On the hunt for the oldest tree in Connecticut

 When he’s not seeking out the nature of God, theology student Jack Ruddat is on a quest to solve another great mystery — the identity of the state’s oldest tree.

 When he’s not seeking out the nature of God, theology student Jack Ruddat is on a quest to solve another great mystery — the identity of the state’s oldest tree.

Erik Ofgang

At least 83 years before Columbus set sail for the New World and nearly 200 years before Shakespeare published his first play, a tree began growing in what would several centuries later be known as Goshen, Connecticut. 

The black gum species took root in a boreal swamp, which protected the tree from the farmers, settlers and loggers who would clear most of Connecticut’s forests by the 1800s. More recently it bore silent witness as this out-of-breath journalist followed 24-year-old theology student Jack Ruddat through an ancient forest teeming with life and hiking obstacles. 

“It’s almost like the plants want to guide you away from your destination,” Ruddat said as he doubled back slightly, trying to forge a path through the old forest’s vegetation. Ruddat was joking, but it was still not a comforting thing to hear nearly an hour into a hard, off-trail hike that had taken us far outside cellphone range, and left me thoroughly disoriented and unsure of which direction led back to where we’d parked. However, at that point I had no choice but to follow Ruddat deeper into the ever-darkening woods. 

What is the oldest tree in Connecticut?

Simsbury’s Pinchot Sycamore is often — incorrectly — given this title; it’s thought to be about 200–300 years old. But when I began researching the question for this story, no one seemed to know the answer. Trees in Connecticut tend to be younger than ones you’d find out west such as the sequoias which can live more than 3,000 years, and bristlecone pines which can live more than 4,000 years, possibly as long as 5,000 years. 

I was close to letting my editor know this story was not going to work out when Beth Bernard, director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, told me about Ruddat. In his spare time, the West Hartford resident has, for many years, trekked into the woods hunting for the state’s oldest trees. 

In a 2017 issue of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association’s magazine for members, Ruddat wrote about finding what he then believed to be the oldest tree in the state, an eastern red cedar growing on a cliff at Talcott Mountain State Park in Simsbury. 

Discovered by theology student Jack Ruddat, the oldest known tree in Connecticut so far is an unremarkable-looking black gum in the Northwest Corner.

Discovered by theology student Jack Ruddat, the oldest known tree in Connecticut so far is an unremarkable-looking black gum in the Northwest Corner.

Jack Ruddat

Scientists and enthusiasts such as Ruddat are able to determine the age of a living tree with a tree borer — a tool that allows one to remove a small sample about the width of a pencil from a tree and then count its tree rings under a microscope. 

Ruddat became obsessed with this process at a young age. “I have a certain fascination for old things, particularly living things,” says Ruddat, who is a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and is pursuing his master’s in theology at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell while working for the Colonial Bronze Co. in Torrington. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only kid who cored trees for fun.” 

To find old trees, Ruddat begins by using Google Maps and other mapping tools to look for old-growth forests in hard-to-develop areas of the state including swamps, steep ravines, rocky slopes, and cliffs. The precise definition of old-growth forests is debated, but Ruddat and many others define them as forests in which the majority of canopy trees are at least 150 years old.

Once Ruddat visits an old-growth area, he can usually tell just by looking at the trees which ones are quite old based on subtle signs that vary depending on the tree species. He then tries to core a few of the oldest-looking trees he can find and pins their location in a GPS app that works even when his phone doesn’t have reception. 

In 2016, Ruddat ventured onto the cliff face to gather a core of the red cedar at Talcott Mountain State Park. From that core, he counted about 530 tree rings. But he hadn’t gotten a complete sample, and some rings couldn’t be counted due to fire damage the tree had sustained much earlier in its life. Ruddat’s conservative estimate for the tree was more than 600 years old, though he said it could be younger or older.

Because Ruddat was a hobbyist, and one still in high school at that, he didn’t think anyone would believe he’d found the oldest tree. So he turned to Thomas Worthley, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. Worthley examined the core and counted a similar number of tree rings as Ruddat had. “I feel like his estimate of the age of that particular tree was pretty darn good,” says Worthley, adding that he was equally struck by Ruddat’s passion for the hunt. “I was impressed with his perseverance in searching for these very old, old trees.” 

When I contacted Ruddat in September and asked him to show me the Talcott Mountain State Park tree, he told me we couldn’t hike there because it was too dangerous, but he had found an even older tree, or at least one with more tree rings visible. This tree was at least 617 years old and located in Wildcat Swamp, which is divided between Goshen and Norfolk. I asked him to take me to it. 

As the afternoon shadows lengthened and my tiredness increased, Ruddat paused a few feet in front of me. “That’s the oldest tree in Connecticut,” he said. 

The tree he pointed at was tall and slender, but at first glance little set it apart from the trees around it. However, Ruddat pointed out details that hint at its age. It has patches of very blocky, thick bark, similar to that of an alligator hide. It also has numerous knobs and bumps where branches previously grew and a “stag-headed crown” where most branches are clustered near the top of the tree.

As I observed these signs of age, I thought about how some black gums have been known to live as long as 700 years, and I hoped this tree had at least another century of life. After a time, Ruddat led me out of the forest. 

Sometime later when I got back to my car, I realized that I’d never be able to make my way back to the tree without Ruddat and maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it’s best if this ancient tree stays hidden in the woods and the swamp as it has for six centuries and counting.