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Largest known eastern white pine found in the southern Adirondacks

Erik Danielson

The eastern white pine is native to North America and can be found from Newfoundland to the Appalachian mountains. Historically, it’s been heavily logged, so old white pines are rare. But there are a few places in the Adirondack Park where you can find stands of old eastern white pines that are also quite tall.

Earlier this summer, the largest known eastern white pine in the world was recorded in the southern Adirondacks.

The tree, nicknamed “Bigfoot,” is 151 feet tall and over 16 feet in circumference. It was found by Erik Danielson, a tree hunter from western New York.

The niche community of tree hunters

About 10 years ago, Erik Danielson spent a winter housesitting a remote cabin in the Lake Erie snowbelt. He spent his time cutting firewood to stay warm, wood-working, and taking long walks in the woods.

"You know, I've always spent a lot of time out in nature, out in forests," Danielson said. "But I think right at that moment was when I started to really be curious about the trees themselves."

He said it was a pivotal moment in his life.

Danielson now works as a naturalist for the Western New York Land Conservancy. He’s also an avid tree hunter in his free time.

Tree hunting is the act of looking for and measuring trees, especially big ones. It’s a niche community full of scientists, naturalists, outdoor educators, and enthusiasts. They mostly stay connected online, primarily in a group called The Native Tree Society.

Danielson discovered that group after his winter in the woods. "Since it's such a small community, you know, you show up and you're interested and you start doing this stuff, you get a lot of encouragement. And a lot of pointers," he said.

Danielson joined up after his winter in the woods and dove right in. He started tree hunting in western New York, and then began taking trips further afield, including to the Adirondacks. Danielson spent two summers as a teenager in the Adirondack Park and said the area holds a special place in his heart.

Danielson currently has two trees in the New York State Big Tree Register, and he's actually worked to certify trees on the American Forests National Champion Tree list.

How tree hunters look, and finding 'Little Foot' near Lake George

Tree walk through woods and comb historic records for clues. They also use a lot of new, rapidly-advancing technology, like public data from NASA satellites, aerial imagery, and LiDAR, a laser imaging system.

That’s how Danielson virtually discovered a stand of particularly tall white pines last year in a forest northwest of Lake George. The area had been completely logged in the early 19th century. "There were some areas that had a lot of white pine, and it looked pretty good."

His next step was to create a colored canopy model from the satellite data, which estimates tree height using different colors. Danielson said average canopies will have dull colors, while "with taller heights, you get into your bright yellow, bright red, bright blue, bright green."

He said his model of the white stand near Lake George, "just lit up like a Christmas tree full of lights."

Last June, Danielson went to that spot and found what he calls the ‘Little Foot Pine,’ which is the tallest recorded tree in New York. It’s 174 feet and 3 inches tall.

Erik Danielson
Inside the 550-acre white pine stand in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest.

Finding 'Bigfoot' through luck, work, and passion

Finding 'Bigfoot,' the largest eastern white pine that's been recorded, was a less straightforward journey.

It started when Danielson saw a picture on Facebook, in a tree hunting group. "This fellow named Matt Kane posted a photograph of this really large white pine that he was standing next to," said Danielson.

It was in an area between Indian Lake and the Fulton Chain, which is a swath of the Adirondacks Danielson said tree hunters have mostly overlooked in the past. That’s because the western Adirondacks has less sheltered terrain, and windstorms are more likely to fell tall trees. "So it was just kind of on the backburner in my mind," said Danielson.

Then he saw the picture. Danielson said you rarely see white pines larger than about 1,000 cubic feet in volume. But the tree in the picture seemed at least that big.

So he reached out to Kane and started doing computer work using satellite and LiDAR data. All virtual signs pointed towards this area in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest having a lot of tall white pines, that were potentially quite old as well.

Meanwhile, Matt Kane was doing some historical digging and found a 1902 Park Commissioner report.

"And they wrote in this 1902 report about this area of unlogged original pine," Danielson said, "that at that point would have been one of the very last, you know, large tracts of old growth white pine in the Adirondacks."

But there was a catch, he said. There had been a huge windstorm in 1950 called the ‘Big Blow Down.’ It was said to have razed this entire area.

But it looked like they might have stumbled on an old growth stand, of about 550 acres, "that just miraculously had not been completely flattened in the 1950 blowdown," Danielson said.

Erik Danielson

A mossy, huge jungle gym

Danielson took some time off work and hit the road for a six hour drive to the Adirondacks. He said he was especially excited because stands of old growth eastern white pines are pretty rare and pretty small. "They're like 10 acres, 15 acres, 20 acres. So honestly, on my way in there, I was like 'am I really going to find a 550-acre old-growth white pine stand?'"

Danielson arrived on July 6. He started by bushwhacking towards the tallest canopy in his virtual model. Right off the bat, he said he found a huge white pine that was about 13 feet in circumference, and 167 feet tall. Right next to it was another pine, of similar size, and then another.

"It was just this incredibly lush environment," Danielson said. "So there's all these giant white pine logs that are stacked on top of each other, they're covered in moss, there's big boulders everywhere."

He said he quickly understood why this area had survived windstorms for centuries. There was a series of parallel ridges and hollows, full of these tall, wide, and old pines.

"A lot of them, you know, they showed damage to their crowns," Danielson explained. "But they didn't come down, in part because they're in those hollows. But also [because] the soil is full of huge boulders. And where you do see a tree tip up, you'll see its roots are wrapped around great big boulders."

He was surrounded by hundreds of these giant trees, which Danielson believes to be around 300 years old. He said it was incredible "to be seeing all these large stems just going on forever and ever, basically."

550 acres is a lot to explore, and Danielson said it was like playing in a huge, mossy jungle gym. It was often safer to walk on top of the pines that had already fallen. He vividly remembers peeking around a particular ridge, and seeing "the shape of this really large looking trunk through the woods."

Erik Danielson
Erik Danielson next to "Bigfoot."

Finding and measuring 'Bigfoot'

Danielson headed for the big trunk. He said the rest of it initially was obscured by the forest.

"You know, it keeps on getting bigger and keeps on getting bigger," Danielson said. "And I'm starting to realize that I'm further away from it than I think. And I finally get to it. And I immediately know like this could be the largest that I've measured."

He pulled out his tape measure, and the trunk was over 16 feet in circumference (16.39 feet), larger than anything measured before in the Adirondacks.

To get the height, Danielson had to hike up a tall ridge so his tools could get a clear shot. He was surprised and delighted to find it clocked in at 151 feet tall.

"That did mean that it was going to qualify as the New York State Champion white pine tree," he said. The champion tree system is used nationwide to rank trees. It gives points for certain characteristics, like height and girth.

Danielson returned two days later with more special equipment. He also wanted to measure the volume of the tree, because it he’d noticed it didn’t taper much, but stayed thick as it climbed towards the sky. He measured the diameter of the trunk at many points, and was able to calculate that Bigfoot is 1450 cubic feet.

That makes it the largest eastern white pine, by volume, that has been recorded.

The real treasure and point of tree hunting

Danielson said what he really treasures from his 'Bigfoot' experience wasn't finding the tree itself, but getting to enjoy the 550-acre old-growth white pine forest he found it in. "The sheer quantity of like moss and like lichens and liverworts and things like that. The layers and layers of down woody debris and various stages of decay, the way the light comes through!"

Danielson said because of Bigfoot, he’s been getting lots of tips about other trees that he and members of the Native Tree Society want to investigate.

He’s also a part of a tree ring research lab, and has a research project looking for small but old trees in the swamps of western New York.

He said finding champion trees isn’t really the point.

"That's a fun part, but it's not really like the bigger point, which is to you know, document these and sort of take stock of these special natural resources that we have, what they mean what they're doing for us and how to best protect them. You know, it's harder to protect things that you don't know are there."

So Danielson intends to keep looking.

Erik Danielson and a photographer named Brian Kelley are currently working on a book about New York trees. Bigfoot will be featured. Danielson said they’re looking for tree tips, stories, and suggestions. You can email them to newyorktreesearch@gmail.com.