UAM foresters identify massive ‘mystery tree’ at Pendleton dock

One day last June, David Walt noticed something washed up against the dock and patio of his house on the Pendleton Reservoir near Dumas.

Spring and early summer rains had raised the Arkansas River to flood stage, washing large trees and other debris down the river. Now one of those large trees was lodged against Walt’s dock. As the water gradually receded, it revealed a massive tree trunk longer than his 60-foot dock. Walt tied the tree to his dock and became fascinated by the size of his mystery tree.

After showing the tree to friends, one of them, Fred Williams of Dumas, suggested Walt contact the School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and invite UAM forestry scientists to inspect the tree, identify its species and estimate the amount of board-feet of lumber contained in the tree.

Last week, Dr. Matthew Pelkki, the associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center and a professor in the School of Forestry and Natural Resources, brought a team of three students to Walt’s lake-front home to inspect the tree. Approaching from a boat, Pelkki and his students – Tyler King of Arkansas City, Sam May of Malvern, and Ty Dillion of Lonoke – took measurements, peeled off pieces of bark and used a chain saw to remove wedges of the tree to take back for inspection.

Measuring base circumference
Dr. Matthew Pelkki and his UAM forestry students measure the base circumference of a massive eastern cottonwood tree along the banks of the Arkansas River.

The tree measured more than 75 feet from the root flare to the top of the first fork and had a base circumference of 15 feet, 6 inches. The base diameter was 59 inches with a diameter of 42 inches at the first fork

Pelkki estimated the volume of the log at approximately 858 cubic feet. “At 100 percent moisture content, this log should weigh 17 tons,” said Pelkki. “If left out of the water, eventually the log will stabilize at around 20 percent moisture content and would still weigh 10 tons.”

If sawn into lumber, the log should yield between 4,000 and 6,000 board feet, however, there are no sawmills in Arkansas today and only a few in Western United States that could process such a large tree.

As for the tree’s identity, Pelkki positively identified it as an eastern cottonwood. “Eastern cottonwood trees of this size can still be found in Arkansas,” said Pelkki, “but they are indeed rare. Because there was still some bark found on the tree near the root flare, I suspect that this tree has been in the river less than two or three years.”

Yeiser, Williams and Walt
Dr. Jimmie Yeiser, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UAM, Fred Williams and David Walt hold pieces of bark from an eastern cottonwood tree that washed down the Arkansas River before lodging against Walt’s dock.

Pelkki said the tree will be difficult to age. “Cottonwood, being diffuse and porous, has very faint tree rings,” he explained. “Cottonwood also grows very fast, with trees reaching heights of 120 feet in as little as 30 years. I would expect this tree to be 60 to 80 years old and it was quite likely more than 100 feet in height.”

Pelkki also noted two root flares at the base of the tree, common among bottomland hardwoods. “When this tree was approximately 30 inches in diameter, a large flood deposited some three to four feet of new soil around the tree,” said Pelkki. “The tree responded by putting out roots in the newly deposited soil.”

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