The Forester

Adapted from an unfinished journal, during my expedition to Philmont in 2019
When the seed was planted. I will forever be grateful to that forester I met at Philmont.

Eventually, the area greened over, and we arrived at Head of Dean. The staff came out to greet us, and after having us set our pack line by the staff cabin went ahead with the porch talk.

Here at Head of Dean there was only one main activity: the COPE challenge. Specifically it’s a team-building course where you have to work together to complete a set of challenges. This wasn’t the first time I had heard of COPE. I remembered that some of the summer camps in Texas offered a COPE course as well. However, I never knew what they did in depth—I just thought it was some high-intensity obstacle course or something like that.

And then, there was the forester. We were in luck, for, as one of the blackboards on the porch said, Head of Dean had their own forester that could educate crews about forestry in Philmont. I also had little idea what forestry was. Weren’t they those people who did conservation in the forest—managing sustainable logging and starting controlled burns to clear out brush?

Honestly, neither of these I was at first particularly excited for. Nonetheless, it’s Philmont, so these were things I probably weren’t going to do often. So you know, why not?

We set up camp on a slanted campground situated on a hill, which meant that we were going to have to sleep with some problems. Gravity would cause you to lean towards the area that was slanted further down, which makes things a bit uncomfortable when sleeping in the backcountry. Usually I pitched my tent with our feet facing the bottom of the hill, because that would keep me or my tentmate from leaning over the other. But that also meant that I would keep sliding down towards my feet, so I still had problems.

(Philmont flat, as they call it)

The forester was at our campsite when we were setting up so that he could talk to us while we ate lunch. Since this was the lunch that we traded out during Dean Skyline, we had to cook it on the stove, which took more time that just opening meal bags, but we had plenty of time to spare. The cooked meal that was supposed to be on day two was a hearty pot of beef stroganoff, which was filled into everyone’s bowls or cups. As we sat around the fire ring and ate our lunch, the forester began to talk. He started by showing us five or so different photos of the same patch of forest. I think the first photo was dated around the late 1800s, showing a group of ponderosa pine trees on the bare needle-covered ground. The next few photos showed how the patch of forest evolved. One of the photos showed much of the pines removed from logging. However, as the time passed within the photos, new brush began to grow from the ground, slowly making the forest denser and denser. By the time we reached near present day, it was nearly impossible to see the ground because of all the brush covering the ground.

There was one main reason for this buildup of brush: fire suppression.

When settlers began moving into the area, fire became a serious danger to them, destroying their settlements and killing people. Before, it was hard to suppress fires, because it took a long time for firemen to reach the fire, and extinguish it. Firemen would have to create a fire line, which was a line that was cleared of brush and flammable material to stop the fire from spreading further. but as technology improved, there were newer, more effective ways to douse fire—better gear, roads for faster transportation, dropping water on top of them with planes. Fires were quickly suppressed before they gained a large hold on the forest.

However, this created another problem. Fire normally helps clear out the lower brush in a forest, which helps add nutrients back into the soil and keep things “organized.” If you can’t throw your brushy trash away, just burn it to the ground, right? Normally the pine trees would be expected to burn too, but pine trees actually self-prune themselves by cutting off sap flow to their lower branches and leaving those to die; basically like cutting off your arm by strangling it with a tourniquet. Pine trees do this so that they keep their more flammable branches off the ground and away from brushfires. And because of their thick bark and sap, the pine trunks don’t catch as easily as the surrounding brush. Nature really nailed their adaptations with pine trees. The forester explained that as fires became less commonplace, new plants and brush began to crowd out the forest, growing unchecked by fire.

The forester pointed to a chubby, light needled, Christmas-tree-like conifer nearby. This was a white fir tree. Normally it grew at higher elevations, but due to fire suppression spread down to here. And unlike the pine trees around it, its branches grews straight from the ground up. Of course up in colder climates and higher elevations fire was less of a thing, so there was no need to kill off your lower branches. Which also meant if that thing caught on fire, guess which branches it was going to spread to?
Once the fire spread to the branches of the pine trees, it could easily spread from tree to tree. So the firs, along with other brush, made up a giant tinderbox of a forest. Think of a bit of oil dripping slowly into a bucket until it’s overflowing the brim, ready to be ignited with one spark. Which happened in the Ute Park Fire.


The consequences were devastating. Many acres of forest were burned down before the fire was contained, and Philmont was literally burned through the middle. With such a mass of wood and flammable material, the fire burned like a giant fireball through the forest. It was a disaster.
After the fire, the forester explained how to prevent such a fire again, they began to clear out the lower brush and some trees. He pointed out a few trees in our campground; they were marked with blue graffiti. These were going to be cut down to make the forest less crowded. Much of the wood would be sold and shipped out of Philmont to be manufactured or processed. This was also why Philmont encouraged crews to build fires to help get rid of the excess of flammable material.

When the forester was finished, I gave him a few questions on tree identification. The talk about pine trees and firs reminded me of some species that I learned about many years ago at a few national parks during a road trip. So I asked about the difference between a ponderosa pine and a lodgepole pine. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was along these lines.

“Well, the main difference is that the ponderosa pine groups its needles in groups of three.” He picked up a grouping of needles on the ground to show me. “Lodgepole pines have their needles in groups of two. Lodgpole pines also grow at higher elevations than ponderosas, so you won’t find any down here. Lodgepoles also have shorter needles, only one or two centimeters long.”

This fascinated me, and I continued to ask more things to fill up my conifer identification knowledge. I also learned the difference between white fir and douglas-fir. Mainly, white fir’s cones dissolved on the ground, so there were none at the bottom of a white fir tree, but on a douglas fir, the cones would be on the ground and have these little hairs or “mousetails” sticking in them.

A Doug Fir. Not from the trip. I was still plant-blind then.

(I later learned that Douglas-fir is not a true fir. I don't remember whether he told me this)

But the thing that intrigued me the most was probably the answer he gave when I asked the difference between a spruce and fir tree.

“The best way to figure out whether a tree is a fir or a spruce is to *shake hands with it*. If you shake the hands of a fir tree, you’re going to get blood pricks all over your hand, because spruce needles are very sharp. But those of a fir tree are soft and more flexible, so they won’t hurt your hands.”

You heard that right: you can shake hands with conifer trees to determine what type of tree they are. I quickly put it to the test; I put my hand on the branches of the white fir he pointed to earlier and gave it a nice shake. And surprisingly, it was extraordinarily soft! It was almost like touching cooked spaghetti. At this point, I went absolute tree-maniac and decided I would shake the hands of any nearby trees just to see if they were fir or spruce trees.

Before the forester left, he also gave one last very important piece of information. When someone asked him what kinds of trees he’s seen in Philmont, he briefly mentioned seeing a blue spruce tree.
Hold on, a blue spruce?

According to the forester, blue spruce trees were literally blue. How blue? “It’s not like blue-green, it’s just blue,” he said. “You’ll know it when you find one.”

And so started my obsession to find a blue spruce tree in Philmont. My mind was caught on the thought of finding a beautiful, blue spruce tree in a forest of green pines. Unfortunately, they weren’t the most common tree around, so I would have to watch carefully in my surroundings.

I wrote down an entire key based off of everything I learned from the forester. I didn’t have a pen or pencil, because my only one fell through the floorboards at Indian Writings (poor pen!). So I asked Mr. Shelton for a pen so I could remember what I learned.

When we had finished, I ran around camp for a while shaking hands with every tree I could find and identifying them by their species. Which wasn’t unusual for me. When I was young, I was so obsessed with butterflies that I learned how to identify almost every prominent butterfly in the Central Texas area. Still now I can point out basically every species except for those in the skipper and hairstreak family (which seem small and boring). Only this time, I wasn’t just identifying trees, I was shaking hands with them too. What a change.

This is where the account ended. I later remember being on the trail, reaching out to shake hands with a pine, when I tripped over something and fell flat on the ground. Yes, I was very obsessed with this. After that incident, I was a bit more careful to watch my step.

Posted on November 15, 2022 03:20 AM by arnanthescout arnanthescout


Old observations from that trip in which I figured out the location of the observations. I didn't notice the time stamps were wrong until a year later: they are all corrected now :)

Posted by arnanthescout 4 months ago (Flag)

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