Josh Shaffer

A chainsaw turns debris into art, deep in the heart of this state park

Two years ago, a giant oak toppled over deep in Umstead State Park, blocking a popular trail with a trunk thicker than a pirate ship’s mast.

On its side, the tree stretched probably 100 feet long and dated back at least a century, a monster that required heavy equipment just to shove a few feet.

But rather than let this elder of the forest rot, park ranger Jessica Phillips thought up a better plan: Hire a pair of chainsaw artists to make debris into art.

“I wanted to extend the life of that tree,” she said.

The result stands off the side of the Graylyn Multi-Use Trail, a spot reachable only with the help of hiking boots, shock absorbers or a horse.

Turned slightly orange by a coat of Australian timber oil, the old oak features 20 feet of carvings, a tapestry of forest creatures with snouts and ears jutting out of the wood. A pair of herons touch beaks. A family of foxes huddles in a den. A rabbit scurries into hiding.

“They gave me a list of animals,” said Jerry Reid, who owns Smoky Mountain Art in Gatlinburg, Tenn. “They told me they definitely didn’t want any bears or wolves. I could probably have put a skunk in there.”

With his friend Randy Boni, a chainsaw artist from Pennsylvania, Reid transformed the trunk one notch at a time, creating detail down to the bristles in a fox’s tail.

At first, Reid said, they balked at the idea of sculpture in the middle of a forest.

But as they worked over five days in November, they watched hordes of joggers, cyclists and riders pass to admire their work. With 1.3 million visitors in 2015, Umstead ranked as the state’s second-busiest park behind Jordan Lake.

Still, viewing this display requires some sweat.

“We kind of named it the hidden treasure,” Reid said. “You have to get out and enjoy the park to see it.”

The sculpture’s $5,000 price tag came through forest-backer groups and private donations. Soon, Phillips said, it will get lifted off the ground and given a roof to extend its life.

An oak witnesses much in 100 years. To see it, and the art it inspires, is worth a walk.