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Finding and Collecting Cottonwood Bark

By Alex Bisso

Part 2 - The Bone Hunt - or What To Look For

Scouting For Collecting Areas

When I go "scouting" for good collecting areas, there are two means of transportation that I use for this activity.  Most often I do my scouting from my Chevy Blazer as I drive the roads or highways – I do not drive anywhere without keeping my eye out for potential collecting sites.  It is always a good idea to take some extra time on a trip to drive off the beaten path to scout for bark.  For example, get off the freeway and drive some local access road sections.  Also take some trips using secondary or state highways or roads even though it might be quite a bit farther and take much longer – getting there can be half the fun and very rewarding.  If a carver planning a vacation that gets them into Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and some other states in this general area would be wise to add a day or so to his or her trip to allow time to do some scouting for bark off the interstate highways.

To get another, and closer, view of the woods along the Yellowstone River, or other rivers, I like to use my canoe to float 3 to 9 mile stretches at a time.  This is always great fun as it allows me to explore the banks and islands, fish, and collect driftwood and rocks as I desire.  If I find a large dead tree or other good source of bark, I try to locate some landmarks that will allow me to find that particular area to collect from my Blazer.  I usually do take a few select pieces of the bark in the canoe as an incentive to get me to hunt down the landowner and seek access to the location.  I also let my friend and people I meet know that I collect large, thick bark for carving, and ask that they let me know if they ever learn of a place where I might collect.  This has paid off a number of times. 


The Tell-tail Signs

There are several tell-tale signs that might suggest an are be more closely explored for potential bark carving. The determined collector should be on the look out for the following clues:


"Bones" are what I call dead trees from which all or most of the bark has fallen off, which results a tree, whether standing or fallen, that stands out from the rest because it is bare and white, like a bleached bone.  "Bones" are the first thing I look for, because regardless of the time of the year, they stand out and indicate that at least one tree in that area is dead, and where there is one, there are probably more.  Also, all of the bark that fell from the tree to create that "bone" has to be somewhere and that somewhere is most likely right around the base of the tree.  Even though most of the bark may be old and weathered, some that is under the tree, or on the more protected side of the tree, or under the bark that is on the surface, or protected by vegetation, might still be very well suited for collection and carving.  In any case, "bones" and areas around them are always worth investigating, as are trees on which some "bones" are showing while other parts of the tree looks fine. 


Several "Bones" trees in the distance (Click all photos for a larger image; close the image to returm)

Standing Dead Trees

Although "bones" are dead trees, not all dead trees have "bones" – and if you can find dead trees that are still covered with bark, you might just have discovered the jackpot for a bark collector.  Standing dead trees which are still covered with bark are very difficult to find in the winter because they cannot be distinguished from live trees that have lost their leaves.  However, while not as easy to spot as the "bones", in the summer and early fall, if you look carefully, dead trees contrast enough with their live neighbors to be noticed.  They are even more noticeable if they stand alone in the middle or edge of a field or are in a row of trees along a ditch line, and not mixed with a lot of other trees in a thickly wooded area.  Dead trees, whether standing or fallen, are always worth investigating, as are trees which have some live areas but appear to be partially dead.

Fallen and Broken Trees

Broken Tree

Fallen and broken trees are always a find that deserves investigation because, if not already dead, they will soon be, and are possibly a source of good bark.  My best source of bark this past summer was from a large double trunk tree that had fallen over on a property where I had collected a lot of bark and have maintained a friendship, including regular visits with the landowner.  

Broken Tree 3Broken Tree 2

Left - Broken Tree - - - Right - Getting Better


Reward! (Click for larger image)

Underbrush and other foliage can make it very difficult to see fallen trees. However, I have found that very often the tops of large dead trees break off leaving a 10 - 25 feet of trunk still standing.  Look for these as they are great finds - not only because of the bark on them but because the part that broke off is also there, hiding in the underbrush.

Fallent Tree 2Fallen Tree 1

I noticed this one because a large trunk of the tree had fallen outward, away from the timbers and landed out in an open, plowed field.  Upon investigation, I found that two other large trunks of the tree had fallen into the timbers.  I had to wait over 2 years for the bark on these trunks to start falling off and be loose enough to remove but this was my boon for 2011, both because of the large amount of bark available and because the location had good access. I missed out on the section that fell into the field because it was chainsawed up into large 4" to 6" thick disks which were then thrown over the fence along the edge of the field.

Fallen Tree 1

Fallen Tree 2


Very large trees

While not all very large trees have thick, wide bark and while some trees that are not very large in diameter do have thick bark, generally very large trees are the ones most likely to have bark that is thick enough for carving.  Whenever I am scanning a wooded area for bark possibilities, I am looking for some really large trees – those that really stand out from the rest – monarchs of the area that announce that they have been there 100 years or more.  Areas with these really giant trees are the best areas to look if you want to find some really thick bark.  Even if I do not see any "bones" or dead trees from a distance, if an area has a number of cottonwoods that stand out as larger that most, it is definitely an area that I want to investigate.  The worst that can happen is that I could get to walk amongst some really majestic old trees and not find any dead or fallen ones and that is not too bad at all. 


Wood Piles and Drift Piles

These may be drift piles along a river bank or on river island, or piles of trees dozed up by a farmer to clear an area, etc.  In one area where I collect the landowner had allowed a firewood collector to cut up dead trees from his property for years.  Upon investigation I found that at almost every location where a fallen tree had been cut up for firewood I found a large pile of bark, often mixed with other tree trimmings that had been removed from the tree.  Sometimes pieces of the bark had chainsawn, but much of the time it appeared that the bark had been removed and piled up before the tree was cut up for the firewood. 

Although not a source for a large amount of bark, I have often found very nice pieces of bark in drift piles along the Yellowstone River. 

There are also areas where I collect bark in which the landowners had dozed numerous large trees into a row, adjacent to a road or ditch and I have been able to collect a lot of nice bark by searching through such rubble. 

Drift piles along rivers or on islands are potential collection spots that should not be passed up. Carefully looking in such piles can often result in some finds of nice pieces of bark for carving.  Since one is not likely to find a large amount of good bark in a single pile, I do not expect these to be very helpful to supplying the amount of bark that I need for my customers but I do enjoy looking through them for select pieces of bark and other good carving woods.  Often they contain nice pieces of juniper (my "Jumping Juniper" carving is an example) and other good pieces of driftwood.  Many of these "islands" are accessible by foot (the ones in the photo are) during low flow periods and in the winter when the smaller side channels are frozen or dry.  A vacationer passing through this area or a similar area could expect to have both fun and success if they did some hiking/hunting on such islands.  There are lots of these in the Yellowstone river from Livingston, MT to 200+ miles east of there.  Public lands, parks, wildlife management areas, fishing access areas and road crossings all offer opportunities to access such islands.

 Piles 1 Piles 2


The Importance on On-foot Searches

I want to stress the importance of doing a very thorough, on-foot search  of any areas that look to have bark potential after permission, if needed, has been obtained to go into an area. 

My experience has shown that while scouting from a car or boat might identify some good bark sources (as indicated by what was found on the "bones" in one of the photos), more often than not, the best bark finds are made when searching areas not visible from a road or river, but only on foot.  A good example of this is a discovery I made when searching deeper into the woods behind the trees shown in the "bones" photo. 

Jackpot 1 Jackpot 2

I actually missed seeing this on my way into the woods because where I entered the wood are fairly thick and I went in a ways above the top end of the fallen tree; however, as I came out on a different route I walked right into a jackpot. "jackpot2".  It had more bark on this side then and boy did I get excited.  This tree is one of those giants that is a very special bark find.  It is so large in diameter that I could not reach the bark near the top of the trunk from the ground.  This will require climbing up the root end to get on top of the fallen tree. 

Jackpot 3

A section farther up the tree which had exceptionally nice bark. 

On large cottonwood trees you often find the best bark 8-10 feet or higher up the tree.  The best bark on this tree was a good 20 feet above the ground when the tree was standing.  As you can imagine from this photo, it takes a lot of work to get bark from such locations off the tree and even to an area where you can get a cart to load the bark on for hauling out of the woods.

The bark discoveries shown in the photos BrokenTree, Getting Better, and Reward above also would never had been made if I did not hike back to check areas of the woods that are not visible from the nearest roads.


Coming in Part 3: Tools Used For Bark Collecting and Cleaning

Vary Large Tree

Alex Bisso with a Cottonwood Monarch.

Alex Bisso is a woodcarver, and collector and seller of cottonwood bark and other found wood. To view some of Alex's carvings and cottonwood bark supply at Be So Good Wood, click HERE.


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