Donnie Oates, manager of two great parks in Western Maryland, will never forget Hurricane Sandy's ferocious arrival there. On the last two days of October 2012, the storm brought two feet of heavy snow, high winds, thunder and lightning through Garrett County. Epic stuff. Oates had never seen anything like it.
From his house on Maple Glade Road, which leads to Swallow Falls State Park, Oates heard a forest in collapse — trees cracking and popping, trees being uprooted under the weight of the snow, trees hitting the ground and shaking the earth. It went on all night, explosions and thuds and flashes of light.
Swallow Falls, one of the two parks Oates manages — the other is nearby Herrington Manor — is famous for its waterfalls and its trees. Before Sandy hit last year, the park had Maryland's oldest grove of eastern hemlock and white pine. Some of the hemlocks were believed to be at least 360 years old — nearly as old as the Maryland colony — a fact that Oates was able to confirm after the big storm.
Half of the trees in Swallow Falls are believed to have been damaged or destroyed during Sandy's onslaught, Oates says.
In the cleanup that followed, he and others counted rings on the old trees, and, indeed, the estimates were accurate. Some of those hemlocks had stood in place during the entire history of the United States. They were spared the ax during the great sweep of timbering in Garrett County, then were made a gift to the state by the Garrett brothers who owned the land.
The hemlocks were there in the summer of 1921, when Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone famously camped by 53-foot Muddy Creek Falls and put the park on the map.
Losses from Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive and deadliest of the 2012 season, are appropriately measured in human life and man-made things. But there is that other toll — from Swallow Falls in Oakland to Central Park in New York City: the demise of arboreal royalty, the old kings and queens of our precious forests, woodlands and parks. Thousands upon thousands of trees were lost throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
Attention must be paid, the sudden death of old-growth pines, hemlocks and oaks included in the final tally. They take with them big carbon-capturing power, a huge capacity for stormwater absorption and other environmental benefits.
Oates has been a Maryland park ranger for seven years, and he worked in West Virginia's state parks for 14 years before that. With his house right on the edge of Swallow Falls, he had a front-row seat for Sandy's destruction. He and his family went without electrical power for a more than a week. Because of the tree fall, it took a couple of days to get the roads into Swallow Falls open again.
The cleanup was a huge job. Staffers from three branches of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources put in more than 3,000 hours to get the park reopened by April, Oates says. The popular trails in Swallow Falls were cleared for the camping season, and Oates said the park had more visitors than usual.
When I was there in September, the place was busy, with hikers on the trails and kayakers in the Youghiogheny River below. But with so many huge tree trunks in the undergrowth, and sunlight falling where it had not fallen in centuries — if ever — the park was a little spooky. I felt like I was among battlefield corpses. I should have asked the people around me to pause for a moment of silence.
"I can see my shadow now," Oates says of the loss of canopy from the hemlocks and pines in Swallow Falls. "Sunlight is penetrating portions of the forest floor, and already there's new growth. There are actually dandelions growing near the upper falls; they were never there before. … And maple seedlings already popping up."
Work is still being done in the park, and volunteers are needed on Nov. 12 to help cut, drag and chip brush along what's known as the Canyon Loop Trail.
I asked Oates if there was any plan to haul the fallen hemlocks and pines out of Swallow Falls, to clean up what remains of the park's fallen royalty.
"No," he said. "We'll just leave them there and let nature take its course."