An Ancient Forest

Giants in the Forest Cathedral ( Fuji S2 Pro, Tokina 28-85mm f2.8)

“An old-growth forest (also termed primary forest, virgin forest, primeval forest, late seral forest, or in Britain, ancient woodland) is a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibits unique ecological features and might be classified as a climax community”


I have always been fascinated by forests. When I was a young boy, growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I remember being drawn to a small patch of “forest” I would encounter on my walk to school.

Now these were safer times, when it was perfectly normal for a 6-year-old to walk unaccompanied 5 or 6 blocks to the parochial school I attended. In my off hours, I would return to the woodland (which my father tells me it was no more than a “copse” of trees) imagining myself as a trapper or hunter in some distant wilderness.

Later, when my dad was done with his medical training, we moved home…back to northeastern Pennsylvania, to Mountaintop. Here there is real forest, and real deer, real trout, real bear. I spent my youth immersed in the outdoor life.

Big Birch on big Rock( Nikon D600, Nikkor 50mm f1.8)

Now, 50 years later, I still spend a good portion of my recreational time, in the ”woods”, hiking, mountain-biking , and cross-country skiing. Over the years I’ve become rather fascinated by forest ecology, and have read quite a bit on the topic.

I am particularly interested in the character of forests that existed prior to European colonization, particularly in my region of the continent. In the intervening centuries, the forests of the eastern US, were gradually denuded, by armies of timber men, converting what were vast expanses of Majestic Pine and Northern Hardwood forest, into the much more scraggly, deciduous forests we have today.

Behind the Back Lake at Nescopeck

But there are places, even in the populated East, where there are pockets of timber that have never known the lumberman’s axe. These are old-growth forests, found in both accessible and inaccessible regions of the eastern US. These wonderful places, are dominated by truly ancient trees, hundreds of feet high, and majestic in a way that  leaves one with a sense of wonder, much like the first European visitors must have experienced as they explored and settled in the forests of 16th century North America .

My own state of Pennsylvania, according to Wikipedia, has 17 old-growth tracts ranging from 26 acres, to almost 4000 acres of ancient forest. I have visited many of these areas throughout the years, as well as several sites in the Adirondack region of New York. It is always a challenge to obtain images from within these magnificent Woodlands, that truly conveys the sense of grandeur one experiences in person.

A stand of Big Trees at Ampersand (Nikon D 600, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

In the eastern United States at least, old-growth forests can look very different from one another. I think of the Hearts Content area, within the Allegheny National Forest in Northwestern Pennsylvania, which had fairly large trees, some deciduous, with a fairly open canopy. There were many deadfalls.  I understand that more recently, there now is dense undergrowth, since measures were implemented to control browsing deer. When I last visited, ferns covered the forest floor.

Old Growth at Heart’s Content(Fuji S2, Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5)

Contrast this with Cooks Forest State Park, 45 minutes south. Here the aptly named “Forest Cathedral” features an unbroken canopy, and minimal growth at the forest floor. White Pine, Hemlocks mix with Oak and Cherry. These are among the largest trees in the East with heights up to one hundred and eighty feet, and tree rings that suggest that they are 250-350 years old. Short of the great redwoods of the Pacific coast, these are among the  largest trees in the country. I have visited this place many times, and am always left with a feeling of reverence for this magnificent woodland.

Snow Shoe Tracks in Cook’s Forest (Fuji S3 Pro, Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5)

The Adirondacks also has significant areas of Old Growth. One such ancient forest tract exists on the flanks of Ampersand Mountain, southwest of the Town of Saranac Lake, in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks. This is readily accessible from state route 3, via the Ampersand Mountain hiking trail.

I visited there earlier this year, carrying in a Gitzo tripod (old growth forests tend to be dark), a Fuji X100s, and my Nikon D 600 with a selection of prime lenses. I shot mostly with the new 50 mm f18G lens.

Trees Down ( Nikon D 600, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

Ampersand’s forests have many attributes of old growth seen elsewhere. Ancient forest by definition, have not been disturbed by humans. So every bit of biomass that grows in the forest stays in the forest. This means that the forest floor is littered with the carcasses of all of the previous giants that have succumbed in the last century or so, to senescence, wind throw, or flame.

In other words, these woods are a mess. It is interesting to imagine how difficult it must have been for the first settlers to traverse these very chaotic conditions, let alone to clear the land and farm.

On The Forest Floor (Nikon D 600, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G

The trees on Ampersand are said to be 300-400 years old, similar in age to those at Cooks Forest. Yet these trees, though stunning in their own right, tend be smaller than on the Pennsylvania sites. I wonder whether the shorter growing season seen in the Adirondacks, soil conditions, and perhaps genetics, might explain this,.

Another characteristic found in old growth is so-called “pit and mound” topology of the forest floor. Wind events can snap the trunk of a diseased tree, but often just push the tree over, exposing the root ball, which in these trees can be 10-15 feet high with a hole where the tree previously stood. Over many decades, the wood decomposes, and the captured soil forms a pile of soil where the root ball lay, hence “pit and mound”. You tend to see this effect on mountainsides and plateau tops, where the trees have little protection from a storm’s wrath.

An Opening in the Canopy (Fujifilm S2 Pro, Nikkor 18-35mm f3.5)

In old growth, the dense canopy protects the soils from erosion. In these old forests, any break in the canopy tends to fill in, as opportunistic saplings embrace the sun and race quickly upward to fill the void. Centuries of October leaf falls deposit a thick coating of soil on rocks and boulders and even tree stumps , where certain smaller trees (particularly birches) tend to get a foothold.

Stilted Birch (Nikon D 600, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

I hiked perhaps 2 miles towards Ampersand Mountain. Here the pitch of the trail kicks up abruptly. I know from previous climbs to the summit that I would need my hiking poles, left in the car, to protect my bum knee from the eventual decent. A light rain began to fall as I turned around and worked my way back to the parking lot.

Without wishing to sound overly dramatic, my visits to the ancient forests tend to be almost spiritual events, connecting me to the true natural history of the continent, and the conditions experienced by those who tamed it.

I am grateful that previous generations chose to protect these places for us to enjoy.

About henrysmithscottage

Henry F.Smith Jr. has been involved in photography for 35 years. He has become well known as a chronicler of the Eastern US landscapes , though his portfolio includes, portrait, event, and "street photography". His work has been displayed in multiple galleries throughout the northeastern US, and is available for sale for use in public and commercial spaces. His book "Pennsylvania Seasons" is available through major booksellers. He is also a writer and editorialist whose work has appeared in a variety of "daily's" in Pennsylvania. "Dr. Smith" is also a Pulmonary and Sleep physician who practices in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He is happily married, with two wonderful children. Inquiries to purchase prints, and for photographic services can be made through:
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5 Responses to An Ancient Forest

  1. Alfred Kukitz says:

    Perhaps our sense of the holy comes from the forest. I know at Jacobsburg Henry’s Wood I get that same reverential feeling.


  2. Pingback: The Wrong Trees: The 1675 Grove in the Adirondacks |

  3. I especially love the photo of Cook’s Forest. It looks magical to me. I would love to see it in person one day. Thank you for posting this virtual trip to the woodlands. -Kate


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