Hurricane Isabel

A dire weather report put us on alert.  Hurricane Isabel was headed in our direction after cutting a wide swath of destruction through North Carolina and Virginia.

Memories of Hurricane Agnes, which struck here during our first year on the mountain, made me apprehensive.  In June of 1972, days of rain preceding the hurricane had helped to flood the Little Juniata River at the bottom of our mountain.  Water surged over the county bridge, cutting off our access to the outside world.  Our own hollow road had been washed out in many places by torrents of water that had coursed down the steep ravines.  At the base of the mountain, a plugged culvert had sent a wall of water across our road, slicing a five-foot-deep gash in it.

My husband Bruce had been able to repair an old plank bridge that gave us a precarious detour around the culvert area, but it was several days before the river once again flowed safely below the county bridge.

Hurricane Isabel seemed almost benign by comparison, sweeping through here on the evening of September 18 and into the following morning.  The old wooden shutters rattled against our house a few times and gray, vertical sheets of rain moved horizontally across First Field.  But we’ve had more wind and rain during ordinary thunderstorms. We hadn’t even lost our electricity as we had during Hurricane Agnes.  As usual, the pre-storm hype had been more frightening than the hurricane itself.

That afternoon, under still lowering skies, Bruce and I headed down our road in our car.  It had stopped raining, and we had to pick up 20 freshly slaughtered chickens we had ordered from an Amish farmer in the valley.

At first, we encountered only small branches and green leaves torn from trees on the road.  But midway down, a good-sized cucumber magnolia had cracked and splintered across the road.  Bruce sighed and grabbed the chainsaw out from the back of the car where we always carry it.  After ten minutes he had cut up the tree, and we continued on our way.

Not for long, though.  We were suddenly halted by a mature red oak tree that had crashed down and blocked our way with its many large, leafy branches and massive trunk.

“Go get Dave,” I suggested to Bruce.  Our son, after all, lives in the guesthouse and is usually free to help in such emergencies.

“He’s too busy,” Bruce answered and set to.  The maze of branches seemed a forever prospect and, hoping to speed up the process, I started to haul off the small stuff.

Carefully Bruce climbed up the steep, slippery, sodden bank and cut the trunk and bigger branches.  Then he returned to the road to cut more branches.  My back was turned as I dragged off a few more branches, but I heard a quiet, “Well, the fool killer missed me that time.”  I spun around to see blood streaming down Bruce’s face.

“What happened?” I yelled.

A loose branch above had let go and hit him on the head, leaving a two-inch-long gash.”We’re going back and get Dave,” I said and he agreed.  But it meant that he had to back up our narrow, winding gravel road more than half a mile to the forks before he could turn around while his wound continued to bleed.  It was one of the longer rides of my life as I hung out my window guiding him away from the stream edge of the road.  He drove backwards a steady 10 mph until he reached the pull-off near the forks, turned around, and continued the last quarter of a mile to the guesthouse.

Bruce still looked ghastly and admitted that he had almost passed out when the branch hit him.

“You’ve got to help us clear the road,” I told Dave.  One look at his father and he went up to the barn to get the second chainsaw and fill the first one with more gas, while Bruce drove on up to our house to clean his wound.  Luckily it looked worse than it was.

Dave also picked up the two hard hats Bruce keeps on the tractor.  Then down we all went, determined to clear up the tree and make it out to the Amish for those chickens.  This time Dave cut while Bruce dragged off the heavy limbs.  Finally, the way was clear.

We didn’t get much farther down the road before we were stopped by another shattered oak tree.  While the men started cutting and hauling again, Bruce asked me to walk on and find out how many more trees blocked the road.  I climbed under and around the mess, and as I reached the big pull-off, a quarter of a mile from the bottom of the mountain, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I climbed through one snarl of trees and under another, the latter another live cucumber magnolia covered with clumps of fruit.

On I went and encountered a third tangle of fallen trees.  I climbed through that one too.  By then I had reached the last and steepest stretch of the road.  All I could see was tree after tree across the road. Others had been uprooted on the slope above, leaving huge gaps in the forest.  My biggest shock was finding that one of our largest beech trees had been uprooted below the road and fallen across the stream.  I mourned its loss as well as that of the mostly mature oaks–white, black, and red–that had been ripped out of the ground.

Sorrowfully, I turned around and retraced my steps.  When I told Bruce the situation, he said that there was no way we’d get out that day.  Already the large chainsaw was out of gas for the second time.  While Dave stayed down the road, cutting with the smaller chainsaw, Bruce backed up to the forks again.  It had started raining which added to the difficulty of seeing what we were doing as I hung my head out the window to guide Bruce.  When we reached the house, the phone was ringing.  It was the Amishman, wondering when I was coming for the chickens.  He was surprised when I told him our story.  There had been no problem in the valley from the hurricane.

“We can’t get out tonight,” I told him.  I knew that he had no way to refrigerate the chickens, and I promised to send some hunter friends to pick them up.  Luckily, they had just emptied one of their refrigerators and had room for our chickens.

In the meantime, Bruce drove back down to help Dave as the rain came down harder.  Finally, defeated by rain and the sheer volume of trees to be cut, they quit for the night.  Bruce then called our hunter friends again and asked if they could line up others and organize a cutting party for the next morning.Bruce and Dave were off the following day at 8:00 a.m., and by the time I made it down on my mid-morning walk, the road was clear.  Eight hunter friends had made quick work of what was a massive undertaking.

I walked to the bottom of the road with Bruce to see the full extent of the damage.  Even below our signboard welcoming people to the Plummer’s Hollow Private Nature Reserve, a tree–this one a huge black cherry–had fallen.  It seemed hard to believe that so much damage had been done by what had not been much of a storm on top of the mountain.  But one of our hunter friends, who lives at the base of the mountain, told us that during the evening of the hurricane, he had been outside walking his dog and had suddenly heard the cracking of trees on the mountain.  Apparently, one huge gust of wind had swept down the slope and uprooted, altogether, 29 trees across the road.  Looking upslope, though, I could see that many more trees had been torn from the earth.

The next day I headed for the hurricane-damaged area along Ten Springs Trail.  A couple of mature red oaks blocked the end of the trail.  I climbed over them to the Ten Springs Extension Trail and across the one ravine on Sapsucker Ridge that the loggers had not stripped ten years ago.

By then I was above where most of the trees had fallen across the road.  Six large tulip trees had been uprooted across that wild ravine.  I managed to climb beneath their trunks but didn’t get much farther along the trail before my way was blocked by uprooted red and black oaks and branches, so I worked my way down the steep slope to the road, more sorrowful than ever that the most beautiful part of the hollow had been ripped apart by the hurricane.

Altogether, Bruce estimated that five acres had been disturbed, uprooting about 30% of the trees, a majority of which were large red oaks.  “Nature’s way,” he reminded me when I mourned their loss.

I knew that such natural disturbances were important for the overall health of the forest, opening up areas for shade intolerant species to germinate.  I also knew that the jumble of coarse and fine woody debris from the fallen trees would provide nutrients to the soil and protect seedlings from browsing deer.  Furthermore, “tip-up mounds and logs created by windthrow [are] critical micro-sites for regeneration…standing or fallen dead trees…play crucial ecological roles as roosts, habitat for cavity nesting species, substrates for fungi and invertebrates…” according to Alverson, Kuhlmann, and Waller in their groundbreaking Wild Forests: Conservation Biology and Public Policy.

All well and good, but I knew what had happened back in 1981.  A thunderstorm downburst, which is defined as rapidly moving downward currents of air that spread out in a starburst pattern when they hit the ground, took 90% of the trees in a two-acre plot on the far side of the stream around the area of the big pull-off.  Only the few hemlocks remained standing, some with their tops broken off.  Today, the plot is still dominated by the invasive ailanthus trees that migrated up from the railroad right-of-way at the base of the mountain.  Basswood has also taken hold in that area.  In other words, the mixed hemlock/hardwood forest has not returned in any semblance of what it was before the downburst.

Because of where the hurricane hit, directly above the railroad right-of-way, I anticipate more invasive species and little or no germination of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.  Over the years I have watched as invasive species have quickly colonized areas opened up by clear-cut logging or by natural events.  Japanese barberry, ailanthus, multiflora rose, and arbor vitae dominate the clear-cut we bought from our neighbor.  In areas where trees have germinated, they are quickly pruned by the deer.

On the other hand, the hurricane-damaged woods is on a steep slope and we intend to let the trees lie there, hoping that the tangle of trunks and branches and the steepness will discourage the deer and protect whatever sprouts that germinate.  If we are very lucky, some of them will be native trees and shrubs.  But they won’t be the huge, beautiful trees growing there before the storm, not in my lifetime anyway.

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