Northern Michigan Outdoors: Extreme Tree Climbing in Traverse City

He thinks that he shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree … even while sleeping high in one during a gale, or, in this case, scaling one in a raging downpour.

The sky looms a scratchy gray all day, threatening to open up, wide and deep—to pour untold gallons of rain upon the earth. It holds court, biding its time. But I see the warning and heed it. ¶ “Karl, we can’t do this,” I type, a message that most any man would understand. “It’s going to rain like hell any minute.” ¶ “It’s not raining until it’s raining,” comes his reply. “See you there.”

I look about my nice, dry house and regret the day I met Karl Pearson. I am going to, as scheduled, scale a black walnut tree near Cedar Lake with this madman I met a few summers ago.

Arriving on-site, my husband and I find Karl’s van at the end of the dirt road. It is June. The forest is in its prime. Anything alive is growing, reaching up and filling in.

I see Karl nowhere. So we walk the fading two-track looking for “the perfect climbing tree.” One that, I hope, will be small, sturdy and no higher than the ladder in our garage.

“Over here!”

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We see him, a faded red baseball cap visible over the ridge, nearly lost in the meadow grass that grows waist-high. We walk closer. Soon I can make out a gray beard and blue jeans. Yes, it is Karl. And he is standing next to a (blasted!) gigantic tree.

“I’m not doing this,” I say in greeting.

“Sure you are,” Karl says. He is pulling out ropes, harnesses and clips, placing them on a dry blue tarp that is uneven and uncooperative over the bushy grass. I say nothing. I figure, I’m not doing it until I’m doing it.

The rain starts then, as I knew it would. It is polite at first, tapping us on the shoulders, saying hello. Karl doesn’t reply. He is busy taking us tree climbing, and acknowledging the rain will have to wait.

I will watch from the ground, I decide. Report on this story. It is the right thing to do. Safer, too. Besides, I climbed many a tree as a youngster. When I was pliable and fearless. Nothing new here folks, move along. Do your thing, Karl. I shall take note.

The Gear

Karl drops a saddle at my feet and points for me to step into the leg holes. He hands me a pair of gloves stiff with the grit of a good day’s work both inside and out. I decide to do this much at least, sliding into the saddle, buckling the belt, gloving my hands and pulling a bandanna over my hair to hold it out of my eyes.

Confession: Once outfitted, I look good. Who doesn’t, wearing a harness with carabiners? I am feeling kick-assy, and the tree isn’t looking so tough anymore.

Welcome to the childhood play that is now a sport—recreational tree climbing. It is really a pleasurable version of a day in an arborist’s life—those who climb trees to cut dead branches out or clear limbs from power lines. But while arborists face more risks (like climbing with cutting tools), recreational tree climbers do it for the pure escape factor.

Karl estimates there are about a dozen climbers in the area with their own equipment. He assists Dick Flowers, who teaches recreational tree climbing classes at Northwestern Michigan College a handful of times a year. They get 6 to 8 students in a class.

And they all end up climbing—by rope—up this beast of a tree in front of us.

The mantra for all beginners is “low and slow,” and Karl spends a fair amount of time teaching micro-steps close to the ground. This tree, the favorite teaching tree, stands stoic and strong, a landmark, a steward. The tree will let us climb and see what it sees. Come aboard, it says, no rush.

I look up, and even the closest branch seems miles away. A sweat breaks out under my raincoat. Am I really doing this?

“It’s not about how high you can get,” Karl assures me. “The top of everyone’s tree is different. Climbing is about finding neat moves to make, places to reach, seats to find, things to experience.”

He hooks me with this: “Sometimes we see who can find the most comfortable place to take a nap or read a book.”

The Setup

The basic setup is this: To start, you toss a throw line (a thin rope with a weight on the end) over a branch. This is the bull’s-eye phase. You might toss it a half-million times before snaking the weight up and over a limb, a clean throw coming with experience and a little coaxing.

“You toss where the branch is not,” Karl says. “That’s the Zen of tree climbing.”

So what’s a good size limb to not aim for? One as big around as your forearm will do—but it’s not that simple.

“The only truly safe tree is a stump,” Karl says.

There are precautions to take, and experienced climbers look for or groom their favorite trees into “tame trees”—trees cleared of dead branches and falling or weak limbs. A good climbing tree is hard to come by.

“Less than one tree in a million is a good climbing tree,” Karl says. “But there’s lots of trees around here, go ahead, count ’em!”

Once the throw line comes tumbling down to the ground on the far side of a branch (success!), you use it to pull the much thicker climbing rope up over the branch. There is a horseshoe-shaped leather sleeve that the climbing rope is threaded through. This sleeve will be pulled up with the rope and over the branch, catching tight with tension over the branch. The sleeve saves the rope and the bark from any abrasion as the rope is pulled into position.

The Secret

The climbing technique involves a simple system with no gadgetry. It’s good old physics—push and pull, friction and release.

The entire system is literally a rope and a couple of knots. Once the rope is over the branch, the climber ties it to the carabiner on his saddle using a figure-eight knot.

To climb, you pull yourself up by simply pulling down on the other end of the rope. To keep yourself from just coming back down when you let go, a short piece of rope (the bridge rope, Karl calls it) comes from the saddle and is attached to the line with a Blake’s hitch knot.

Now, the secret: The Blake’s hitch knot is a magical knot that holds under load (little ol’ me, in this instance), yet will slide up easily with slack. It makes the whole climbing system possible.

Each time you pull yourself up a few inches, you slide the Blake’s hitch up the climbing rope and capture the height you’ve gained. The knot will hold tight when you let go. The process is incremental and predictable.

Except for one little thing. I’m not going anywhere with the muscles in this set of forearms. Karl says nothing. He bends down and ties a foot-assist rope that will let me push down with my foot to gain height on the rope. This makes it easy, like taking a step.

Karl has helped men and women of all sizes and shapes climb. He works with Dick and other climbers statewide who volunteer with handicapped children and adults in programs that get them into trees. Here in the Traverse area, Northern Michigan Adaptive Sports has a program every year.

Off the Ground

Finally, I reach a height of five feet. I am free of the ground, more up than down. My saddle is tight, firm on my bottom, the rope finding the groove in my gloved hands. I can swing back and forth. I catch the bark with the toe of my shoe, and I push my foot flat. I am standing on the side of this tree. My attitude is back.

This is when the rain unleashes.

The water falls in fat, wide drops. My husband, Karl and Dick are all hanging from the tree. We hear the rain before we feel it. It is thundering down around the great black walnut. We all wait, quiet, watching from inside the sphere of the tree. Will the tree hold the water back while holding us up? Not for long. In the next minute, the tree gives in and passes the rain from its smallest branches way up high, down to us, all of us, on its strongest branches, down low.

The bark on the tree turns black as the rain runs down it, finding the grooves in the bark, seeking and sluicing downward. I push with my foot and go higher. My pants are soaked through now. Karl is two branches higher, hanging upside down, waving at me. The rain is running down him from toe to head.

Karl, having retired from Oldsmobile seven years ago, has been climbing for 12 years. In that time he has climbed to heights of nearly a 100 feet, climbed tree to tree high above the ground, ambushed a squirrel or two, and amassed a vast collection of stories. This rain is nothing he hasn’t seen.

His most harrowing climb was in a big oak with a buddy downstate a few years ago. The tree stood in a little natural area of mostly old trees, and a weather front pushed through with strong winds.

“We thought for a bit and decided to stay high in the oak, which was the tallest tree in the group,” he says. “It was safer than risking being hit by all the trees that were being blown down around us! It lasted about 30 minutes, but boy, the adrenaline was going for the rest of the day.”

I like this about Karl. He looks like a man’s man, thick beard, callused hands and kind eyes. He is likely wearing the same jeans he wore all week. But he says things like “Zen of tree climbing” and utterly confuses the man’s man stereotype. He is daring and serene all at once. This, I think, is a new kind of crazy. And I like it.

Karl’s first time sleeping in a tree was over Labor Day weekend in 2001, tucked in a hammock high in a Leelanau County oak. “The first problem was the full moon,” he says. “It was like trying to sleep with a 60 watt bulb on in the room.”

Then, about 3 a.m., the storm hit. It was the same storm that forced the Mackinac Bridge Walk to cancel later that day.

“Well, that oak got to rocking and rolling and we had a lot of leaves and nuts blown into our hammocks,” he says. “It was exciting. Fun, too.”

As he shares this, the rain is coming on stronger. I can very nearly say I’ve never stood outside in such a storm without seeking cover. Let alone continue a conversation as if nothing is happening, hanging from a bunch of ropes in a tree. I don’t get it, what we are up here doing.

Until I reach the first branch and straddle it. The branch is hard and cold between my legs.

“Let your rope go slack a little, put all your weight on the branch. Sit.” Karl instructs as he advances higher and higher in the rain, right side up once more.

I do as I’m told. And I am, suddenly, sitting on a branch 15 feet in the air. My legs are swinging free. It’s too big around to hold. I am balancing on it. I am skittish at first, but I test the branch, and it stays put. The tree offers a different shelter now. When we arrived, it offered a break from the rain. Now it offers reprieve from below. I feel distinctly separate from the van back on the road or the blue tarp that is pooling with water in the grass.

Around me it is the same old forest. But from up here, it’s different. The leaves are holding up, not falling down, green behind them instead of blue. I can see the forest above and below me, 360 degrees of green.

I am up in the tree, and it seems I’m in the next tree too. We are connected, my branch connecting to the one next to it, the grass at the trunk linking my tree to the one over there and the one by the ridge and the one that I can see farthest away. I feel the quietest exchange within the trees, a movement I didn’t feel on the walk in.

Karl puts it this way: “Trees are alive. When you are in them, they are definitely alive. They move in interesting ways, they adjust to you and you to them. Climbing trees has changed my relationship with the forest. I used to be a visitor—skiing, biking or hiking. Now I’m a participant, involved in the goings on.”

I get it now, the allure of the climb, the Zen, the tree club. I will be happy to get on solid ground again, but am happy now, to be up here.

The First Step: FAQ with Karl Pearson

1. What is your first advice for someone who wants to climb?

Get instruction. Classes are a great way to get a feel for it. Or find someone you trust who can show you the ropes. I practiced by climbing next to a ladder in case I had trouble.

2. Your most important piece of equipment?

Easy. Your brain. If your head’s not into it, you shouldn’t be. Being able to analyze situations and come up with solutions is the most important thing you have to do. Recognizing situations to avoid is the first line of defense.

3. What’s the best tree?

A strong one. Learning to decide what are good trees is a big part of the sport. Generally hardwoods are best, but there are no set rules and there are a number of things we look for before attempting to climb a given tree. More than once we’ve gone back to a nice tree to find that a major limb has fallen off. Go out with an experienced climber.

4. Where can I learn?

Northwestern Michigan College has classes in the spring, summer and fall. Dick Flowers is the instructor, and we’ll take you out to the black walnut by Cedar Lake. We’ve had as many as 10 people in the tree. We teach patience.

Visit nmc.edu/ees for more information.

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