Tree Time in Atlanta

By Carol Clark
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2003

I had to climb 20 feet before I reached the lowest branches of the 100-year-old white oak. Suspended by a climbing rope hooked onto my arborist harness, I swung my feet onto a branch the width of a balance beam.

"That's it!" my tree-climbing instructor, Tim Kovar, shouted from the ground. "Now let go of the rope and you can limb walk."

He looked up at me expectantly, a large, rugged man with the head of Satan tattooed on one of his forearms and the image of a leopard wrapped around the other. I couldn't bear to disappoint him.

I released the rope from the grip of my sweating palms, transferred my full weight onto the branch and took a few tentative steps. Suddenly I felt as graceful and buoyant as a pixie. A light breeze rippled the lush canopy surrounding me. Through a gap in the greenery, I could see the tops of two Atlanta skyscrapers, about five miles distant.

One of the things I love best about Atlanta is its profusion of oversized trees. The city's sunny, humid climate spurs oaks, elms, maples, hickories, poplars and pines to grow like the Incredible Hulk. But I never imagined that I would be clambering along the branches of one of these giants until a friend told me about Tree Climbers International. Founded by Atlanta tree surgeon Peter "Treeman" Jenkins in 1983, TCI uses professional arborist equipment and techniques to allow lay people to visit the upper reaches of old-growth trees.

TCI, which describes itself as "the world's first organization dedicated to recreational tree climbing," has trained instructors who have opened chapters, known as "groves," in northern Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado. The concept has also spread to Japan and Europe.

The nirvana for the sport, however, remains Atlanta. Serious enthusiasts come from around the globe to join TCI's intensive tree-climbing courses. The two-day curriculum includes instruction in tree-to-tree traverses (think Tarzan) and tree surfing (riding the wind in the upper branches).

"Surfing is best done in an 18-inch-diameter loblolly pine. They have a lot of movement, like an antenna," Jenkins said, when I called to ask about the course. "When you're on top of a 75-foot-tall pine tree, in a 15- to 35-mile-per-hour wind, you get 10 feet of swing on either side."

I opted for one of the more sedate introductory climbs. These afternoon drop-in sessions, held the first and third Sunday of every month, attract people of all ages and athletic abilities who want to experience what Jenkins calls the "Peter Pan effect." An added bonus was the chance to spend the afternoon in Little Five Points, an old hippie neighborhood not far from downtown Atlanta where TCI's Founder's Grove is located. I drove past quaint wood-framed houses with lush, overgrown yards and eclectic touches like a pink mailbox, a giant peace sign and Tibetan prayer flags.

The Founder's Grove consists of a pair of nine-story-tall white oak trees, set near a pond and a fenced pasture. I felt like I was entering a 1960s version of "The Secret Garden." Two emu heads periscoped up from behind a tangle of shrubs and wildflowers to spy on a little girl in a blue sundress who was feeding a handful of grass to a goat.

About a dozen people, ranging in age from about 6 to nearly 60, milled around a picnic table beneath the oaks. The group was a mix of locals and out-of-towners, including a couple who had traveled from New York to spend the night in treetop hammocks, a TCI option known as "Zzzzs in the Treez."

Kovar, decked out in a jungle camouflage hat and a company T-shirt with the slogan "Nurturing the Nut Within," told us that the two oaks, named Diana and Nimrod, were the most-climbed trees in the world. He used a giant slingshot to send the ropes flying into the air and to loop them over branches as high as 80 feet.

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