by Mark Rouw

       Iowa is not known for being prime big tree hunting ground, but occasionally something surprising is found. Such is the case for the largest known black ash Fraxinus nigra in the country, which stands near the Mississippi River in Clayton County. I never would have found this tree on my own. With information from two other people, I happened to come across this tree while looking for another big tree. 

   The trail leading to this ash all started several years ago at a Des Moines Audubon Society meeting. I was there to see a program by Jon Stravers. Jon is well known for the important research he has been doing with birds. Recently he has been collecting important data on cerulean warblers. Most of this work has taken place in the Mississippi River flood plain or in the adjacent uplands in northeast Iowa. 

      After the program, I asked Jon if he knew of any exceptionally large trees. He told me about a large red oak that he thought would interest me. When I asked him about the location, he said I should contact Bruce Blair, the district forester in that part of the state. 

       My wife Rita and I were going to be staying in Illinois on vacation for a few days and I decided I would try to see the oak on a day trip from Galena. Our trip was very early in December, so I was hoping the weather wouldn’t be too cold. On the day of our trip the weather wasn’t looking good. Before we reached Dubuque it was snowing and the closer we came to Galena the heavier it snowed. We were hoping it wouldn’t snow too much because we didn’t bring a shovel or even a snow brush, which we would come to regret. 

       We eventually made it to Galena and the next morning we were greeted by about 7 inches of snow on the ground! Cleaning that much snow off of your car with nothing but your gloves is not much fun. I had made arrangements to meet Bruce at his office in Elkader before we would go to the tree. I called Bruce from Dubuque on my way to Elkader. Bruce informed me that because of his work schedule he would be unable to accompany me. However, he did offer to give me precise directions to find the oak if I would come to his office. 

       After looking at some maps and getting directions from Bruce, I was on my way. When I reached the point where I would have to leave the road and turn onto a lane, I was greeted by several signs that made it very clear that I would be entering private property. With much trepidation, I turned down the lane. As I drove south there were several houses at the edge of the bluff to the east, which offered an amazing view of the Mississippi River valley. At about the third house I decided maybe I should let someone know what I was planning to do. I talked to a man who fortunately kept an open mind, and at least he didn’t object to my goal for the afternoon. I continued following the lane with a little more confidence until I reached the point where the lane had not been plowed. There were some tire tracks ahead of me so I followed them for perhaps a ¼ mile until they stopped. I backed off of the lane and parked where the vehicle before me had turned around. By the time I was all bundled up and had all of my gear it was already after 2:00.

 I continued south on foot, following the directions Bruce gave me. After about another ¼ of a mile I came to the north edge of a deep ravine. I passed through an interesting stand of small, contorted chinquapin oaks. The red oak I was looking for was supposed to be a short distance up the slope from the bottom on the other side of the ravine. I couldn’t do much looking though because it was treacherous heading down this steep, rocky slope covered with fresh snow. 

       As I was searching for the big red oak, I walked past the biggest black ash I had ever seen. Further east I found the big red oak which was quite large, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the black ash. I decided to concentrate on the ash and measure the oak if there was time. After completing measurements of the ash it was time for photographs. It was so cold (single digits) my camera didn’t work. It didn’t occur to me to try warming the batteries. 

 I went back to measure the red oak, but I was having trouble finding the highest twig. I had to leave without measurements of the tree I went to measure and no photographs of the prize ash. It must have taken twenty minutes just to get to the top of the ravine. After getting to the small Chinquapin forest I was near the top of the bluff and the worst part of the hike was over. 

 Now I was wondering if I would be able to get my car out of the snow and back to the lane. Before I reached my car I was alarmed to see a pickup truck and a large dog near my car! Was this a land owner that didn’t tolerate trespassers? When I was close to the pickup I finally realized it was the man I talked to earlier. He was just wondering if I was alright. I was able to get out before dark for my drive back to Galena. 

                   I have been back to see the black ash twice since that first visit and I have measured the height each time. My most recent measurements are as follows: circumference 9’3”, height 114’, and crown spread 52.5’. I found the tree on December 6th, 2010 and the tree was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Big Trees April 14th, 2011. The reign of the country’s largest black ash may be cut short though because of the emerald ash borer. The near future looks promising, thanks to the Iowa Arborists Association. If things proceed as expected, the ash will be injected this spring to protect it from the invasive emerald ash borer. Let’s make sure we do everything we can to insure that the national champion black ash remains in Iowa well into the future.