Peter Jenkins, the Treeman

By Tabatha Yeatts

You might think you know all the different kinds of sports there are, but have you heard of tree climbing?

“Do not tree surf during tornado warnings!” advises Peter Jenkins, who is undeniably the Treeman. Jenkins founded Tree Climbers International in 1983. Technical tree climbing, as opposed to the usual backyard kind, uses ropes, harnesses, and other climbing gear. Using this equipment enables tree climbers to reach new heights.

Jenkins and his fellow tree surfers venture up when a cold front blows into town: “You wait for the thunder and lightning to pass, and then ‘the surf is up.’” They climb to the top of healthy-looking trees (don’t get on one that’s leaning!) and ride the winds. “It’s very dramatic and extremely noisy,” Jenkins says. He explains, “On a limber tree, like a pine, you can get up to fifteen feet of whip on each side. Rigid trees, like white oaks, have less whip but are noisier.”

To make sure climbers can tell which trees are healthy enough for climbing and surfing, they need to take tree climbing classes. Jenkins’ Atlanta-based school teaches climbers how to go up safely. For instance, students learn about looking for and removing dead branches. “You don’t want to tie your rope to a dead branch,” cautions Jenkins. They also tell students about being on the lookout for wildlife such as bees and hornets’ nests. “The most terrifying thing is the sound of the bees flying in your ear,” he says. “That’s only happened twice to me. It taught me to LOOK CLOSELY. I bring out the binocs.”

Although climbers have occasionally been stung, tree climbing is so safe when done properly that Tree Climbers International starts teaching children as young as five. Jenkins observes, “The kids burn those ropes up. They’ve got no body weight, unlimited energy, and they are totally fearless. The lighter you are, the quicker you tend to be.” Women, who comprise fifty to sixty percent of his climbers, do very well, Jenkins says.

Another favorite tree climber activity is “tree camping.” As you might expect, camping at the top of a tree involves different equipment than on-the-ground camping. When climbers are tree camping, they set up specially-made hammocks in the tree’s canopy and lash mountaineering stoves to the branches for cooking meals. Treeman Jenkins says, “I like to go to the summit (uppermost) branch to take pictures when we do a ‘tree village.’ We have had as many as ten hammocks hanging in a tree at once.”

While he is tree camping, the Treeman enjoys calling owls. He says, “When you are at the top of a tree, your voice carries for miles. Owls are very territorial. They want to know who you are.” Jenkins’ owl-calling record is an hour and a half long “conversation” with a Great Horned Owl. He says he called the owl from three miles away and the owl landed on his hammock in a matter of minutes: “I flinched. It had a six foot wing span and was the most aggressive thing I’d ever seen. They can kill you.” The owl then moved to a nearby tree. Jenkins and the owl called back and forth until the owl’s mate arrived and Jenkins’ new friend went home.

It may sound crazy, but no one has more fun than the Treeman!

Visit the Tree Climbers International website.

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