Sheri Shannon, National Big Tree Program Coordinator
Multiple cities, Virginia

Big tree hunters Gary Williamson (left) and Byron Carmean (right) with National Big Tree Program coordinator at the champion laurel oak. Sheri Shannon. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests.
Big tree hunters Gary Williamson (left) and Byron Carmean (right) with National Big Tree Program coordinator at the champion laurel oak. Sheri Shannon. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests.

I arrived at an address I’ve seen on dozens of big tree nominations: the Virginia residence of big tree hunter Byron Carmean. Seeing the stacks of wood, numerous plant and tree species, a chicken coop and a goat named Hatfield reminded me of my grandfather’s farm. I knew I was going to come away from this big tree tour, led by hunting partners Byron and Gary Williamson, with plenty of stories.

The first stop on our trip was to visit the national champion laurel oak. We pulled up in front of John Haggerty’s house and I could see the top of the champ peaking over the roof. I had no idea what to expect as I walked through the living room to get to the backyard, but Byron and Gary were anxious to see my reaction. “Wow!” My jaw dropped and I looked at everyone as if I needed confirmation that this was a big tree. Another big tree hunter had taught me that the first thing you do when introduced to a champion tree is go up and touch the tree. The closer I walked towards the tree, the smaller I felt compared to its enormous size. It was an immediate reminder that, though we see trees every day, we may not always see trees at such a large scale.

Champion willow oak
Champion willow oak. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests

In the course of two days, I visited six national champions and four state champions, most of which were in people’s front and back yards, like the flowering dogwood and cherrybark oak. You would think that we would have to have driven hours across the state to see this many trees, but the trees were all in a concentrated area. There was no way you could miss the willow oak and swamp bay that towered over the owners’ houses, the impressive girth of the yellow-poplar estimated to be 500-600 years old or the overcup oak that sits in the middle of the Blackwater River swamp. One day, once the water recedes, I hope to walk up to the base of the overcup oak.

A professional big tree hunter can spot a stand of oddly shaped sumac trees while driving 60 miles per hour down the highway, make a mental note of their location and come back to check out those trees when it’s not rush hour. With my untrained eye, I tried to absorb as much as I could about where certain trees grow, but I definitely have a long way to go to catch up with these two. Byron, a retired biology and horticulture teacher, and Gary, a retired park ranger, have found more than 45 national champion trees in Virginia and North Carolina.

Champion swamp bay
Champion swamp bay. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests

Both were human GPS systems on our tour, as they navigated around Chesapeake, Suffolk, Newport News and Hampton like they had a map drawn on the palm of their hands. They named every swamp, tributary and river we drove past and the ecological habitats in each area. During this trip, I learned that the two big tree hunters are also walking tree identification guides, even pointing out plants we could eat and their native growing range. At times, I thought they were only speaking Latin the way they referred to every species by its scientific name and not just the common name. But, I was thrilled I finally got to see two of the coolest named trees on the National Register of Big Trees in person — the Hercules-club and devil’s-walking stick!

We spotted wild turkeys, bald eagles and hawks, and even saw the remnants of a beaver’s work on a tree. Byron and Gary are what I would call “snake enthusiasts” and have countless snake stories and a photo album to prove it. Gary’s license plate even alludes to his love for rattlesnakes. As someone who is terrified of snakes, I was elated that it was too cold for them to come out. When they asked how I felt about snakes, I replied “Do you want to see a grown person cry?”

Champion yellow-poplar. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests
Champion yellow-poplar. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests

One of the highlights of my trip was Jean Carmean’s cooking and hospitality.  She offered us sweet tea and didn’t preface it by saying “do you want sweet or unsweetened?” because we all know there’s only one type of tea. We had an amazing dinner after big tree hunting on Friday and a breakfast of champions to get us started early Saturday morning. Byron, Gary and Jean are some of the nicest and most hospitable people I have met. We exchanged stories about our families and hobbies at dinner and I was able to provide insight into the characters, protestors, noise and political vibe I experience living in Washington D.C.

I looked at photo albums of champion trees in front of the fireplace and got a sneak peak of the oversized three-ring binders that hold every nomination they’ve submitted for the past 30 years.  From being on the front page of the New York Times to helping create the Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Area Preserve with the discovery of “Big Mama” — a baldcypress that is the biggest known tree in Virginia —Byron and Gary’s accomplishments are well-documented in organized folders and scrapbooks.

This trip was a perfect example of the dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who devote their time to make big tree programs everywhere successful. Every owner takes pride in their tree and takes steps to maintain its health and increase awareness about the importance of trees. I look forward to canoeing with Byron and Gary to see more champion trees and hope to eat more of Jean’s home cooked meals.

Sheri and champion laurel oak
Sheri with the laurel oak champ. Credit: Sheri Shannon/American Forests