Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest
photograph by Andrew Kornylak

Tulip Poplar • Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

The kiosk at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in western North Carolina welcomes you to “The Primeval Forest.” Admission is free to the 2-mile hike, which leads to an old-growth cove forest. Although its virgin chestnut trees disappeared in the ’30s because of disease, and the woolly adelgid has decimated its great hemlocks, the forest still boasts soaring tulip poplars that dwarf visitors of any size, including Landy Moore.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


Chestnut Oak • Little Scaly Mountain

A light breeze hints at the winds and extreme weather that, combined with thin soil, helps turn these trees into gnarled dwarfs over hundreds of years. The setting inspires members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which owns the environmentally conscious retreat atop 4,200-foot Little Scaly Mountain near Highlands. The UU Church manages the old-growth forest with oversight and restoration assistance from the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


Eastern Hemlock • Highlands

The eastern hemlock has long been the symbol of the deep, dark old-growth forests of the southern Appalachians. With the arrival of the woolly adelgid, a pest not native to North Carolina, in the early 2000s, whole groves of the tree began to disappear. An ongoing United States Forest Service survey of eastern hemlocks documents only the greatest of them. Starting in 2006, the Tsuga Search Project identified 75 “superlative” specimens more than 160 feet tall or exceeding 1,000 cubic feet of wood. One of those, the Cheoah, was treated with an experimental insecticide, as were 12 of its smaller neighbors. Today, the Cheoah is the last living tree from that study. Shown here is the second-largest tree from that grove, now protected and monitored by the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


Fraser Magnolia • China Creek

A Fraser magnolia shows evidence of bears along the China Creek/Upper Thunderhole Trail near Blowing Rock. In 2015, Pisgah National Forest, the National Park Service, and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina combined their efforts and their land to rebuild a historic trail near Blowing Rock. Though the trail is well-built, the full tour is a demanding seven miles. In just under two miles, the trail descends 1,000 feet through an old-growth forest to pristine China Creek. The trail then switchbacks down another 1.5 miles to Upper Thunderhole, a secluded and overgrown plunge pool.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


Longleaf Pine • Southern Pines

Conservation Coordinator Gretchen Coll of The Nature Conservancy stands next to the oldest known longleaf pine — 468 years old — in the Boyd Tract of the Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve near Southern Pines. This region used to be covered by an extensive longleaf pine forest spanning hundreds of miles in every direction. The tree was the source of the prized “heart pine” used for furniture, ships, and floors, as well as a major source of turpentine. Remnants of unlogged longleaf dot the South, but managing these tracts is tricky and expensive. The longleaf needs periodic fire and long-term management to reproduce and thrive.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest

Some 4,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat are managed by prescribed burns at the Walthour-Moss Foundation near Southern Pines. These burns are necessary to maintain this vestige of the great longleaf forest. The result is classic longleaf: charred, fire-resistant trees that find natural spacing among a meadow-like understory. This ecosystem supports rare flora and fauna such as wiregrass and the red-cockaded woodpecker.


Bald Cypress • Three Sisters Swamp

Three Sisters Swamp is the remnant of an ancient bald cypress forest along the Black River, about 35 miles north of Wilmington. The only way in is by boat, and navigating through the twisted channels and man-size cypress knees in low water is more like caving than paddling. Many 1,000-year-old trees grow here. As the oldest remaining cypress forest in the world, it’s a truly primeval place.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest

Below: Somewhere in the Three Sisters Swamp stands the elusive Methuselah Tree. In the 1980s, scientists cored it, tagged it “BLK69,” and estimated that the tree was at least 1,600 years old. But don’t bother looking. The tag has long since fallen off. Now researchers suspect that much older trees exist in the area, specimens that can’t be dated because their cores have rotted out, leaving them hollow but still alive. Seeking shelter from a downpour, The Nature Conservancy’s Zachary West enters a still-growing giant.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


Live Oak • Nags Head

Aaron McCall, The Nature Conservancy’s northeast regional steward, communes with an ancient live oak in an unmarked section of the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. The shelter provided by two dune systems protects the hardwood forest from heavy weather and salt spray, creating ideal conditions for long-lived hardwoods and a mix of evergreens here.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest

Until 2011, when Hurricane Irene leveled it, an iconic live oak grew in the transition zone between brackish marsh and open sound at the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Here at the edge of the preserve, Roanoke Sound is expanding, and the protective marshes are shrinking, threatening this maritime forest, one of the last of its kind on the Outer Banks.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest


American Holly • Nags Head

Red lichen marks smooth areas of bark on an American holly tree, which stands among the pines at the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Two ancient dune systems shelter about 1,200 acres of protected maritime forest here, creating an ecosystem of old-growth hardwoods, freshwater ponds, swamp forests, and brackish marsh systems. Nags Head Woods is one of the three major maritime forests on the Outer Banks.

Photo Essay: Giants of The Forest
 

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Andrew Kornylak is a photographer and filmmaker based in Chapel Hill.