Ups and Downs of Tree Climbing

Former taxidermist gains new heights with a sport that has students branching out and loving it

On a bright balmy January day, a dozen men, women, and children dangle like marionettes from the branches of two white oaks.

The swinging troop of Tarzans and Janes is learning to climb trees in a grassy lot of an Atlanta neighborhood. Both children and adults utter expressions of delight. "This is awesome," says a teenage boy who has reached one of the higher branches. "Wow, you can really feel the wind up here," exclaims a mother of three. "You can see the whole city."

Below, instructor Peter Jenkins, alias "Treeman," smiles as he recalls the comments he used to get when he started this tree-climbing school 13 years ago. "People thought I was batty," says the one-time taxidermist, rock-and-roll singer, and now arborist. Today he says he's having the last chuckle as he touts what he believes will soon be the newest eco-sport.

"It won't be long before tree climbing is a very big mainstream activity," he predicts. "The timing is right. People are more environmentally aware, they're thinking more of nature. Trees are everywhere, and this is something anyone can do."

Jenkins' love affair with trees started in Dallas in 1978 when he was visiting his parents. An ice storm paralyzed the city, coating trees with a heavy covering of nature's crystal. Jenkins, who liked heights and was a rock climber, grabbed his equipment and bought a chain saw. Teetering on limbs, he saved trees by cutting off weak or broken branches.

He realized he enjoyed the work and came back to Atlanta to start Treeman Inc., an arborist business. He met a professional tree climber who showed him techniques and equipment.

Jenkins found that clients noted his enthusiasm and often mentioned wistfully how they loved tree climbing as children. The comments happened often enough that Jenkins decided to start a tree-climbing organization, Tree Climbers International, which is based in Atlanta but has "groves" (chapters) around the country and in France, Denmark, and England.

Jenkins purchased a plot of land with two 100-year-old oak trees he named Dianna and Nimrod and started a recreational tree-climbing school that meets twice a month.

Though people might think tree climbing is an activity that uses hands and feet, most professional and recreational climbers use ropes and a saddle. A rope is thrown over a limb using a small bean-bag weight, or a bow and arrow for higher branches. The climber wears a leather harness that fastens with a belt across the waist and two belts at each leg. A hook on the harness clips on to a knot on the rope and climbers hoist themselves up like inchworms by pulling on the rope.

The process requires no experience and is "for kids from 5 to 70," Jenkins says.

While many are neophytes, drawn by curiosity and adventure, others have already ascended Nimrod's big, beefy branches. Some are learning more advanced climbing skills for excursions up trees across the country.

To what heights can tree climbers take their sport? It can be done just about anywhere, though national and many state parks usually don't allow unauthorized climbing. Jenkins recommends national forests, which are more open to it. Some connoisseurs scale the skyscraper-high redwoods. Climbers can also spend the night being rocked to sleep by a tree's branches.

Jenkins organizes camping trips to "tree villages," where "treeboats" - hammocks with walled sides - are set up along with a place to fit a small camping stove. The experience often brings close and unusual encounters with wildlife.

"One time two flying squirrels landed on me and woke me up in the middle of the night," says Tim Kovar, a head instructor at the tree- climbing school. Owls also flock to the branches and stare at the intruders.

Jenkins and other veteran tree climbers maintain that the activity attracts a different group of people than does its closest cousin - rock climbing. "Rock climbers are there to conquer a rock," Jenkins says. "Tree climbers are there to be with the tree, to just get to a point that feels good."

Some devotees speak of tree climbing as a spiritual experience. David Stark, who recently filmed a documentary video on tree climbing, recalls a moment when he and others climbed a redwood in California. No one had ever been up the 2,500-year-old giant, whose circumference is 120 feet. Near the top they discovered a cathedral-like room that had been created by lightning. "It's tough to explain, but to touch that tree that was still living, the history it's seen ... touched people," he says.

Others offer different reasons for why they're attracted to the activity. "It's scary in a way, but I like the thrill," says Rachael Clark, a 12-year-old who started climbing in November. "It's hard work, but it's fun. I like the part where you can see people climb so high - I want to get up there, too."

"I liked sitting with the tree - it's very peaceful up there," says Stephanie Zaza, an adult who is trying tree climbing for the first time.

Tree climbing "has helped me to look at nature differently," says Mr. Kovar, the instructor and former waiter. "My goal is to live in the trees for a month and not come down."

* For more information contact: Tree Climbers International, P.O. Box 5588, Atlanta, Ga., 30307-5588. Phone number: (404) 377-3150. Web site: http://www.treeclimbing.com

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