Deep in North Carolina’s Green River Gorge, the native eastern hemlock trees are in trouble. Plagued by, what else, an invasive species—the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA)—some researchers think the hemlocks could all be gone from the area within a decade.

The HWA feeds only on hemlocks. It situates itself at the base of the tree’s needles, where it lives on sap and starch. The presence of the bugs messes with the hemlock’s ability to transport water and nutrients to the needles and makes it much more difficult for the tree to photosynthesize. The trees slowly die, turning grey and lifeless, dotting otherwise healthy green forests with their spectral appearances.

While the HWA pestilence, first reported in 1951, has spread from Georgia to Maine, a group of hardcore whitewater kayakers in North Carolina have taken the fight right to the HWA, in an effort to protect the ecosystem of the watersheds they so dearly love. The Paddlers Hemlock Health Action Taskforce, or PHAAT, get to blend two of their favorite things—kayaking the Green River and dispatching the HWA threatening to ruin the North Carolina’s hemlock forests.

Ecologists and conservation groups recruit expert paddlers from the Green River Gorge kayaking community and train them to spot infested trees and treat them with the only known solution to the HWA infestation, a chemical pellet planted at the hemlock’s base. Lots of the oldest and largest hemlocks under threat from the little buggers are deep into the Green River Gorge, and impossible to reach on foot. And lots of that water is big enough to require expert-level kayaking skills to reach.

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The kayakers, with the help of specialized dry bags that keep the chemical pellets dry and out of the river, can navigate their way through unruly waters to plant their cargo and destroy the HWA munching away on the native trees.

“As land managers, we often rely on the help of volunteers and partners to expand the capacity of work needed to conserve our Game Lands,” says Ryan Jacobs, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s wildlife forest manager. “The work these paddlers are taking on here at Green River would never have happened without their passion for this special place.”

Hemlocks help stabilize riverbanks and regulate water temperature, among other crucial functions on the Green River.

“The river provides us with pure joy, meaningful lessons, and lasting relationships with other boaters and the river itself,” says Regina Goldkuhl with the North Carolina-based conservation non-profit org, MountainTrue. “It only makes sense that we give something back. This project combines some of my most cherished passions: whitewater, science, and conservation – how could I say no to that?”

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