What started as a weekend hobby for veteran big tree hunters Byron Carmean and Gary WiIliamson gradually evolved into something more like an obsession.

Having discovered more than 40 national champs, they’ve nominated more trees to the American Forests Champion Trees national register than any other big tree hunters in the history of the program. The pursuit of their obsession has led to a pretty high media profile for the pair, with a front page story in The New York Times, coverage in U.S. News and World Report and a mention on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Big tree hunters Byron Carmean and Gary WiIliamson

Byron Carmean and Gary WiIliamson, the most accomplished big tree hunters in the history of the program.

Byron, a retired biology and horticulture teacher, and Gary, a retired park ranger, have advantages over non-experts when it comes to identifying potential champions. One is being able to accurately identify tree species — whether they are the biggest of the big, like the willow oak, tuliptree or water tupelo — or the biggest of the small, like the Carolina buckthorn.

Another trait necessary to be a successful big tree hunter is the willingness to go anywhere in almost any weather. From their base in central Virginia, the duo heads out by pickup truck, canoe or on foot, and sometimes all three, whether it’s into a swamp shared by all kinds of creatures, friendly and otherwise, or to quail hunting plantations in South Carolina. Byron, who decides on the targets for each trip, says he prefers winter hunting, when the cold ground is solid and you can see so much further through the trees.

Last is having an eye for giants and a nose for the kind of territory they grow in. This has led them to some remote corners of the state and beyond and to helping create the Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve with the discovery of “Big Mama” — a baldcypress that was estimated to be 1,000 years old and, for a time, the biggest known tree in Virginia.

In searching for champions, Byron and Gary had discovered what turned out to be the core of the preserve: 37 acres of virgin, old-growth forest. All the areas around the core had been harvested at least once for timber. But, not the core — a rarity in southeast Virginia, a logging hub for more than 400 years.

American Forests maintains the national register of Champion Trees and works to protect the forests where our champions live.