The Green River Gorge is an international kayaking destination that offers something for paddlers of all levels. A group of those kayakers is answering the call to help one integral part of that river system that is under threat: hemlocks.
Eastern hemlocks are considered a foundation species, playing a unique and vital role in structuring ecosystems. According to Margot Wallston, coordinator for the Hemlock Restoration Initiative, certain sections of the Green River Gorge have already seen extensive damage from the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid that feeds on the trees’ sap and starch, disrupting the nutrient processes and eventually killing the trees.
But there are also many trees that are still hanging on, especially the younger trees in the understory, trees that will take the place of “some of the giants that we’ve lost,” she said.
The Hemlock Restoration Initiative has already treated almost 6,000 hemlocks in the Green River Game Lands since the start of 2017, she said, but due to the incredibly steep gorge, many of the threatened trees are only accessible from the water. That’s where kayakers come in.
A crew of experienced paddlers has teamed up and developed a unique protocol to treat hemlocks along the riverbanks, including some of the largest in the area, that would otherwise go untreated. It’s called the Paddlers Hemlock Health Action Taskforce, or PHHAT.
Over the course of five days spread out across the winter of last year and spring of this year, PHHAT treated a total of 427 trees.
A partnership of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the Hemlock Restoration Initiative, American Whitewater and MountainTrue, PHHAT paddlers were recruited from the robust local paddling community. They received intensive training in treatment techniques and safety protocols, and began treating trees in the gorge last winter with a particular chemical treatment in pellet form that allows them to pack it on the kayaks in a double layer of drybags to carry it downriver as they navigate the Green’s tricky waters.
Organizers are hoping to engage recreational paddlers in environmental conservation, getting young folks who value and care about the river for its recreational uses involved in conservation efforts to protect it, said Gray Jernigan, Green Riverkeeper and Mountaintrue’s southern regional director.
They also hope to use the program as a pilot program, ready to be exported to other groups of paddlers operating on other river systems across the region and nation.
The river provides something for everyone, from the Class 1 and 2 rapids for beginner kayakers in the lower gorge to the Class 3 and 4 rapids for intermediate to advanced kayakers.
Then there’s the Green River Narrows, a super-technical Class 5 stretch of whitewater that entices kayakers and pro athletes from all over the world, Jernigan said, most notably every November for the Green River Race.
“It’s really important to protect it for that value,” Jernigan said. “If we let the hemlock woolly adelgid take hold and decimate these trees, it’s going to ruin that resource from the recreational and ecological” perspectives.
The shade from hemlocks keeps a stream cool for its inhabitants, including trout, Hellbenders and the invertebrates they eat, Wallston explained, and the trees help to manage the amount of water in the river.
Big water users, hemlocks are active all year round, unlike deciduous trees. That’s important for managing both the water temperature and the volume of water in the river, she said, influencing the river’s flooding during high-water events.
They keep the banks from eroding and play a big part in cycling nutrients as well as providing habitats for a number of small and large mammals and birds.
Apart from those important jobs, a dead hemlock falling into the river not only creates a hazard for kayakers, it can dam up water. This leads to even worse flooding downstream if a lot of water comes through and breaks it loose during a flood.
So when PHHAT takes to the water, they map out a particular section where they’ll stop and treat trees, Jernigan said. Each tree will be measured to see how much treatment it gets, the pellets buried and the tree tagged to mark that it’s been treated for future trips.
They’re also tracking which trees have been treated with a mapping system, he said. The treatment lasts about five years, after which point they’ll return to the area and reapply the treatment until the trees hopefully weather the devastation threat.
Kayaker Alex Harvey, a member of American Whitewater and one of the Hemlock Restoration Institute’s most active volunteers, reached out to the institute in fall 2016 about doing something in the Green River Gorge, where Harvey owns some land, Wallston said.
That kicked off a conversation that snowballed into the formation of the group, a special and exciting project only possible through those diverse partners, she said.
She also noted the group’s tight relationship with the Wildlife Resources Commission and the state Department of Agriculture, which funds the Hemlock Restoration Initiative in large part.
To learn more about the group or donate to adopt a hemlock, visit paddlersforhemlocks.com.