Bob Leverett craned his neck as he searched for the treetops in the "gallery of giants" along Zoar Valley, straddling Cattaraugus Creek. "The soar of Zoar," he said in amazement.
Leverett, considered by many to be the nation's foremost expert on old-growth forests, was in Western New York during the weekend to determine whether old-growth sites here contain some of the tallest trees in the Northeast. He was not disappointed.
"I never dreamed these things would soar like this," said Leverett, who has measured more than 10,000 trees in the eastern half of the country using a laser range finder, an inclinometer and a calculator. "The canopy of this forest is way above 100 feet."
Try 50 feet above, in some cases. The tallest tree Leverett measured in trips to Reinstein Woods in Cheektowaga, the forest at Lily Dale and Zoar Valley was a 151-foot specimen here that he said was the second-tallest sycamore in the East, and the tallest north of the Smoky Mountains.
The trees here, among them black walnuts, red oaks and poplars, are among the oldest living things in the area. They have avoided the logger's chain saw because of their remote location in an area that many in Western New York have heard about, but few have seen.
Leverett and about two dozen interested parties trekked several miles down into the valley Saturday on a primitive trail and then forded the creek three times to view the behemoths.
"Holy Toledo!" Leverett kept saying as his eye caught a particularly impressive tree. "This place is awesome. It is beyond my expectation."
Indeed, Leverett said he would be "kicking myself all the way back home" for not taking up Bruce Kershner's offer to tour the forests in Western New York sooner.
Kershner, chairman of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society's Western New York Old Growth Forest Survey, said he had been pestering Leverett, based in Chicopee, Mass., to come here for years.
Kershner wanted help in verifying that the area is home to some of the state's oldest, biggest trees. He fears that the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is making a master plan, may allow logging.
"He is an authority that is not questionable," said Kershner, who
also is conservation director of the Buffalo Audubon Society. "We want to be able to document that we have champion trees as well as old-growth forest. They are irreplaceable."
Some are also very valuable. Kershner estimated that one black walnut tree, which Leverett measured at 116 feet tall, would be worth $8,000. One of the hikers, Becky Nystrom of Jamestown, countered, "It is a priceless tree."
Around the corner from Skinny Dip Falls, Leverett found a tulip tree, also known as a yellow poplar, that was 140.2 feet tall. He said it was the tallest such tree he had measured north of New York City.
Other giants included a 130.8-foot red oak that was the tallest he had measured in the Northeast and a 133.1-foot cottonwood that was the tallest he had measured north of the Smoky Mountains.
At Lily Dale, Leverett measured a black cherry tree that was 131.2 feet tall, the second-tallest in the Northeast, in a group that he said was "one of the best stands I've seen for this longitude." He also found a 115-foot-tall cucumber magnolia, the tallest measured in upstate New York.
And at Reinstein on Friday, Leverett found what he termed the largest beech tree in a New York forest. It was 103 feet tall and had a 43-inch diameter.
It might have taken Leverett a while to get to Western New York, but it's unlikely to be his last visit: "I have got to come back."