BLACK RIVER PRESERVE, NC (WECT) - The oldest North American trees east of California stand in mostly tranquil, tea-colored water in Bladen County.
Even though the Black River Preserve is less than an hour’s drive from Wilmington, paddling downstream to see 2,000-year-old bald cypress feels like a trip back in time.
In many ways, it is.
David Stahle, a dendrochronologist, professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas, identified the oldest known bald cypress in the world — and the fifth-oldest tree overall, at least 2,624 years old — on Black River property purchased by the Nature Conservancy.
Stahle first visited the Black River area in the 1980′s with retired biologist Julie Moore, and both knew almost immediately they had found something special.
“At the time, I figured there’s 1,000-year-old trees all around you here, which is extraordinarily rare anywhere but California, and Chile too,” said Stahle, who led a group of media members and other interested parties on a kayak or canoe trip to the ancient cypress stand Thursday morning. "It’s very rare worldwide to find trees that are over 1,000 years old.
“We found one in the 80′s that was 1,650 years old.... We thought, ‘That’s pretty good,’ and went on to other work.”
In 2011, one of Stahle’s graduate students wanted to come back to Black River to study the trees, and that’s when the Nature Conservancy’s Angie Carl took Stahle into the heart of the cypress stand.
“It’s like walking into the Cretaceous [Period] because these trees are that old, almost,” Stahle said. “For living, individual trees, these are some of the oldest in the world.”
The trees’ ages are measured using dendrochronology, a scientific method of dating tree rings through samples obtained by twisting a hollow borer into a tree to get a pencil-sized section of the tree’s core. Radiocarbon dating was also used to confirm the ages.
Carl, who began working in the area in 2004, described Thursday as the second-best day of her career. The top-ranked workday stands out much like the oldest trees in the Black River cypress stand.
“This was the best day of my career, the second day I went on the river with Dave (in 2011),” Carl said. “We get on the river and there are four of us in this tiny jon boat. We get out of the boat and start walking through the forest. Dr. Stahle’s getting so excited. He’s like, ‘Angie, Angie, Angie! Count, count, count!’”
“Every 10 minutes, we’d stop and count and he’d go, ‘Those are millennial-age trees! This is the oldest cypress stand in the world!’ ... I’m getting goosebumps this whole day. It was amazing.”
Before embarking on the trip downstream Thursday, Moore recalled her first time seeing the old cypress trees. A friend of hers who worked for the Forest Service drove Moore as close as to the river as an old truck would take them and even before getting out of the truck, Moore said she saw the ancient cypress.
Once they were standing at the river's edge, Moore said they stood there silently and listened to wood ducks make their way to their nest in the hollowed out trees.
“For about 15 minutes, we just stood there,” Moore said. “I’m getting goosebumps right now thinking about it. It was one of those times that you know someone is sharing something with you that’s very important to them, and as it turns out, it’s a very important place.”