I love trees! Especially great big beautiful ones like the picture above. There is just something so calming about them. I find peace when I am in the woods surrounded by trees and am struck with awe when I see a solidary oak tree in a field with its branches all stretched out.
I have always loved climbing them too. Growing up, I climbed the Bradford pear trees in my front yard, even when they were in full bloom with their small white flowers that smelled like dead fish. I remember getting sticky sap all over my hands from climbing a great big hemlock at my parents’ cabin in Blue Ridge. Even as I grew up, I still climbed trees when I found one suited for climbing. In college, I often climbed the magnolia trees on campus. But until recently, I had never climbed a tree as stunning as Naomi Ruth. The branches on such trees are usually too high or far apart to facilitate climbing. However, with the help of some ropes and clever knots, I climbed up into the branches of Naomi Ruth!
A long, long time ago, I learned about Panola State Park’s tree climbing program. Something last fall reminded me about it, so I made the decision one day while stuck at home on the weekend studying, that I was going to get out there and try it! And so I did. One Saturday a month, Panola State Park hosts an introductory class for tree climbing. There is a small fee ($15) and reservations are required.
I’ve been to Panola State Park previously; my dad and I have ridden bikes to and from there on the PATH, a network of paved trails. So when I drove to Panola for my climbing class, I entered through the gate that I’ve always gone through, only to be told by a nice park employee that I needed to go to the other entrance down by the lake. His directions to the other entrance were fine, but his directions to the climbing tree were lacking. Basically, he said to park down by the lake, and that the climbing tree would be there. While he was technically correct, I assumed that I would be able see the giant tree from the parking lot.
I was glad that I had arrived a bit early, because as I walked down by the lake, I did not see a giant oak tree, nor did I see a group of people. I was just walking back up to the parking lot to look for a map, when a car stopped near me. It turns out that a very nice man and his daughter were also looking for the climbing tree. Thankfully, they had a map, with the location of the tree on it. The father proclaimed that he was hopeless with maps, but I at least was proficient enough to find the tree. It helped that I was somewhat familiar with the park.
The father, daughter, and I turned down a dirt path off the main paved trail and Naomi Ruth came into view. Oh how stunning! The three of us joined the little group gathered off to the side by the trailer to get sized for gear, sign waivers, and learn how to climb using the rope system. At Panola, they use the double rope technique for climbing, which involves a single rope over a branch, a harness, a foot loop, and a series of knots used for ascending and descending. To climb, you sit back in the harness and slide the footloop up the rope. Then, you place a foot or two into the footloop, grab the rope inbetween the knots, and stand up! As you stand, you slide the top knot up as far as you can. Then you sit back and repeat.
It sounds simple, and in reality after and try or two it’s not hard. But, for whatever reason, my footloop just did not want to lock off when I stepped on it. The guides tried retying it, getting a different footloop, to no avail. Finally, they gave up and showed me how to hold the bottom of the rope in my hands as I stood up to create an extra loop so my footloop would tighten. That probably makes no sense without seeing what I’m talking about, but suffice to say, it made climbing a bit more difficult.
With my love of being up high, I chose the tallest empty rope I could find. After adjusting for the footloop issue, up and away I went! I inched my way up the rope a few feet at a time. I purposefully chose a rope that passed by a nearby branch that I could stand on. It’s funny how much more secure I felt when sitting back in my harness as opposed to standing on the tree branch. It was so wonderful to be up high in the tree, viewing the world through the gaps between leaves of the canopy.
After reaching the top, I was eager to climb another rope and explore a different part of the tree. I wiggled the trailing end of my rope to signal to one of the guides I was ready to come down. To descend, I pulled downwards on the top rope with both hands, while the guide controled the speed by belaying me.
My next rope was even taller than the first. I joyfully inched my way up. I was amazed at how much simpler and easier it was to work with a footloop that tightened correctly. However, I had first learned to climb with making that extra loop, so I often caught myself making the extra loop even though it wasn’t necessary. As part of the climbing experience, the guides encourage you to flip upside down. After getting the okay from a guide that I wasn’t going to kick someone in the face or hit a tree branch, I was told to kick my feet up and lean back. Apparently, I was much more enthusiastic than most people because the guide made a strangled noise of surpise and suggested “not so hard next time.” Oops.
When I was just over halfway up the second rope, the guides announced that we only had a few minutes left to climb, and that they would start bringing climbers down. I was determined to make my way to the top, so I inched up the rope as fast as I could. More and more students were being lowered to the ground, but up and up I went. Triumphantly, I touched the corrogated plastic that protects the tree from rope burn. Just in time too, because then it was my turn to be lowered.
After climbing, I talked with one of the guides about the other tree climbing events they host at Panola. The one I was most interested in was the Wild climbs, where you go into the surrounding forest and climb a “wild” tree. The guide mentioned that we could climb a huge 200 ft (I think that’s what he said, but I could be making that up) poplar tree. Can you imagine being so high up that you look out over the tops of other trees? The minimum excursion size is two. Anyone interested in tree climbing with me?