Carol and Gerry McDonald

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Member Profile: Carol and Gerry McDonald

by Gerry McDonald and Edited by Dorian Hyland

Carol and Gerry grew up in Albany but didn’t meet until a chance hitchhiking encounter in 1980. They married the following year and raised two children, a daughter now residing outside Boston and a son who lives locally. Gerry worked for the NYS Department of Health as a public health environmental specialist for 32 years; he retired in 2011. Carol is currently the vice president of finance for Albany Medical Center hospital.

After fixing up an old starter home purchased in 1982, they bought a small nine acre parcel of land in the Town of Coeymans in rural Albany County in 1988. Gerry was a fledgling woodworker and once he realized the trees on the property could be milled into usable lumber, he moved forward with his hobby in earnest. They built their first house in 1991 and Gerry built all the cabinets and countertops, and made the trim from wood off the property.

In 1995, a 130-acre parcel in nearby Coeymans Hollow went up for sale. Gerry was attracted to the property because of its large parcel size, extensive woodlands, and the potential for a beautiful, accessible building site with a long flat driveway (!) and an affordable price. During 1995 and 1996, Gerry cleared and prepared a building site and they built their dream house in 1997. Again, Gerry finished most of the home’s interior using mostly red oak, maple, and cherry from the land.

The topography is a mix of flat areas separated by steep slopes with shallow soils overlying shale and is transected by numerous stone walls. The east side of the property is comprised of flat, old pasture lands containing stands of white pine with some hardwoods and red cedars. A stand of sugar maples grows near an old bluestone foundation on the first flat. Bluestone from the foundation was repurposed to build the exterior perimeter wall and the fireplace in the new house. After another flat of recolonized farm fields, the top flat of the property is rocky, high and dry, and is stocked with mostly chestnut oak with some white and red oak interspersed. This area has a dense understory of oak saplings that get browsed so heavily that in summer it looks like a 3-foot-high oak-leaf carpet with almost no saplings above a deer’s head height. As the terraces drop off to the west, the tree species change to more hemlock and older growth hardwoods with fewer but larger and older white pine. There are four vernal pools on the property that contain water in all but the driest summer months. Here the sounds of the woodland frogs are enchanting if you can catch them during spring mating time. The terraces drop off in the back to a very steep face of an old bluestone quarry with the old haul road still occasionally used as an ATV trail. The back of the property is bordered by a small canyon through which flows a creek that feeds the Alcove Reservoir, Albany’s water supply.

Soon after purchasing the property, Gerry worked with Gerry Andritz of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation who provided an initial Forest Management Plan. The plan called for heavy thinning in 30 acres of monoculture white pine stands and with some funding assistance from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).Gerry thinned ten acres each in the years 1996 and 2000. The plan also called for an improvement harvest of much of the remaining 100 acres, which was carried out in 1999/2000 with the assistance of a cooperating forester. The harvest of approximately 80,000 bf of oak, white pine, and hemlock provided a network of logging roads which are used to this day. Despite having a forester manage the sale, Gerry had disputes with the loggers who damaged quite a few of the residual oak trees, many of which were subsequently cut and used as firewood.

The McDonald’s acquired a TARM duel stage wood gasification boiler in 2008 and have been heating with mostly wood since. About six cords of mostly oak and hickory have replaced approximately 1,200 gallons of fuel used annually for heating and hot water. Gerry selects and harvests trees in the winter, focusing on removing those with poor form and thus providing a crown release of better trees. He has a Kubota L 2850 4wd tractor with a front plow blade and a 3 point hitch back blade. He plows the logging roads when needed and finds no greater joy than being in the woods on a cold morning dragging a couple of logs chained up to the back. He splits and dries his wood for two years in single rows to maximize drying for maximum performance in the high efficiency wood boiler. When Gerry attended the NYFOA sponsored Game of Logging, it had a huge impact on the way he approaches tree cutting. “It’s amazing how the directional felling techniques take the guesswork out of tree cutting and there’s a much-enhanced focus on safety,” he said.

Gerry and his son, Tom, are avid deer hunters and along with friends harvest several deer from the property every season. Venison is a staple food, especially in winter and spring when the abundance of garden vegetables is sparse. The time they spend in the woods gives them chances to see the other woodland inhabitants including fishers, coyotes, fox, porcupines, pileated woodpeckers, turkeys, various hawks and owls, as well as the numerous red and grey squirrels and chipmunks.

After watching a Ted Talk by Paul Stamets on using oyster mushrooms to detoxify oil contaminated soil, Gerry became intrigued. Soon after Gerry and Carol joined the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association to learn more about these wild mushrooms. Since then they have harvested many pounds of an almost unimaginable variety of delicious, edible mushrooms including chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehogs, lobsters, maitake, porcini, puffballs, pink bottoms, oysters, milkys, and even matsutake. They host an annual club walk on their property every July, and in wet years, participants have collected full baskets of good edible wild mushrooms. Gerry also grows his own shiitake mushrooms on oak cut from the tops of firewood trees and harvests some 20 to 30 pounds throughout the warmer months. Gerry has hosted several shiitake inoculation workshops for the mycology club and for NYFOA members where participants implant inoculated hardwood plugs into freshly cut bolts of mostly oak. He has approximately 40 logs and fruits them twice over the course of the year by soaking the bolts in a 55 gallon drum of water for 24 to 48 hours. Usually within a week of soaking, a harvest of shiitakes is ready to pick!

Gerry says learning about mushrooms has opened up a whole new perspective on how he views the forest. Instead of seeing individual trees, he sees his woods as a super-organism with many varied components that are all interacting with each other. Instead of seeing dead wood on the ground, he sees food that saprophytic fungi decompose, helping enrich forest soils and providing shelter for the many organisms that create the invisible foundation for the forest. He’s amazed at the fact that a tree’s mycorrhizal partners can have 100 times the surface area of the tree’s roots and that the flow of nutrients is a two-way road in which the fungi mycelium provide water and minerals to the tree and the tree provides sugars to the fungus.

Twenty years after thinning successive white pine stands, a new understory of hardwood trees has emerged. One 10 acre stand is dense with mostly sugar maple with some red and white oak and hophornbeam saplings reaching 15 to 25 feet high struggling to chase the light between the remaining white pines. Mostly red maple with some red and white oak is coming up in the other stand. It’s notable that the unsightly mess made by the white pine thinning discouraged deer browsing and allowed for good hardwood regeneration. During a NYFOA woods walk in 2015, a forester recommended cutting the white pine overstory above a couple acres of sugar maple sapling regeneration. That thick young hardwood stand is the future.

Gerry is currently working with the NRCS and a local forester to update the forest management plan. “I can’t wait to see what ideas she has for those white pine stands. I know I’ll personally never benefit from the work I’ve done there, but it’s so satisfying to see the beginnings of what will be some beautiful hardwood stands in 50 or 100 years.” He’s also working on an application for 2021 to perform a young forest initiative on a 5-acre area where most of the trees will be cut leaving a veritable “hurricane zone” intended to exclude deer and larger predators, and simultaneously provide habitat for small animals and birds that require young forests. He’s hopeful this will ultimately result in another stand of quality hardwood saplings.

His advice to other forest owners is to take the Game of Logging course if you haven’t already. “It made a huge difference in the way I approach tree cutting. In addition, hire a forester to manage any timber harvests, and if possible, stipulate penalties for excessive damage to residual trees,” he said. In conclusion, he advises everyone “to use the resources available out there, especially NRCS to help get funding to cover a management plan and other activities where there is funding assistance.”


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