Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Branching out: Tree climbers gear up to enjoy Winnipeg's vast urban forest

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"What's up?"

That was the question on people's lips last weekend when Lori Fast and her business partner, Amanda Huculak, teamed up with Christopher Barkman, a certified tree-climbing instructor, to introduce Winnipeggers to recreational tree-climbing. The activity is popular in other parts of the world but, until now, hadn't branched out into this neck of the woods.

On July 26 and 27, Fast, Huculak and Barkman -- yes, his last name is Barkman; yes, he climbs trees -- set up shop in Pembina Fisher Park, near Churchill Drive. For six hours each day Barkman and his associate, Justin Gauthier, took turns guiding interested parties to the crown of a 100-year-old American Basswood tree on the western edge of the green space.

Only this wasn't climbing in the traditional, Swiss-Family-Robinson-sense of the word. Participants, who ranged in age from three to 70, donned snug, saddle-style-harnesses, which were hooked onto ropes securely looped around tree limbs 20 metres above the ground. Climbers ascended their individual ropes by manoeuvring a pulley-system involving knots and loops. When they got as high as their line would take them, they were free to explore the tree's canopy -- or sit back and enjoy the view -- while remaining tethered to their cable. (For the sake of the climbers, Barkman and Gauthier personally inspected the tree beforehand, to make sure the limbs they chose could bear each person's weight. And for the sake of the tree, cambium sheaths were slipped over the ropes to guard against friction.)

"When we announced what we were doing, a lot of the responses we got were along the lines of, 'What do you mean by tree-climbing?' because not too many people associate climbing trees with putting on a bunch of gear," says Fast, who was born in Altona but grew up in Nigeria, where her parents taught school in conjunction with the Mennonite Central Committee. "But after we explained that they wouldn't be free-climbing -- that they'd be in a harness attached to a rope and that they could go right to the very top--- they were like, 'Oh, that sounds really interesting.' "

Winnipeg boasts one of the largest urban forests in North America -- a fact that never really dawned on Fast until she was returning home last summer. "When you're flying over places like Toronto, you look out the window and all you see is cement. But as were approaching Winnipeg, I suddenly noticed how green and lush everything looked," says Fast, who together with Huculak, runs Travel Roots, a travel agency specializing in trips to exotic destinations off the so-called beaten path. "A couple of days later I told myself, 'Winnipeg has so many awesome trees; there has to be a way to explore them.' "

Enter Barkman, a native of Landmark who was blown away by the majesty of Winnipeg's trees after he moved to the city about 15 years ago.

"I remember my first winter going for walks; I lived in River Heights and was just stunned by the elms and oaks lining the boulevards," says Barkman. "Every once in a while I'd stop and gaze up and wonder what it would be like to be up there." He found out soon enough; after reading about people who were using ropes to get to the tops of trees as tall as 20-storey buildings. Barkman, by then a trained arborist, travelled to Georgia to take a facilitator's course offered by Tree Climbers International, an organization that established the world's first tree-climbing school in that state in 1983.

"Atlanta has trees three times the size of the ones in Winnipeg and when you get about halfway up, it becomes a bit like mountain-climbing," he says. "You have to pause and figure out where your next line is going to go, and you keep doing that until you reach your destination."

Fast was sold on the sport the first time Barkman escorted her to the top of a tree in St. Vital Park.

"We were sitting up there relaxing when an eagle swooped down to check us out," she says. "It was absolutely mind-blowing and definitely not the sort of opportunity that comes along every day."

Travel Roots is the first company in Winnipeg to offer recreational tree-climbing excursions. Although Fast and Huculak plan on staging more public demonstrations like the one in Pembina Fisher Park, their goal is to offer private lessons -- either to companies interested in team-building exercises or to parents looking for birthday party ideas. (Fast and Huculak are still working on pricing, but for now, $60 gets you approximately 60 minutes of climbing time, with all the necessary gear included.)

"We'd also love to associate ourselves with schools and camps," Fast says, noting climbing is also a terrific form of exercise that requires a fairly strong core. "Chris could escort kids up into the trees and teach them about all the different birds and insects that live up there, about the bark and the leaves... it would give them a really authentic experience with nature."

Barkman says it takes him "oh, about three seconds" to figure out if a tree fits his needs or not. Elms are among his favourites, he says, because they tend to be wide enough at the top that three people -- the maximum number he'll let climb at any one time -- can head up without getting in each other's way. "Cottonwoods are pretty good, too, but they have a tendency to be a bit more brittle," he says, noting he and Fast hope to climb redwoods in California next year and baobabs in Madagascar the year after that.

"You have to look at the architecture of the tree -- how it's shaped. But for the most part, I'm looking for something tall and relatively open, that will allow for a few climbing lines." Fast says since she added tree-climbing excursions to her company's slate of options, she's been walking around town a bit differently.

"For sure, I'm looking up a lot more than I used to," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes I'll spot a perfect climbing tree in somebody's backyard and be tempted to knock on the door and say, 'Have you SEEN your tree? It's perfect!"

Finally, remember that old nursery rhyme -- the one that goes, "So-and-so and so-and-so sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G?"

Well, Fast and Huculak have an answer for that, too.

"There are hammocks and tents you can buy that set up in the branches of a tree," Huculak says. "So we're thinking of maybe marketing a romantic evening for couples; they can head up with a picnic basket full of goodies, with Chris hanging around outside, asking, 'Do you guys need anything in there?' "

For more information on recreational tree-climbing in Winnipeg, go to www.travelroots.org and follow the links under Tree Climbing Adventures.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 D11

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