It's midafternoon as my dog Eddy and I trot along the trails in the shady inner sanctum of Seward Park. But for the distant rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker, the old-growth forest is quiet. At the center of the woods, singsong voices drift through the heavy green foliage, but we can't see anyone. Spooked, Eddy stops, ears cocked. We press on and come across a wicked-looking crossbow and ropes coiled beneath a big tree. Survivalists? Squirrel poachers? Then I look up—way up.
Climbers wearing harnesses and hard hats are calling out precise instructions to each other as they pirouette a hundred feet above us, hanging from the limbs of a huge Douglas fir. As the climbers gracefully rappel through the branches, I'm reminded of my own forays into the treetops. By age 12, I'd ripped all my jeans and pitched my hands black scaling the trees in my neighborhood. This Seward Park excursion to the tree canopy is a far more coordinated effort.
The group is from the University of Minnesota Urban Forestry Club; they've come out West to sample "really big trees," one of the climbers tells me after she lands. An organization called Tree Climbers International (TCI) was established in 1983 to promote the sport of "technical tree climbing" (using a rope and harness, as opposed to spikes used by professional arborists), built around teamwork, safety, and fun—unlike Julia Butterfly's tree-sitting political statements. Based in Atlanta, TCI has five "groves," or chapters, in the United States, as well as groves in Japan, Europe, and a lone climber in Botswana who scales baobab trees.
"The more stressful life on the ground becomes, the more some people feel the need to take time out in trees," says Peter Jenkins, tree surgeon and founder of TCI. He also emphasizes that the sport is noncompetitive, meaning you probably won't see "extreme tree climbing" on ESPN2 (although the unofficial height record has already been recorded atop a 365.5-foot redwood).
At many national parks, including California's Sequoia National Park—home to the giant redwood, or "holy grail"—tree climbing is off-limits and punishable by six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. In the Northwest, however, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management haven't restricted tree climbing (but you'd better get permission from city parks).
The lingo: A "flying traverse" is a high-wire bridge between two trees; hold on for "tree surfing" if the wind whips hard; "bark bite" leaves nasty scrapes; and "Ninja climbs" are most definitely law breakers. As they who brave tall trees say: "Strong limbs and snug ropes!" (For more info, check out www.treeclimbing.com.)