A number of years ago, as I was perusing the Tree Climbers International message board, I found a letter from Jill Laidlaw, the director at a YWCA camp in SE Michigan, requesting more information on tree climbing and its possible applications for her camp population. I emailed her and, after several exchanges, made arrangements to meet her at a planned overnight stop that her group was making on an Ausable River canoe trip, in order to give her an idea of what it was about. As a consequence of that meeting I made a couple of trips to the camp to teach some of her staff the techniques involved in the sport. Among those people were Bob Remenapp and Dennis Furlong, who eventually formed the group Arborquest,. All three of these people saw all of the potential that tree climbing offered for disabled climbers. Being enthusiastic in the extreme, they soon had all of their aquaintences enthused as well.
Since Bob works at the University of Michigans Mott Childrens Hospital and also helps at their summer camp for ventilator dependant kids, tree climbing soon spread there, and staff from both camps were getting certified as facilitators by Abe Winters of Tree Climbing USA in Atlanta.
In October of 2002, I was asked by Bob to do a class for several of the volunteer staff for the Trails Edge Camp, as the Universitys program is known. Bob had introduced tree climbing to the camp that summer and it proved to be tremendously popular among the campers and staff both.
All of the kids that attend Trails Edge Camp are dependant for some portion of the day on ventilators to keep them alive. For some it is only at night for others it is 24/7. Many of the kids are quadrapalegic for any of several reasons and for these the effect of being in the tree is the most profound. Imagine, if you can, looking at life from your bed or your wheelchair all of the time. Then imagine being hoisted twenty or thirty feet into the air on the end of a climbing rope suspended from a tree in a Michigan forest. The expressions on the faces of these kids when they are in the tree ranges from the normal apprehension that everyone feels the first time hanging on that rope, to radiant, indescribable happiness at the experience of looking at the world from such a dramatically different vantage point. For many of them it is the most remembered event of a week of memorable events. As for me, seeing the looks on their faces changed my life.
Let me back up a bit to offer some background: Sometime before that weekend in October, the director of the camp, Mary Buschell, realizing the special effect that tree climbing had had on the campers of Trails Edge, had set a project in motion to build a tree house that would enable the campers to actually spend the night in the tree. The project was made possible by funds set up as a memorial for one of the co-founders, Craig VanLannen, who succumbed to Cystic Fibrosis and who had been very special to both the staff and the campers.
Now, it has to be realized that building a tree house for this population is no small undertaking. Since the wheelchairs that the kids use are highly specialized, self-propelled vehicles that weigh in at around 400 pounds each, taking them up into the tree house was out of the question. Realizing that this was beyond the scope of the normal tree house, Mary went to the Universitys Department of Architecture and Design and asked if anyone would be interested in taking on such an unusual project. The project was heartily embraced by Kristine Synnes, who was at the University on a teaching fellowship from Norway. Along with her came two gifted graduate students: Cathy Maurer and Mark Weston.
As coincidence would have it, we all came together on that October weekend at Camp Fowler, the facility where Trails Edge camp is held every June. The architects brought along plans and models of the tree house as they had imagined it. Mary showed a video of the campers climbing. Everyone who saw it, including me, was captivated. Since then the tree house has undergone several design changes that have turned it into a very dramatic structure indeed. The tree house structure is large, about 10 wide by 30 long and contains a track system and special chairs designed especially for the kids that will be using them, to allow the campers as much mobility as possible within the tree house,. Since the house itself is too large to be supported by an actual tree (at least the size trees that are native to the site) it is supported on a unique steel structure called a cantilevered branching column which, according to its designer Peter Von Bulow, is the only one of its kind in the world. This branching column resembles a tree: having both roots and branches. The tree house it supports projects through the canopy of a mature, 24 inch diameter red maple, which has been named Reta. Reta, in turn, sits at the edge of a wetland or pond (depending on the time of the year). A system of boardwalks takes the approaching campers around the entire wetland to the launch pad where the campers leave their chairs for the ascent, through the trap door and into the structure itself. They are lifted on a specialized lift system called a P.A.C.T System designed by Abe Winters specifically for the non-ambulatory camper. Once in the tree house, they are transferred from their specially rigged climbing saddles (a combined effort by the folks at Arborquest and New Tribe) into the track-mounted chairs. Their night in the tree is accompanied by several care-givers to insure their medical well being, but the magic of the place takes care of the rest.
For more than a year now, volunteers have traveled to the tree house site to contribute in whatever way they can to the construction effort. Some of them drive for as long as three or four hours to be there. Some sleep in the cabins some in their vehicles, some in Treeboats slung between trees on the site. All are fed fit for royalty by the culinary skills of Mary, who believes, rightly so, that good food is the way to keep the help coming. And it kept them (us) coming through a brutal Michigan winter and adverse site conditions that threw constant, and seemingly insurmountable problems at us constantly. Although burnout has had its inevitable effect on many, many others have come on board to continue the effort.
While it isnt tree climbing in the sense that most of us know it, it is the most interesting and moving application of tree climbing techniques that I know of and I am thankful every day for having been brought to it. It feels great knowing that I have had even a small part in bringing a special kind of happiness to a special kind of kid. And as we move towards our dedication date of June 6, 2004, I for one, want to thank every one involved in this very special project for their role. However small it might have seemed at the moment, there is no way we could have gotten to the place we are without everyone.