A Climb to Remember Slow Travel Turns to the Trees

Recreational tree climbing is taking root in the ecotourism industry, and it’s sending guys like Tim Kovar to far off reaches of the globe. Kovar, an arborist turned tree-climbing instructor, recently returned to the U.S. from Brazil, where he spent time working with Naturalia Amazon Ecolodge developing a tree-climbing operation. This year, he’ll also guide climbs with Crees Expeditions, an ecotourism outfit in Peru, all thanks to the “slow travel” movement.

treesSlow travel, Kovar explains, takes a cue from the slow food movement, the practice offorgoing fast food in favor of homegrown cuisine—the kind that takes hours to prepare and enjoy. Likewise, slow travel urges visitors toexperiencea region’s natural surroundings and learn about the ecologyin a way not afforded by hang-gliding, base-jumping and otherextreme pursuits. If gliding through the forest on a zip line is akin to eating a Big Mac, consider climbing a tree a six-course meal.

“Tree climbing is a slow activity,” says Kovar, an instructor with Tree Climbers International, based in Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s not something you do real quick and then you’re on to the next thing or event.” There is no such thing as a quick climb, especially for novices. My climbing expedition with New Tribe, the Southern Oregon-based makers of tree-climbing gear, took an entire day, the result of which was alpine splendor.

Climbers are rewarded with something far deeper than sweeping views and the satisfaction of a physical conquest; some attain spiritual connections with nature when scaling a great tree. When Rusel DeMaria climbs, he’s swept with an emotion he describes as “visceral and real.”

“When you stand below the tree, it can be awesome,” he says, gazing up at Michael’s Triumph, the 150-foot-tall Douglas fir we were gearing up to climb. But reaching the treetop, he adds, is an entirely different sensation. Likewise, his wife, Viola Brumbaugh, New Tribe vice president, approaches the tree with a healthy reverence. Before the climb, she kneels on the ground and asks Michael’s Triumph for permission to climb. “It goes a lot smoother that way,” she says.

As I inch-wormed my way up the kern mantel rope, I was told to take my time and pause to enjoy the view. This wasn’t a race against the clock or my fellow climbers. In fact, tree climbing is unlikely to ever become a feature of the X-Games. Many climbers renounce competition.

“There’s already so much competition in the world,” says Kovar.

A Tree for Me

The tree-climbing community embraces a leave-no-trace philosophy. Kovar even encourages guides not to climb the same tree more than once when possible. This appeals not only to environmentalists, but also to adventure seekers whowant first-to-climb bragging rights.

And climbing has been incorporated into many educational programs. Oregon’s Canopy Connections takes middle schoolers out of the classroom and into the treetops. The project helps to instill a passion and respect for nature and a commitment to conservation.

Adults, too, get a lesson in forest ecology when going on a pleasure climb. New Tribe offers guided climbs through its school, Tree Climbing Northwest, where “we teach enough tree biology and forest ecology to raise sensitivity in our students,” says New Tribe president Sophia Sparks. “We know that the tree climbing experience deepens personal appreciation for trees and forests. After climbing, people value trees more and are motivated to support preservation. This is not just to preserve their playground.”

Tree climbing may even save trees from the lumber mill, Kovar says. “Once you become aware of something, once you identify with something, it becomes more personal toyou andyou actually want to protect it,” he adds.

Perhaps that is why he struggles with the term “recreational tree climbing,” saying, “I prefer to call it inspirational tree climbing.”