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Lawrence group of arborists climbs, suspends from trees

February 22, 2019

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Even on winter days, arborists around Lawrence are ascending taut ropes high into trees.

When the branches are bare, it’s easier to examine a tree, making this a busy time for certified arborists.

While some arborists keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, others work from a bucket truck. But those known as climbing arborists specialize in using ropes to access tree tops to prune, remove deadwood and examine the health of a tree, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

It’s a skilled profession that’s also something of a sport.

A local group of climbing arborists gathers during the arborists’ time off to practice their skills. Chris Johnson, owner of Tuft’s Tree Service, Erin and Eric Massie, with Massie Tree Service, and Ryan Rastok, District 1 Forester with the Kansas Forest Service, who also has a tree service, meet to try out different techniques — and just to literally hang out.

“It’s our job, but it’s also fun,” said Rastok on a recent afternoon when the group gathered to climb a tree.

Donning helmets and strapped into harnesses, the arborists tossed ropes weighted with beanbags up to large limbs. The rope dropped down the other side of the limb, and the climbers clipped the ropes to their harnesses to help them position themselves in the tree — and to keep them safe should they slip.

“We isolate the limb and attach our climbing system to our rope and then climb up the rope to where we want to go in the tree,” said Rastok, a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture.

When actually working, they also wear safety glasses and hearing protection and attach a pruning saw and chain saw to the harness belt. It’s also good to include a first aid kit and blood stopper kit, Rastok said.

It takes practice to be safe and accurate; that’s why the group gets together and practices.

“There is a huge athletic aspect,” Johnson said.

While it takes stamina to climb a tree any time of the year, in winter, it’s imperative to keep the toes and fingers warm.

“I have hand and feet warmers and wear seven shirts and seven layers of pants, which helps with mobility, instead of wearing one bulky layer,” said Johnson, who has a degree from the University of Kansas in biodiversity and ecology and has been a climbing arborist for eight years.

After working for someone else, Johnson and Massie, who are both certified climbing arborists with the Kansas Arborist Association, decided to branch off and create their own businesses.

Along with aesthetic pruning, they also clear limbs from rooftops and do storm cleanup.

“We stay busy,” said Johnson, who has grown to love winter climbing. “I run a small crew and we are out every day.”

Except when it’s snowing. Johnson said it’s nice every once in a while to get a snow day.

The enthusiasm for the “tree life” can be contagious. Erin Massie never gave a thought to how trees were trimmed, until she went on a date with Eric. She soon fell in love with tree climbing and is now an apprentice under Eric Massie training to be certified with the Kansas Arborists Association.

All the arborists agree that it takes lots of practice to be safe and accurate, which is why they like to hang out on weekends in the trees.

There’s one constraint on honing their skills: They can only climb trees on private property. Despite all the tempting trees around town, it’s a violation of City of Lawrence ordinances to climb publicly owned trees.

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Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com

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