, even if they are called giant sequoias. But it's still a challenge to accurately measure trees that are much bigger than we are, that come in a multitude of shapes, and that are found in a wide variety of environments.

In AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Tree formula (circumference in inches + height in feet + 1/4 of average crown spread in feet = total points) the difference between a contender and a co-champion is just 1 inch in circumference, 1 foot in height, or 4 feet in average crown spread. So in the interest of recognizing the true champions, here are some tips to improve your accuracy the next time you want to size up a big one.

When measuring girth, at 4 1/2 feet above the ground, make sure your tape is perpendicular to the axis of the trunk. If the trunk leans, a perfectly horizontal measurement would inflate the tree's girth. If the trunk leans very fast, get out of the way. Make two measurements, starting from opposite sides, and take the average. On a slope, measure 4 1/2 feet above the ground at the slope's midpoint along the base of the tree. If your tree forks below the 4 1/2-foot level, measure the largest single stem at 4 1/2 feet. If your tree forks at the 4 1/2-foot level, the currently acceptable practice is to measure the smallest girth below the fork. In either case, however, AMERICAN FORESTS discourages the nomination of trees that obviously originated as more than one stein.

For crown spread you can measure just two crown diameters (widest and narrowest) for your average, but more is better. A clinometer will ensure that you are directly below the edge of the crown. But in a pinch, pull out your shoelace, weight it with anything heavy (except your clinometer!) and sight along the string.

You'll have to use an indirect method to measure height unless your tree is very small, you are a skilled technical climber, or you have a highly trained squirrel. Foresters, arborists, and serious Big Tree hunters dedicated to accurate heights use clinometers or transits to measure angles; a tape measure or infrared laser rangefinder to measure distances; and scientific calculators and simple trigonometric formulas to crunch the numbers.

If this sounds too expensive and intimidating, try the "stick" method. Take a straight stick and hold it vertically so that it forms a right triangle (top of stick/hand/eye) with the vertical (hand to top of stick) and horizontal (hand to eye) sides equal. Now move to a point level with the base of the tree where, moving nothing hut your eye, you can sight the base of the tree through your hand, and the top of the tree through the top of the stick. At this point the distance from your feet to the base of the tree should approximate the tree's height.

AMERICAN FORESTS accepts measurements by the "stick" method, but if you'd like to try the "expert" method (simple, accurate, and trigonometry-free!), use your phone or computer and contact AMERICAN FORESTS to get the name of your state Big Tree Coordinator. The Eastern Native Tree Society ( may also be able to help. Many ENTS members are Big Tree hunters dedicated to extremely accurate measurements. They have corrected a number of height measurement errors in the National Register of Big Trees including pignut hickory champ whose height was overestimated by 67 feet!

Whether your equipment is low tech or high tech, here are same tips to avoid the pitfalls of height measurement. If your tree leans, or the crown structure is such that the highest twig is not over the base, locate the point on the ground directly beneath the high point. It's easier with a partner, but you can triangulate this point alone by sighting the crown's apex with a compass and marking a line with your tape measure under the tree along the bearing. Repeat this at an angle at least 30 degrees off your first line; the crown high point should be directly above where the two lines intersect. To measure on unlevel ground that slopes more than 10 degrees you'll need to brush up on your trig or resort to the "expert" method. In any case, it's better to take a number of height measurements, throw out the outlying numbers, and average the rest.

Ideally we would compare all trees by volume, but you can imagine the logistical and mathematical difficulties involved, especially for hardwoods. But if the volume can he measured for both contenders, as happened in the case of the General Sherman and General Grant giant sequoias, AMERICAN FORESTS will recognize the volume winner as the champion regardless of its point total.

Perhaps someday we'll have cheap scanners that will give all of a tree's dimensions to 10 decimal places, compare them to an internal database, and show us where it ranks on a graph with other contenders. But I hope not, Measuring trees is an interactive and fun activity full of anticipation and the feeling of discovery. Sure, it's not a perfect process, but I like having a little margin of error. Because I once saw a tree that, I swear, was over 600 feet tall if it was a foot.

Whit Bronaugh
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Title Annotation:ecology of Bradwell Bay, Apalachicola National Forest, Florida
Author:Alderson, Doug
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Wildfire ReLeaf.
Next Article:A Northern Forest Fairy Tale.

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