(My personal narrative of climbing an old growth Douglas Fir in the heart of one of the most breathtaking and ecologically-immersive regions in the Pacific Northwest, Opal Creek Wilderness.)
Remember “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein? The story of the young boy who loved a tree so much he climbed it, played in it, napped beneath it, carved his initials into its skin, sold its fruit, stripped its branches, used its trunk for lumber, and then finally sat his boney old ass on the naked stump because there was nothing else he needed and nothing else the tree could give? I loved that book. Until I hated it. I loved it for its simple poetry and what I took to be a tale of gratitude for the gifts trees bestow upon humans. And then I grew weary of the sad tale, of the inevitability of growing old, of the boy’s relentless selfishness, and of the tree’s undying love and giving nature. It was no longer a love story to a Giving Tree and instead a mirror held up to reveal the Taking Human. But this story that I’m going to try to share here isn’t a hate story. And it isn’t a love story. It’s actually my favorite kind of story. It’s a story simply about relationships. And BIG ASS TREES.
On the last morning of my 38th year I awoke 75 feet up inside the arms of a tree. The arms of three trees actually: one towering Douglas fir, its canopy crowned in cones and its trunk deeply rutted like the lined and weathered hide of an aged elephant, plus two close-by slender cedars, their fragrant and feathery fringes wagging contentedly above, below, and between our skillfully strung arboreal beds. Our Treeboat beds. The Treeboats are technical hammocks designed to safely suspend reclining climbers. They’re capable of supporting 5,500 pounds (each!) while still being gentle to the protective outer bark of the supporting trees. It was in these Treeboats that my partner, JQ (John Waller, wizard of the pretty pixels), and I, were lulled to rest by the rush of the tumbling Opal Creek below us and where we nestled into our mummy bags to dream, in subtle sway with a barely-there September breeze.
Why the hell was I asleep in a tree? Good question. Maybe I’ll go back a twig.
Ever since I read Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees” I’ve had it in my head to somehow find myself up inside the tangled towers of a forest canopy. As a kid growing up in and among the majestic redwoods of Northern California, the canopy was a fantastical avian penthouse, and with my bare toes tucked in to the soft folds of the sorrel, ferns, and moss floor below, I could only imagine what it must be like up inside the high branches. The broad and furry trunks were too large for even a chain of fifth-period-cutting high schoolers to wrap our connected arms around, and the nearest low branches were emphatically out of reach. It was “The Wild Trees,” however, that made me think that maybe I could reach those branches and perhaps scuttle and scrape my way along the juts, snags, and surprises to find out what secrets were tucked away so high and so far out of human reach. It was also “The Wild Trees” that made me add “sleep in a treetop” to my very, very short so-called “bucket list."*
This past year I shared my treetop dreams with JQ. He had served some tree time working with the non-profit Ascending the Giants and had met some talented arborists through ATG and his subsequent documentary project, “Treeverse.” He responded to my dream-turned-birthday wish with a quick and confident “I can help make that dream happen.” He introduced me to Damien Carré, owner-operator of Oregon Tree Care and Expedition Old Growth. It was through EOG that we would be making this dream come true in one of the most recently protected Oregon treasures, the Opal Creek Wilderness. Thanks to the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, Expedition Old Growth was granted the opportunity to guide us to the top of an old-growth tree. And so plans were made to spend the last weekend of my 38th year climbing a big ass tree in an ancient grove of Douglas fir, western redcedar, and western hemlock. I was going to spend the night among giants, some as old as 1,000 years!
Opal Creek Wilderness is about an hour east of Salem. It isn’t a secret area, by any means. The heart of Opal Creek is Jawbone Flats, a rejuvenated historic mining outpost in the midst of 35,000-acres of ancient forest watershed. It’s a relatively easy 3-mile hike into Jawbone Flats with popular swimming spots along the way. And on any given sunny day the trail is teeming with foot traffic. It's one of those special places that one might fear is at risk of being overrun and loved to death. The goal, beyond simply sleeping in the top of a tree, was to find a way to help love this special place to life. JQ and I opted to bring along our bikes instead of hiking in, “bike-packing” our way into Jawbone Flats where we would meet up with Damien and Ben, our Expedition Old Growth guides.
We stashed our bikes in the woods and set off behind Damien and Ben, tip-toeing across slick river rocks to our basecamp, just feet from the clear pools of Opal Creek. Up above our heads they had already strung our tree boats, our guest room for the night. My cheeks already hurt from smiling so hard. We then wandered over to check out the Douglas Fir that we would climb that day, a tree likely climbed only one time before us, when Ben had first scrambled up to anchor our ropes earlier that afternoon. That would be where we would have a gear-training session, and then we would ascend about 200 feet into the canopy. Standing at the base of this exquisite Douglas fir, I craned my neck as far back as I could and gazed up to where the sunrays flitted through the highest boughs. I couldn’t see the top. My heart swelled and spilled out the corners of my eyes.
After a quick cliff-jump into the frigid Opal Pool (one that I opted out of after seeing the stinging red cold water reminders on Damien’s arms) we were finally off to get acquainted with our climbing gear so that we could get friendly with our neighboring giant.
I’m not going to break down the required tree climbing apparatus here. This isn’t a gear story. It’s a relationship story, if you recall. And so for the weekend warriors who want to get after it and get into a tree, please don’t go it alone. Please consider taking the ascent into the canopy alongside folks who know how to climb trees with the proper care, respect, and technical skill, such as Expedition Old Growth. Great care was taken and often reiterated to us by our guides to minimize our impact on these ancient beings. And so Damien and I began our ascent with Ben and JQ soon to follow. Our hands were kept to our ropes, our toes merely tapping the trunk.
About a fourth of the way into our ascent I paused, sat back in my harness, and removed my gloves. My hands were sweaty. Tucking the gloves into my cleavage (anatomically built-in climb gear!) I proceeded climbing with my bare hands on the rope. The majority of the effort comes from leg work, not from the arms and hands, but about halfway up the tree when Damien and I took another pause to maneuver around the thickening tangle of boughs I glanced at my hands. I had completely shredded them on the rope. 6 large blisters were open and exposed and glistening. The gloves went back on, and we kept going up. Later Damien would point out an exposed area of a branch that had been scraped clean of lichen and moss -- 3 or 4 inches of 100 year old lichen, gone, an effect of our visit. "The way I see it," Damien said, "You just gave the tree some of your skin in exchange." Even with a mindful approach, it is completely impossible to have an impact-free climb. I paused and rested my palm gently against the lichen. I wasn't sorry for being here. But I was acknowledging that I was, in fact, an uninvited guest, and I hoped that my gratitude would be felt.
It isn't uncommon for tree-lovers (of which I consider myself one) to refer to trees as friends, to anthropomorphize them and ascribe emotions to them in ways that make us feel like we better understand them. It's a hard thing not to do. Being human is all we know how to be. So we assume a common ground of feeling, of benevolence or appreciation, in order to think we're communicating. But as I paused there with my hand against the lichen, suspended by ropes slung around the branches of a tree that didn't personally invite me there, my perspective shifted. This tree was not my friend. That was my own word, an assumption. So I attempted to search for a new idea, one that might transcend human emotions and instead be found in proximity and intention. Respect wasn't quite it -- respect still seemed too human an idea. With my hand gently hovering over the lichen and moss, and my heart beating so near to the trunk, I settled into this idea of acknowledgment instead. "I see you, and I know I need you, and you need me. I don't presume to know you. But I promise to pay closer attention." Understanding that while the tree and I don't have a shared language, it's possible we have a shared concept of acknowledgment and recognition. And perhaps, with an effort to stop anthropomorphizing trees and instead phytomorphizing myself, I could better understand how we might co-exist as neither The Giving Tree nor The Taking Human, but as true good neighbors. This perspective gave a new depth to my relationship with the sentient individuals that comprise the forest. Symbiosis experienced. Reciprocity revealed. It was an Avatar moment for sure.
And then there was beer. Ben and John emerged from beneath our feet. We hung out in our harnesses, taking in the sweeping 360 degrees of old growth splendor, and cracked a few well-earned IPAs. Best beer of my life? Without question.
Sipping on our treetop beers, we chatted on about the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, and how if it weren't for their conservation efforts all that we were witnessing from our 200-foot arboreal vista wouldn't be there. Not only would we have lost a rare piece of earth's history, we would have sacrificed a critical ecological component and compromised a vital watershed, and for what? Old-growth lumber isn't exactly practical in its applications. Ben described old-growth cedars simply exploding when cut down, rendering them useless for much more than matchsticks. Damien and I shared a beautiful conversation about the motivation to intimately connect others with old-growth trees -- our kids, our friends, our frenemies -- in order to firmly root a profound awareness of our symbiotic relationship with them.
While I was still grappling with this idea of acknowledgment and recognition as a form of communication, we discussed the language that trees share with each other. There is an unmistakable communication system, not so different from human neural and social networks. As an example, one tree in a grove could be under attack by an invasive bug. As the bug chomps on leaves, the tree releases volatile organic compounds into the air. The other trees detect these airborne stress signals and ramp up their production of a chemical defense mechanism in response, warding off attack. Makes it easy to wonder, are there signals being sent out to us that we simply don't have the awareness to receive?
With the promise of a streamside dinner of sweet potato and black bean quesadillas ... and with our beers emptied ... we decided it was time to return to the ground floor, but not without a few more gulps of the canopy breeze and, of course, some photographic evidence of where we had just been (in the unlikely scenario that we would ever forget!).
With figuring out the gear, getting into my ascender stride, and pausing to nurse my careless finger wounds, the ascent took me about 45 minutes. The descent however, maybe took 5 minutes, and it was a whole new thrill to see the forest floor gain back exquisite detail as I blissfully yet begrudgingly raced to greet it once again. (By the way, the next day Ben would ascend this beauty again in order to remove the ropes and anchors. The whole process - ascent, de-rig, and descent - took him just 12 minutes.)
Back on familiar territory, my tree-legs readjusting to life among the ferns, I paused to glance up at where we had just been moments before. It was surreal and yet remarkably tangible, all my senses cranked up to eleven. And I already wanted to go back. Head out of the clouds (but only literally), hugs and high fives shared among us, it was time for the next chapter in our treemendous weekend adventure: rock-a-bye Kelli, in a tree top.
We filled our bellies on a scrumptious dinner made on the spot by Damien next to Opal Creek. Some friends of his had insisted they contribute their respective culinary and bartending skills, and so we sipped from a bottle of Manhattans and noshed on blueberry cobbler with fresh-baked banana bread, for which I couldn't help but exclaim, "Oh Breanna!"-- a garbled and bulging-mouth thank you to the generous baker whom I'd never even met.
Surrounded by ancient firs and hemlocks, the shadows grew long and the laughter grew loud. There was a hum of persistent life flowing in and among our giddy group, and I sensed something akin to a warm welcome (though again that's my own human spin on things) bouncing back our way from the rocks on which we dined and the foliage through which we played. Smartwool leggings, my puffy coat, and my favorite tall striped camping socks were put on and I traipsed into the trees to try to squeeze every last drop out of my bladder before turning in -- or up, rather -- for the night.
Damien climbed up our night tree first, with me to follow. JQ would stay behind for a bit so I could ascend and string some lights around our Treeboats, because ... pretty! And while I felt solid in my earlier ascent, and this one would only be 75 feet up instead of 200 feet, the struggle became real. Someone (ahem) had insisted she didn't need first aid on her open finger wounds, and so even while wearing gloves, the friction against the rope proved agonizing, causing me to stop and rest in my harness and shake out the sting before ascending a few more feet. I had been so wrapped up in the intimacy of the days' events with these neighboring giants that I failed to wrap up the details of my raw digits.
Damien tucked me in with sage advice on where to hang my helmet and water bottle for the night, and he coiled the end of my rope next to me in my Treeboat with a fluid talent not unlike a fly fisher casting a line. It was mesmerizing. Then he bade me good night and JQ made the ascent to join me in our avian penthouse, where I waited with smiles, sleepy eyes, and chocolate truffles.
The truth is, I hardly slept that night. I was sufficiently comfortable, the waning summer still offering a friendly warmth. And despite a brief dream in which I tumbled out of the Treeboat only to flip back around to the top (assuring me that I had in fact slept, if only for a short while), I wasn't afraid in the slightest. This felt like a home I could get used to. The cedar fronds within my reach were comforting in their gentle shushing and sway, and both JQ and I couldn't resist petting them as one might a beloved pet. And when I finally allowed my eyes to remain open as the sky began to lighten and the birds trilled around me, I peered over the edge of my Treeboat to see what I was unable to see in the darkness of the night before. The creek tumbled down below on either side of us, never taking a moment to be completely still and quiet. The creek was as it was meant to be. The trees were as they were meant to be. And I was as I was meant to be. And here we were, all together, just being, as we were meant to be. I laid back into my bed, peering up through the branches, and shivered in silent appreciation. "I see you. I need you. And you need me. And I promise to pay closer attention." Because, after all, this is a relationship story.
To anyone who has ever felt the slightest tug of appreciation for a tree, please consider taking the ascent into the canopy (alongside folks who know what they're doing, such as Expedition Old Growth). While I can't speak for anyone's experience except my own, I cannot imagine you'll return to roots-level without a newfound understanding of this breathtaking symbiosis. I'm still dizzy with elation over the experience, and I am challenged to reinterpret my own relationship with trees, no longer seeing them as a "renewable resource" or even "friends" -- but instead as wondrous, mysterious neighbors in whom I can trust and for whom I will strive to be trustworthy.
The biggest of thank yous go to my partner John Waller, who set my wish in motion. To Damien Carré and Ben Trapanese of Expedition Old Growth, who are now my all time favorite tree people. And to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center for their stewardship in protecting the heart, soul, and lungs of the Opal Creek Wilderness, without them, well, this would have been a sad story after all.
Want to see more photos? Of course you do! Check out the full album from Uncage The Soul Productions.
Want a tree top experience of your own? How could you not?! Expedition Old Growth can cater an experience that best suits what you're after, whether it's an overnight, a family day trip, an educational class outing, or even an "elevator ride" up into the canopy.
Please consider supporting the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. Sign up for any of their workshops, expeditions, wilderness medicine courses, outdoor school, or even rent one of the cabins and enjoy a few days in the fascinating historic mining outpost of Jawbone Flats.