Modern Adventures in Tree Climbing
by Stephanie McKinnon
It's like being in Mom's arms. Cradled in the embrace of thick, round branches,
protected by a delicate umbrella of green leaves, a tree sitter is almost
lulled to sleep by the caress of soft breezes and the tickle of sweet, fragrant
Maybe it's this natural euphoria that convinced counselors and directors
at Mystic Lake YMCA Camp to share the intimate sport. The YMCA of Lansing
camp is the first in the nation to offer technical tree climbing, an activity
sprouted from tree surgeons that is growing in popularity from the oak states
to the redwoods.
The idea was Lee Snooks', the executive director of Mystic Lake. An avid
rock climber and cave explorer Snooks read an article on tree climbing and
it struck him as a most obvious and fun sport for children and adults.
"Kids love to climb. And they love to climb trees" he said. "Adults
love to climb too."
After teaching children rock and cave climbing for years, Snooks knows that
young bodies take to climbing quickly and easily. The canopy of trees offers
a whole new experience from these other sports, though. With more trees
than mountains, it could in fact become midwesterners' alternative to rock-climbing.
Using ropes, harnesses, carabiners and helmets, technical tree climbers
ascend trees without hurting their huge hosts with spikes or other harmful
devices. The chance for falling significantly reduced, the sport is a liberating
change trom childhood tree climbing. Rather than the monkey-like maneuvers
of reaching and swinging the body limb over limb, these technical tree climbers
are more like spiders as they inch up silk threads in mid-air, pausing on
limbs along the way. They can climb to the highest branch that will support
them, walk a limb upright and fly to the ground as tast as Spidey.
The basic elements of nonrope climbing re main though. To get around a vertical
barrier like a limb or trunk, a giant hug with thighs. arms and belts is
necessary. Swinging is still one of the favorite thrills, and daydreaming
in a comfy tree crotch seems to hold its reign as the goal of this sport.
The leaders at Mystic Lake hope that the contact with the trees will help
people gain new appreciation.
"I want to teach in a special way a respect and love for trees and
wilderness," said Kathy Snooks, who leads rock climbing, caving and
tree climbing activities at Mystic Lake. She and Ricky Wright, summer program
director and tree climbing assistant, recently completed an intensive tree
climbing course at the headquarters of Tree Climb ers International in Atlanta-the
most heavily tree-populated city. There they became addicted. They met people
who picnic in trees and camp in trees. They heard about people who live
in trees. Though there are only 450 members in this international group,
the sport is budding with new climbers every year.
As she said, once you try it it's hard to stay on the ground.
"You're climbing with the tree, you're participating together,"
Kathy Snooks said.
In this way, it's similar to rock climbing, a close contact sport with nature.
A tree bends and sways for a climber, a rock provides grip holes, she said.
But unlike rock climbing, tree climbing is less about getting to the top.
Climbers say it's about explor ing a tree, enjoying the peace and admiring
the view. Teamwork plays an important role too
Wright used to be afraid of heights. As a kid he was taunted by his playmates
when he stayed at the lowest lirnbs. He hates ladders. Yet, at 70 feet in
the highest crotch of an oak tree last week, Wright was as comfortable as
a clam, seemingly happier than he is on the ground.
"There's few words to express it but, 'Wow!"'
Wright, Kathy Snooks and two other counselors are in the beginner's tree
today, a 90-foot tall oak called Gulliver. There are four trees in the grove
that have been chosen for climb ing. All offer about 70-foot climbs. Two
other trees, near the lake of fer 90-foot plus climbs One is a white pine,
named Grandmother, the other an old oak called Grandfather.
Wright yelps out a bark. The oth r counselors, also perched in various crotches
and on limbs of the tree, respond with similar dog howls.
"This is a tree bark," Kathy Snooks jokes. With that same camp
humor in mind, they call the tech nical tree climbing program, "The
Joy of Going Out on A Limb" and "Branch Out!" When someone
reaches a new limb they're called a branch manager. If a climber is shaken
by a wind-blown limb, they call it "tree surfing."
Mystic Lake YMCA Camp.
A week of tree climbing and camping is $315 for non-YMCA members, $305 for
June 18 and July 16. To register, call the office in Haslett at 339-3 l
Individuals, businesses and groups are also welcome to climb.
The limrt is six people. The cost is $50 oer person per day for climbing,
but special rates are offered for YMCA families.
For information, ca11 the camp at 544-2844