Eli Dickerson, front, leads a tour through Atlanta Memorial Park in a search for champion trees.
Eli Dickerson, front, leads a tour through Atlanta Memorial Park in a search for champion trees.

They weren’t about to let a little rain stop them.

The two dozen adults, three dogs and a 2-year-old had gathered a recent Saturday morning to see trees. Champion trees. A steady drizzle wasn’t enough to slow them down as they hiked through the woods of Atlanta Memorial Park in Buckhead in search of some of the biggest trees in town.

“We’re big plant and tree people,” said Michelle Mabrey, who lives nearby in Collier Hills. She and her husband James joined the tour because they wanted to know more about the trees in the park. “We want to know what’s around us. I thought it would be nice to be able to better identify these historic trees.”

“We love seeing old, massive trees,” James Mabrey said. “It’s one of our favorite things.”

The Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy organized the Saturday morning excursion to show off the park, which includes undeveloped areas, the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center and Bobby Jones Golf Course. It’s the third largest park in the city of Atlanta, the conservancy says, and this hike was intended to introduce the park’s neighbors to some of its special sights, its specimen trees.

This was the conservancy’s first such program, but the response had been strong enough that the group is thinking of scheduling another, said Catherine Spillman, the conservancy’s executive director. Perhaps a Civil War history tour of the park, too, she said.

The conservancy brought in Eli Dickerson, ecologist at Fernbank Forest in DeKalb, to lead the tour. “I’m a tree-hugger,” Dickerson said to introduce himself to the group.

Dickerson used to work for Trees Atlanta and now volunteers with the tree advocacy group to maintain its list of champion trees. To see if a tree belongs on the list, he combines measurements of its circumference, height and canopy. (Google Earth comes in handy when measuring a tree’s canopy, he said.) The largest trees make the list.

One thing that makes Atlanta unusual as a city, he said, is that it’s home to “so many trees and so many kinds of trees.” One of the tallest trees in the city, he said, towers alongside the road into the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center. That tulip poplar rises nearly 17 stories, he said.

Dickerson said he didn’t know much about Atlanta Memorial Park himself until three or four years ago. “I went for a walk and found a lot of tree champions,” he said.

Trey Gibbs and his daughter Katelyn, 2, who live close to the park, were eager to go for a hike and admire the tall trees.

Trey Gibbs was eager to see a few of them. He lives close to the park and regularly brings daughter Katelyn, who’s 2, to the park to play. “She loves this park,” he said. “This is our backyard. We built on a hill and don’t have much yard, so this is where she goes for running around.”

Katelyn, decked out in green rain gear, was eager to get going. “Ready for a hike?” her dad asked. “Yeah, a hike!” she cheered as the group set off across the soaked ground.

Soon they were admiring all sorts of trees: bald cypresses, oaks, birches, ashes, a city champion Osage orange, a city champion Loblolly pine. The conservancy found old news articles showing that back in the 1930s, students from local schools planted several kinds of trees in the park to honor past Atlantans.

Amy Gerome said she walks through the park regularly, but found the tree-hunting hike offered a new way of seeing it. “I do like a nice walk,” Gerome said. “And this is something different.”

The park also was different than Henry Howell remembered from his youth. He grew up on Peachtree Battle Avenue, he said, and as a boy used to ride his bike along the top of the sewer line that runs along the creek. In those days, he said, the park got little attention.

“It was completely overgrown,” he said. “There’s just a huge improvement. Progress is not always good, but this is.”

More changes may be coming soon. The conservancy is proposing an $18 million to $20 million renovation of the park, the tennis center, and the Bobby Jones Golf Course and its clubhouse. About $2 million of that would be for work on the west side of Northside, where the tree hunters concentrated their efforts. Improvements being considered would include fixing up perimeter walkways and interior nature trails, stream and bank restoration to cut back on flooding, and removing invasive plants, Spillman said.

The Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy brought in Eli Dickerson, an ecologist at Fernbank Forest, to lead the tour.

Neighbor Gail Driebe worries about the changes. She joined the Saturday morning tree tour “because I want to know everything about the flood plain.” She thinks the conservancy’s plans to redo the park and add a multipurpose trail through parts of it may make the flooding worse. “We would like to see the park remain natural,” she said.

Others joined in just to take a walk in the woods in the heart of Buckhead on a rainy Saturday and learn something new about the place.

Helen Trivers, who lives on Peachtree, said she sees signs of the wild world all the time in her neighborhood. “I’ve had hummingbirds in my yard,” she said. “I had a red-tailed hawk in my yard. I didn’t know what it was. I called my husband and said, ‘Sweetheart, there’s an eagle on our porch!’”

What brought her out to look at the trees? “I like to keep up,” she said. “I’m an outdoor person.”

After walking through the undeveloped portion of the park, the group gathered at the tennis center to admire the tulip poplar Dickerson had determined was 166 feet tall, making it one of the tallest trees in the city. “It’s super, super tall,” Dickerson said. “It’s a massive, massive tree.”

It started to rain a bit harder, but no one seemed to notice. As a group, they turned up the pathway and headed toward the top of a nearby hill. There was a big, white oak up there they wanted a look at.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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