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Go climb a tree

One woman finds her bliss 20 feet or more above the ground, among the branches of live oaks and Australian pines. And she'd like to give you a leg up.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published November 22, 2005


photo
[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
Cally Lanning, 17, swings nearly 20 feet above the ground from a live oak tree at Boyd Hill Nature Park in St. Petersburg.

Erica Moulton, an experienced tree climber, leads expeditions for Pathfinder Inc., which sponsored a tree climbing class at Boyd Hill in November.  

 
St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Klinkenberg climbs a live oak.   photo

Barney Waterbury ascends nearly 20 feet, attaching another guide line to a live oak.

ST. PETERSBURG - As I clung to the oak tree, the fer-de-lance snake bit me on the soft flesh below the elbow. At least that's how it felt. When I looked, I saw I had actually scraped my arm on tree bark.

My imagination was running wild. I hadn't climbed a tree in 40 years. As I perched on a limb two stories above the earth at Boyd Hill Nature Park, I felt like Tarzan.

Below me, watching carefully, was my Jane, a woman named Erica Moulton, who is about the coolest grownup in the world. At 35, she gets paid for climbing trees and coaching old silverbacks like me to climb without killing themselves.

Attached to the tree and to Erica with ropes and harnesses, I was supposed to feel perfectly safe. If I fell, the ropes were supposed to keep me from a broken neck. I have an untrusting kind of mind.

"Okay, now you can walk out to the end of the limb," she yelled in my direction. "We call it "wing walking.' Go ahead and give it a try."

Oongowa!

Tarzan was frozen with fear.

Adventure, indeed

"Don't you just love it?" she called up.

I stayed put.

Meanwhile, this kid, about 10 years old, grabbed another rope and flew up the tree. I checked for prehensile toes, but he was wearing sneakers.

"Kids have no fear," I heard Erica say to another adult.

Erica teaches biology at Hillsborough Community College. She and colleagues also teach a course in tree climbing. They often work with an outfit in St. Petersburg, Pathfinder Inc., which offers a series of programs designed for the adventure-minded. Pupils range from children to the elderly, from elementary school classes to corporate leadership seminars.

Adventuresome folks with a yen to climb learn about the natural history of trees and about birds and insects that dwell in trees. They learn the value of teamwork and work up a sweat. Once they get over their fear, they are likely to enjoy the experience, or at least the view.

When I was a kid, climbing trees was not a complicated thing. All you needed were hands and feet and ambition. Every kid on my block in Miami climbed trees. We climbed oak trees and banyans, mangoes and grapefruits. In our bare feet, we scrambled up coconut palms. I fell out of a tree house once, when a board broke, and I have a scar on my chin to prove it.

I tried to show Erica my scar from the Howdy Doody era, but I don't think she was impressed.

She grew up in St. Petersburg, near Weedon Island, and remembers climbing Australian pines all the way to the top. "But don't tell my mom," she tells people now. Once she reached the top, she'd climb across a limb to the next pine. From that pine she'd haul herself into the next tree in line. She remembers traveling for blocks without having to come down.

All without ropes, of course.

Communing from high above

As an adult, Erica believes in good equipment. She carries about $300 worth of stuff in her van. She has special clips called carabiners and cords and ropes and helmets and special climbing saddles and harnesses.

She tosses a long cord over a high tree limb. Then she ties the cord to a rope and hauls the rope over the limb. Then she ties the two ends of the rope together with a sliding knot called the Blake's Hitch. The knot can be manipulated to slide up or down.

"Getting your ropes right is the big challenge," she says.

Tree climbing is a national phenomenon. In the Pacific Northwest, scientists scale redwoods 35 stories tall. Once up, they stay for a spell. They cook in the giant trees and even sleep in them. In much of the country, especially the South, tree climbing is a growing sport.

Last spring, Erica and colleagues took a course in tree climbing from a Georgian named Abe Winters, the Paul Bunyan of tree men. He is 60 years old and has a flowing white beard like John Muir. A former Special Forces Ranger, he lives in a log cabin. Since 1989 he has taught people to climb trees, or, as he puts it on his Web site: "I have facilitated ropes courses, both low courses for group initiative and problem-solving and high courses for personal growth, challenging preconceived boundaries and trust issues."

Erica was a natural. She likes adventure. After graduating from Northeast High, she attended Long Island University. The highlight was sailing from Maine to Haiti and studying coastal zone ecology. She graduated from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and got her master's from Prescott College in Arizona.

Among her studies was sea turtle work in Guyana. When Floridians complain about mosquitoes, she remembers hiking beaches at night in Guyana, sweating profusely in the humidity and killing a dozen mosquitoes in a single swat. When she isn't climbing trees, she enjoys scuba diving and caving. One time I met her at Eckerd College and watched her teaching marine science students how to build underwater robots. "They think it's all about dolphins, sea turtles and fish," she said. "It's about technology, too."

She is married and changes the oil in her husband's car. She and Sean, a Web designer, have two small children, Dalton and Malaki. Malaki's middle name is Forest. His mother hopes he learns to love trees.

In the Tarzan movies, Maureen O'Sullivan played Jane. An attractive woman with curly black hair, Jane always wore a skimpy leopard skin outfit. To me she looked too puny to handle herself in a tree. She must have had a double. Erica Moulton has black curly hair, but also muscle. She has no interest in wearing leopard skin. When she climbs a tree, she dons long pants, a cotton T-shirt and sensible shoes.

When she drives through the Tampa Bay area, she habitually rubbernecks. She is looking into yards for nice trees worthy of climbing.

"I have tree envy," she said.

Limb from limb

She tied me up. It felt that way, with ropes going this way and that. The diaper I was wearing was actually some kind of saddle. She showed me where to put feet and hands. As I stepped on one loop, I pushed the knot above me with my hands.

Voila! Suddenly I was 6 inches higher.

There were 10 of us climbing the tree. We looked like spiders at the ends of silk lines as we ascended.

I was the slowest spider.

The young kids, swinging to and fro, went up like monkeys.

I went up like an anvil.

At 56, I was the oldest climber.

Once I got to the limb, I wanted to stay forever.

Unfortunately, it was getting dark.

At Erica's urging, I let myself fall off the limb. I swung through the air like a portly Ewok.

Then I came down.

Oh, sweet terra firma.

"Congratulations," said Erica, offering her hand.

She had a nice, soft grip.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

TO LEARN MORE

For more information about tree climbing expeditions in west-central Florida, contact Erica Moulton at 813 253-7523 or call Pathfinder Inc. at (727) 328-0300 or go to www.pathfinder-ed.org

[Last modified November 21, 2005, 15:33:50]


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