“Into the Firs” with Mike Kudish, Catskills Forest Historian

(“Into the Firs” appeared as a “Walking Woodstock” column in the August 4, 2011 Woodstock Times.)

Our destination for the day was the dense dark spiky stand of balsam fir trees on Wildcat Mountain that Mike Kudish, the Catskills forest historian, had seen from across the valley on Slide Mountain in early June when the new leaves of the birches, beeches, and other deciduous trees had dressed the rest of the long ridge in chartreuse. Why had he never noticed that fir stand before in his 40 years of hiking in this area, including three previous trips up Wildcat to study bogs? And why was the stand down there of all places, hundreds of feet below typical balsam fir habit on the upper slopes and summits of the Catskills highest peaks? To investigate he invited three of us to join him on a hike in early July.

Now, as a bushwhacker, I’d learned about balsam firs the hard way. On trailless summits they grow in stunted thickets, sometimes mixed with spruce trees, that can be brutal to barge through, as their stiff dead branches stick, poke, and whip at you. One friend of mine even wears ski goggles to protect his eyes. I’d assumed that balsam firs were a northern species limited to high elevations like other boreal species you won’t find at sea level until you reach the coast of Maine. Not so, I’d learned from Mike. Balsam firs could grow in our valleys and once had after the glacial ice sheets retreated twelve thousand years ago. But they’d been invaded by birches and other taller deciduous trees that had stolen their sunlight and left them to the worst growing areas where other trees couldn’t survive, primarily the summits with thin soils and harsh winters that sheath trees in hoarfrost and snow. Balsam firs, you might say, are masters of abuse, dishing it out to bushwhackers like me, but enduring it after losing out to other trees. At least they get their redemption at Christmas, wildly fragrant and dressed up in Christmas lights and childhood memories.

We started up the Slide Mountain trail, passing at one point a patch of trailside shrubbery that Mike identified as an old logging clearing from the early 1960s. To study the history of human use and abuse of the forest, he looks for old woods roads, stone walls left from abandoned pastures, and logging stumps, such as the few we now spot scattered about the forest. Yet oftentimes as he ascends up the mountainsides the stumps stop appearing by the time he reaches the first barrier of exposed bedrock, cliffs that dissuaded the loggers from climber any higher for trees that were smaller and smaller. Everyone knows from old photos and histories that the Catskills were once denuded by pasture farmers and tan barkers stripping the hemlocks, but in his 40 years Mike has mapped more original growth forest—never cut and never burned—that anyone might have expected. He has put the wilderness back into the Catskills.

People who have hiked with him all have Mike Kudish stories. He’s the quirky professor who carries an umbrella for the rain and takes elevation measurements with an old fashioned barometer the size of an alarm clock. He calls his stomach Harvey, and tells you that Harvey likes to eat half a sandwich at 11 and half again at 2. Unlike those of us who shop at EMS or North Face, he wears old street clothes, such as the dark trousers and stripped blue shirt that he had on for our outing. His eyeglass pouch filled his breast pocket along with a sheet of note paper folded tall and narrow like a chopsticks packet. At the trailhead registry, he recalled a forest ranger who always got a laugh from his sign-in entries because he needed five lines to describe his route for the day, while everyone else finished in a word or two.

Yet there’s a method to his madness. For 37 years, he had to capture the attention of Paul Smith’s forestry students in the classroom and in the field in the Adirondacks. Why not try a little comedy? To help them appreciate that trees didn’t always grow according to the illustrations in field guides, he would bend and twist and contort himself to assume the ghoulish shapes that black cherries attain on exposed ledges. Certainly, he’s the teacher I wish I might have had, though I don’t know how he graded. Now retired he has returned to the Catskills to continue his research begun for his graduate thesis in 1971. “I consider myself an old graduate student,” he tells everyone. “After 40 years I still can’t solve my problems.” Despite his modesty, you sense that he’s still having fun.

About a mile up the trail we turned off into the woods for our bushwhack across a shallow valley up to the east end of Wildcat. Immediately, I was reminded of the difference between trail hiking, for which the forest provides scenery, and bushwhacking, which feels like total immersion. As you navigate yourself over, through, and around, you notice so much more. I couldn’t avoid stepping on the club moss that grows like conifer candles on the leafy ground. I saw my biggest tree fungus in years, a brown serving platter. I decided that an especially intriguing stump, which had a carpet crown of green moss above miniature grottoes gracefully scooped from its sides, should be a sculpture at MOMA. I had to stop and say “Wow” to a huge dead yellow birch trunk with a giant round warty burl like an impaled asteroid. Up ahead, Mike and the others reached the first exposed bedrock, mossy cliffs tall enough to accommodate an overhang like a cozy sleeping chamber. Around a corner, they found a shorter scramble up to the top.

After climbing two more smaller bedrock benches we reached flat ground that seemed like the ridge top. But where were the balsam firs? Mike worried aloud. A few stood under the sun dappled birch trees, but not the large dark stand he’d seen from across the valley a month earlier. But I trusted him as an impeccable navigator, even though he hadn’t looked at a map or compass the whole way up. Instead, he relied on the position of the sun for directions, his barometer for elevation readings, and his memorized image of the map for our location. Sure enough, within moments, the advanced scout in our group drawn to the darkness at the back of the sunny green forest announced that he’d found the balsam fir stand.

Not stunted like summit trees, these balsam firs stood twenty to thirty feet tall, easy to walk through, yet clearly in their own world of dimmer light and barer ground, a denuded feeling compared to the deciduous forest with its lively green understory. These trees stood like silent soldiers guarded together in their own shade and uniformity, protected by numbers against the happily chaotic and sunny hardwoods nearby. To say that we were in old growth forest would be true, but wouldn’t be saying much. “The problem with balsam firs is that they’re old when people are old. They live 50 or 60 years, maybe 100, 120 and twenty at most,” Mike explained. At least we’d found them. A mossy boulder in a small opening invited us to drop our daypacks for the 11 am lunch.

Mike pulled out his topographic map, the same one he’s been penciling with discoveries, such as the two bogs farther along the Wildcat ridge, since the late 1960s. His maps and field notes must be one of the most extensive records of the Catskills ever made. He looked around at the trees. This balsam fir stand was almost as large as those up on Slide hundreds of feet higher. At our present elevation of 3,000 feet hemlocks would have been the expected conifer.

“Most people come to the woods to relax. I get headaches,” he said. “I can’t figure out what’s going on here.”

For what didn’t seem like long but turned out to be several hours, we explored the area. Pretty quickly Mike had a tentative theory, namely, that these were glacial till soils too thin for other trees. An exposed layer of humus supporting a small tree on a raised slab wasn’t more than five or six inches deep. Perhaps the glacial ice sheet pushing southwards had climbed up this end of Wildcat and scraped it harder than the rest of the ridge now growing leafy trees in deeper soils.

On the far side of the ridge flat we did find a handful of hemlocks, trees a good 16 to 18 inches in width as measured by Mike’s walking stick which has black bands one foot apart. They were upwards of 200 years old, stalwarts near the top of their growing zone. Then we plunged back into the maze of balsam firs. I paused beside a six footer that lay on the ground like a discarded Christmas tree still holding its needles though now the color of dirty pennies.

“That’s not a Christmas tree,” Mike said. “That’s Abies balsamea subspecies decapitata.”

I laughed. Finally, my years of studying Latin at Greenwich Country Day School had paid off. Beside me stood a balsam fir trunk fifteen feet tall with its top snapped off. Storms take a toll on these softwood trees.

Around a few more corners in the maze Mike stopped and announced, “Wild raisin.” Before us in the small opening grew a profusion of low green shrubs. Mike identified others: mountain holly, pinxter, low bush blueberry. Often they’re found in wetlands, though the ground wasn’t squishy under our feet. But a fallen tree trunk had lifted up its roots like a giant manhole cover to expose black soil that did look damp. Mike was excited. On May 11th, he’d had a revelation, his biggest in years. Until then, he’d believed that balsam fir had once covered all of the Catskills high peaks in the early millennia after the Ice Age. Over time the deciduous forest had chased them off the western high peaks, though they still covered eastern summits like Slide. But suppose the balsam firs had never gotten to the western side? Suppose those mountains had been topped for thousands of years with nothing more than these shrubs? “Much of the Catskills looked like this twelve or ten thousand years ago,” Mike said, indicating the plants at our knees. The maze we’d been roaming was also a time machine.

“How do they taste?” I asked of the wild raisin.

“Not bad,” said Mike. But he was off to investigate what looked like a cinnamon fern.

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