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Hunt for the biggest elm: a footloose horticulture teacher with 200 champion trees to his credit leads a safari into the hills of Old Dominion.

tree what?" That's what my friend Linda Armstrong asked when I suggested we go on a tree hunt.

The explanation seemed complicated for a mission so simple. Byron Carmean is a big-tree hunter, I explained. He's the guy who found an American elm that was bigger than the Kansas champion and everybody in Kansas got all upset about it but then Byron's elm died and now he's looking for another one and somebody from around here called and said he might know where one was and I said I knew about a big one too so why don't you come up sometime and we'll look for it and Byron said how about this weekend and I said fine except I have two friends visiting, can they come along, and he said sure. So do you want to go?

"Sure." What else could she say?

When Byron Carmean arrived at our cabin near Howardsville, Virginia, at 11:30, he'd already traveled four hours from his home in Chesapeake. He had met Warren Miller at Deep Creek, then traveled to Gloucester to meet Miller's son-in-law Jim Owens and grandson Shane. The first tree we would look for was at least another hour away, but long trips are nothing new for Carmean. A high-school horticulture teacher with a penchant for big-tree hunting, Carmean has found 180 state-champion trees and 28 national champs, which are listed in the American Forestry Association's National Register of Big Trees. (And he's sure to be listed along with his most recent finds in AFA's next register, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Big Tree program in 1990.) His travels have taken him over thousands of highway miles, hundreds of river miles, and untold trail miles.

A telephone call from Warren Miller had got this trip off the ground. When Miller read in the newspaper of the death of the national champion elm in Sebrell, Virginia, he called Carmean to tell him about an enormous elm he'd encountered a year earlier on an island in the James River. "It's 150 feet tall," Miller had told Carmean, and had estimated its circumference might be 23 feet. Miller's son-in-law Jim Owens had a cabin near the tree and would be glad to help lead us to it.

The other elm Carmean wanted to check out was one my husband and I had spotted on a canoe trip along the James. We'd been able to get only a rough estimate of its size, but by wrapping a canoe rope around it and measuring the rope later, we'd estimated its circumference at 19 feet. Evidently a picture I'd sent Carmean of the tree had made him think its spread and height, which are combined with girth to come up with a composite big-tree score, might earn it the title of champion.

So we were a hopeful crew as the seven of us hopped into two four-wheel-drive vehicles and set out on our big-tree hunt.

It was logical to head for Warren's elm first. Any 150-foot elm was a potential champion. And if the terrain was any indication, it was plausible that it might have remained hidden to other tree searchers all these years. "Where are we?" my friend and novice tree hunter Barbara Micou kept asking as we drove farther down narrow forest roads.

Finally, at the bottom of the hill and across the railroad tracks and over the footbridge, we reached the elm Warren Miller had led us to see.


Poor Warren. Not only had his elm succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the year since he'd seen it, but also the crown of what he had taken for the elm was that of a white ash growing up and through the canopy of the now-dead elm. The elm had been a grand tree in its prime, no doubt about that, but in the competition among champion trees, grand isn't always good enough. Carmean estimated that the dead elm he'd traveled over 200 miles to see was only 50 feet tall and 17 feet in circumference.

Was he mad? Not this big-tree hunter. Disappointed? Yes, we were all disappointed. But it took little more than finding a tomato plant growing pretty as you please on a rock in the middle of the river to give us all a lift (and three juicy tomatoes).

Now the question was, do we seek out the other elm? It was getting late, but Carmean was all for it.

So after another hour on the road, we were on the property where my elm should be. I'd never approached it from this direction before, but just as I was starting to get anxious, I recognized the tree's familiar outline.

"That's a fine tree," said Byron Carmean, and I felt like a painter who's been told Picasso likes his work.

Then Byron was off measuring the tree and the rest of us were either helping or posing for photos. Several times Byron disappeared into the daisy wingstem as he took the tree's measurements. The farther he drew out his tape measure, the higher grew our hopes.

Carmean, who must have known how our tree's height and girth measurements were shaping up against the other potential champions, said not a word. But we sensed our tree might be looking good, since Byron was trying to figure out how to measure its crown spread-a tricky task. The tree hung at least 30 feet over the river. Sensing the best chance I might ever have to become a hero, I volunteered to wade into the river with the tape measure. Never have cold, wet jeans been more appreciated. "Is that far enough?" I kept asking Byron, who could see the widest-reaching branch of the elm better than I could. I realized that the wetter I got, the larger the tree was. I wish I could have gotten wetter, because our tree turned out to have a combined score of 462 points amassed with totals of 103 feet in height, 128 feet in average crown spread, and 19 feet three inches in girth-or 29 points shy of the score held by another elm in Hanover County, Virginia, that would inherit the Sebrell elm's state title if no finer specimen were found. This time Byron wasn't even disappointed. Such a tree is truly a wonder to behold, and no one as familiar with trees as Byron Carmean could fail to appreciate it.

As we reached our cars, we discovered they both had flat front right tires. What are the chances of that happening? About as good as finding tomatoes growing on river rocks, I guess. So we were about even on good and bad luck for the trip. Unless, of course, you consider the great good fortune of getting to spend a fall day traveling Virginia's byways, exploring its woods and rivers, and scrutinizing one of its finest trees.

n that case, we were way ahead.
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Title Annotation:Byron Carmean
Author:Hugo, Nancy Ross
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1989
Previous Article:Air pollution and forests: an update.
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