The Treetop Adventure

Thanks for the above photo goes Rob Mulally via Unsplash.

It was one of those times I struggled to swallow my fear. The wind was intermittent and mild, but each breeze pushed me 6-8 feet one way or the other. Again, I wrapped my hands around the branch I was sitting on looking for anything to give me something to cling to if the wind became stronger, but the smooth eucalyptus bark yielded nothing leaving me on a thin edge of balance with over a hundred feet of open space between me and the ground. There was no way to make my position safer and I had a job to do. My dad was far below me, hoping, I hoped, that I didn’t die in the effort to finish it.

– – ( o ) – –

By age 10, I realized that some boys were very talented at sports or math or chess or just being cool. But none of those fit me no matter how badly I wanted it. What I was really good at was climbing trees and by this time, the local trees and I were already far down the path of getting to know each other very well.

Climbing all the nearby oak, buckeye, fruit, cypress and even one poor palm tree taught me all kinds of valuable skills like recognizing when a configuration of branches was likely to hold my weight or whether they would bend in ways to allow me to escape being touched in a tree-top game of tag via a path to adjacent tree.

nylon rope spool

One of my fondest memories was one day when all the other guys were unavailable, so I was by myself, except for my dog, Pam.

Dad had brought home a large spool of half inch white nylon rope and, knowing me well, gave me a 75-foot length of it and showed me how to fuse the ends by holding a burning match to each end and melting the nylon strands together to leave a clean end that wouldn’t fray. I played with that rope for years. I usually made swings but this day, I was interested is seeing if I could weave a hammock between the forked branches of an oak tree. The tree was on a sharp slope, but I chose a branch that grew towards the uphill side and thus was only about 6 feet above the ground. Pam found a nice spot in the shade to watch over my efforts.

I laced the rope back and forth between the branches until I found a pattern of loops and knots that looked good and stepped back to review my work. I had produced more of a spider’s web of nylon loops that, yes, easily held my weight when I settled into it and was quite cozy under the shade of that old oak tree. With Pam watching, only partially interested, I settled back and closed my eyes to enjoy the quiet of the trees in the summer mid-afternoon.

I woke up when my arm surprised me by falling through my make-shift hammock. I’d forgotten where I was and couldn’t immediately tell how long I’d slept. The shadows around me had moved and I was no longer in the shade – but I hadn’t laid there long enough to get sun burned.

Pam was right where she had settled and wouldn’t comment on how long I’d been asleep, but her eyes, as was her way, spoke volumes. “Are you done yet?”

“Okay – Okay. Let me untie my rope and we’ll head home.” It had been a totally comfortable lazy afternoon up in one of my favorite trees.

– – ( o ) – –

A few years later, my father had started a side business cutting firewood. This opened up an opportunity for me to learn how to work a chainsaw — and (queue the ominous music) climbing really – really tall trees. It sounded amazing at the time.

Helping dad cut firewood was fun. Sweaty, hard work, but fun. Then a friend of his asked if he would top a certain tree that was growing too close to his house. I know I got this same instinct from him because in his place, with virtually no experience, I too would have said something like, ” Sure. How hard could it be?” After agreeing to a day and time, Dad began calling friends to find a pair of tree spikes to borrow.

“Tree Spikes!? I’ve heard of them, and they sound pretty cool, like having cat claws on your feet. I could climb almost anything. What kind of tree is it, Dad?”

“Eucalyptus, so the wood won’t be worth much, but the guy is willing to pay good money for us to drop just one branch.”

He went on to explain how this would work, but I was stuck on ‘tree spikes’ and ‘eucalyptus’. I’d never really thought about using tree spikes myself because we didn’t own any. Also, I’d long ago written off climbing eucalyptus trees because they had few branches useful to human climbers. Tall, smooth, and really spongy wood that broke easily did not sound like fun climbing – but with tree spikes. . . Now this could be fun.

Dad managed to regain my attention when he talked about the special belt I’d have to use with a climbing rope. Oh this was going to be good!.

The day came and Dad and I looked up at the tree. Holy Moly – it’s huge even for a eucalyptus. My heart sunk when he pointed out the branch, but I was so anxious to try out all this cool new gear. I agreed to make the climb.

We unloaded everything. I strapped-in, flipped the rope around the huge trunk, dug the spikes into the tree trunk and leaned in to flip the trunk rope up higher so I could step higher and repeat. By the time I made 20 feet, I had it down and was easily ‘walking‘ up the side of this pole to the high heaven of a tree. Every 10 or 15 steps, I’d glance down to see Dad getting smaller and smaller. More of the surrounding neighborhood became visible and then the county. I could see the freeway in the east and the fog bank that still covered the coast of the Pacific ocean. Good Lord, I was high up! I’d never been this high up a tree before, and with still lots more steps needed, I kept on climbing, and climbing for what felt like an hour.

As I passed the point where I could see the curvature of the Earth,  I noticed, the tree was moving in the wind. This gave me pause not because moving trees bothered me, I was used to that, but because now I was high enough that I half expected to see small aircraft pass below and one of the few clouds in the sky was now close enough to reach out and touch. I was pretty sure I was just barely on the safe side of several laws of physics.

eucalyptus treeLooking up, I could see the target branch now very close, only about 10 more feet, no sweat, but, oh no, I recognized a big problem. There was no good place for me to strap-in to saw off that giant branch.

Visualize a tree trunk splitting into two directions, like a huge “Y”. The left branch had to go because it was the threat, which meant I had to sit on the right branch. Anything below put me at risk if the tree split it would easily snap my rope belt and with nothing holding me against the tree, I’d have to solve the problem of un-powered human flight as I plummeted a hundred some odd feet back to the ground.

But what do I tie off to if I’m sitting on the other fork? When the large branch begins to break free, it’s going shake the whole tree violently and could easily throw me out into what was likely the thin air of the stratosphere.

For lack of a better idea, I decided since I had to sit on the one branch and there was literally nothing else to tie off to, that I would whip a loop of rope beneath me and catch it on the other side. This way, if I was knocked off the branch, I would only swing down beneath it and end up facing down, hanging by the rope and both the D-rings in my waist belt. It was a stupid idea. If it happened, I’d be in a very awkward spot, but alive.

When I arrived at the spot to cut off this huge branch, I was already scared that I’d bitten off way more than I should have. It just reeked of being too close to death. I reluctantly tied off, called down for dad to send up the chainsaw via the rope I had clipped into my belt. I heard him as if from very far away, start the motor to verify that it was ready to run and shut it off so I could begin pulling it up. Once I had it in hand, I paused to try again to swallow my fear. It would not go down. I was scared and apparently was just going to have to go with it.

With the chainsaw finally in hand, I did one more check, Was there anything I could do, should do to survive this stunt? My knots were good. My spikes were dug into the main trunk giving me a bit of stability, but each breeze that came shouted how inadequate they were. The chainsaw was still tied off with the rope I’d used to pull it up, so I moved dad’s knot on the handle to more easily work the throttle. My target branch looked huge from the ground and oddly it looked much larger now that it was right in front of me. It has to be almost 2 feet in diameter and is holding up a huge amount of tree out there.

The thing about large branches is that you can’t ever make a clean cut of them. The heavier the whole branch is, the sooner it wants to follow gravity which means the uncut portion has to tear itself free from the tree which involves a lot of shaking to the poor guy with the chainsaw.

It’s time to get this over with, I thought as I bent over to begin a cut at the bottom of the branch. The chainsaw vibrated madly, but this was familiar and okay. The angle I had to work with was horrible though. It was awkward and took too much strength because I could not get much leverage. Everything I did to try and improve my margin of safety only felt like I was wasting time and getting more tired and more scared.

The lower cut should have been followed by another cut which would slice out a wedge to give the target branch someplace to settle when I began cutting at the top. This would also discourage it from splitting the full trunk which was a very bad thing.

I rejected the idea of making that second cut because I was so tired and I doubted I could complete the wedge because the angle was so awkward, so I moved the saw and began the top cut. The bottom cut should be enough to prevent the trunk from splitting, but it would not give the branch much room to settle. It’s going to be harder to cut enough for it to break free, but my angle of work will be a lot better. When it does break – damn, this is going to be a rough ride.

Dad’s freshly sharpened saw quickly tore into the top cut and the saw dust flew into the breeze. I could feel the vibrations through my thighs as I pinched hard for whatever stability could be gained. The chainsaw screamed as the blade sunk deeper into the branch. A giant CRACK and shock wave through the trunk caused me to pause involuntarily, but I quickly resumed. Come on. Come on already!

Another – CRACK – CRACK – and I could see the end of the branch dropping, tons of wood suddenly yielding to gravity — and the branch I was sitting on — snapped wildly, jerking me back and forth — way too strong for me to maintain any grip on the branch. The chainsaw was still screaming and throwing sawdust. From a place in my mind, not far from my mortal soul, I knew better than to attempt this dance with a live – spinning chainsaw and instinctively threw it away from a hundred some odd feet high. Now, at least I had both hands free to try and hold on.

As I dug my fingernails into the branch to attempt to stay on this wild jumping bull of a tree, somewhere in the back of my mind I pictured dad’s saw spinning and puttering its way down to the ground where it would explode into thousands of fragments on impact. I quickly overlaid that image with the thought that if I slid off this branch, I’d be hanging by my waist, looking down at the splash of dad’s saw, hoping that he’d still mount some kind of rescue for me because I couldn’t imagine how I’d get myself off of that branch given how I had tied myself in. If I managed to survive this shaking, I’d have to buy Dad a replacement, as a third, much larger and extended CRACK tore through the remaining wood, swinging the branch in close to the trunk where it broke free and began its descent throwing one last big jolt through the trunk. That branch crashed through lower branches sounding like this giant tree was at war with itself and left me and the remaining branch whipping back and forth, as if it was trying to shake me off like a stinging insect.

Well, it failed to shake me free. As the tree settled, I realized how sore my fingers were from clawing into the branch and that I was so thankful that I’d not soiled my pants. Best of all I’d stayed upright and did not fall beneath my perch.

Instead of climbing down, Dad lowered me by the rope looped over my vacated seat above. Every part of me tingled with the after-effects of a couple of quarts of adrenalin that had mysteriously appeared in my blood system.

He later told me how shocked he was to see how badly the tree shook and how his heart sunk as he watched his best chainsaw heaved out into space and plummet towards the ground, accelerating for what felt like minutes — until it ran out of rope, about 3 feet from the ground so it  bounced because nylon  rope has some stretch to it – all the time the engine was still puttering.

So, I was still alive and could now enjoy the laughter and story of what the whole event looked like from Dad’s perspective.  He was so pleased that the chainsaw also, somehow, survived its bungee-cord dive.

“Dad, can we just call it a day. I think my nerves are shot.”

From that day forward, I enjoyed a new appreciation for the simple feel of solid ground, and I know what you’re asking, but no, we decided it was best to not tell mom about this for a couple of decades.

GW bio card 4

21 thoughts on “The Treetop Adventure

  1. That would be nerve-wracking… great story for sharing. As for making impromptu hammocks… nice to find someone else who does it, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. oh yea – nerve wracking only begins to describe how scared I was, how I was certain I was dead when the branch broke free and shook me like an old rag but then how relieving it was to be safely back on the ground. Thanks for giving it a read Bear.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have to laugh now, but I’ve done similar things, just not so high, when working disaster recovery incidents with the fire dept. I was small and tiny, so guess who they liked to send up to smaller branches, and tiny crawl spaces….

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this story Gary. When I first started reading about your napping I thought of my youth because I used to climb high in the trees with a book and settle for a days reading. I however have never wielded a chainsaw or threw one from a treetop. What a scary experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shari. Trees and I have a long standing good relationship. I’ve only fallen a few times and this was the only time I can recall being so scared that things got out of hand.
      So glad you gave it a read and enjoyed the imagery. I – was – petrified through most of it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Shari – Just a followup..
      Spending a large part of the day up a tree reading or napping itself is a wonderful memory, but that huge eucalyptus tree and that chainsaw memory is one I’ll never forget as I can recall few times when I was so scared due to a near-death experience.
      On the other hand, chainsaws a blast to use, but from this point on, I limited my use of them to only when I was standing on good old solid earth.
      Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Deborah.
      Yea – it was somehow instinctive that when that tree began to tear apart and attempt to catapult me across the county, that the chainsaw was adding nothing to my safety and needed to be ejected from the equation, so fly away it did. But looking back now, since I and the chainsaw survived, what a powerful image this whole story creates – right?
      And about mom – umm, I’m not sure we ever actually told her about this one. I doubt she would have approved. At the time, this event just felt more like a “need-to-know” kind of thing.
      Thanks for sharing a rather vivid memory with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You had me on the edge of my seat, literally dangling from my own imaginary tree as I read your words. I was expecting you to say you got your foot caught in the rope and was hanging upside down from a mighty eucalyptus tree! Most of the tree workers around here use cherry pickers and/or cranes to trim tall trees; even watching that makes me nervous. Kudos to you for that death-defying act!

    Liked by 1 person

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