The bulk of life in the rainforest is found the leafy layers of the canopy. But little was known about this world until relatively recently, when hobbyists, naturalists, and researchers began devising ways to access the upper levels of the forest. These efforts accelerated in the 1970s when scientists started to use mountaineering techniques and ropes to climb towering rainforest trees for long-term study and observation.
Today tree climbing is widely used for research and recreation, but it isn’t a domain for amateurs: climbing giant trees presents unique risks and requires proper training to be undertaken safely.
That’s where tree climbing schools have a role. And while these schools offer training in the technical aspects of climbing, they also enable people to experience forests from a totally new perspective, according to Tim Kovar, a master tree climber, teacher, and founder of Tree Climbing Planet in Portland who has traveled around the world sharing his love and respect for the trees, as well as instructing students on tree awareness and preservation.
“When you are aloft in a tree, you open a door to a deeper sense of being, a deeper sense to our natural world. We use trees every day; they are essential for our survival,” he said. “From the house we live in to the air we breathe, we need them to live. When you climb up into the arms of a tree with an open mind, you slip into a very peaceful state – abandoned of burdens and voided of earthly responsibilities. It becomes a meditation, creating a true sense of connectedness to our natural existence.”
Kovar discussed his experiences during a January 2015 interview with Mongabay.com.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TREE CLIMBER TIM KOVAR
Mongabay.com: How do people generally respond when you tell them about your profession?
Tim Kovar: “You do what?” Not many people have heard of a professional tree climbing instructor; it is such a unique profession that they cannot believe someone could create a lifestyle of traveling the world climbing trees. It’s a child’s dream job. I especially enjoy hearing stories from others regarding the trees they used to climb as children. Most adults today have a favorite tree climbing story about which they forget. Many of them tap into their inner child when reliving these stories, and they seem to walk away fuller and richer. It becomes good medicine.
Mongabay.com: What drew you to pursue a career as a master tree climber?
Tim Kovar: I was searching for a different career path, one that would get me outdoors and away from the confines of the typical four-walls employment. I started technical tree climbing as a working arborist for a small tree company in Atlanta, Georgia.
Mongabay.com: How did you incorporate your other passions into a career as a professional tree climber?
Tim Kovar: I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors, I feel most at home the deeper I am in the wild. After several years of vagabonding around the world, I witnessed first hand the destruction of our natural world. What hit me the hardest was seeing the rapid deforestation of our planet. After a trip to Thailand in 1999, I made it a priority to create a path that would reconnect people with our natural world. My theory is that if people can identify and appreciate the wild areas, they will want to protect them. So, my thinking was that if I could introduce the average Joe to the canopies of the world, perhaps they would see life from a different perspective.
Mongabay.com: Was there a childhood experience that specifically influenced your career?
Tim Kovar: Trees have always been a part of my life. I grew up in a small Nebraskan town and we had several trees in the backyard. I would find myself in those trees just about every day after school. I would also climb the neighbors’ trees, usually without their permission. I noticed at a young age that the world was different when observed from the tree tops; time seemed to stand still and move at a slower – more mythical – pace. I’ve always found peace in the trees.
Mongabay.com: What is the nature of your job?
Tim Kovar: I’ve been climbing trees with rope and saddle for over twenty years. I currently have a technical tree climbing school, Tree Climbing Planet, near Portland, Oregon. I also bring these courses to remote locations around the world such as the rainforest in Central America, the Amazon basin in Brazil, Western Ghats in India, mountains in Japan, the Caribbean islands, the Nordic countries, Europe and Africa.
Mongabay.com: When you decided to pursue tree climbing professionally, where did you begin?
Tim Kovar: I started as a production climber, doing tree work in residential areas. After five years of toting a chainsaw in the trees, I made the shift into teaching others how to climb trees for a variety of reasons: canopy research, recreational purposes, photography, film, eco-tourism, therapy, adventure, science, etc.
Mongabay.com: What is your favorite part of your job?
Tim Kovar: Introducing others to the world above our heads is a magical part of what I do. Bringing physically challenged kids into the canopy makes my heart so happy. For many of these children, it is the first time in their lives that they are ‘out of reach’ of their parents and doctors. They are overflowed by a sense of freedom.
Mongabay.com: What led you to open a school for tree climbing?
Tim Kovar: There are not many places where the general public can learn to climb trees. I wanted to create a space where people could come and emerge themselves into the art of technical tree climbing. Tree Climbing Planet was the first tree climbing school to offer week-long courses giving the student the tools, knowledge and experience to go out and climb trees on their own. No one else was taking tree climbing training to the depth that I desired.
Mongabay.com: How did you decide on a location for Tree Climbing Planet?
Tim Kovar: I worked for a few other tree climbing schools near Atlanta, Georgia and we were bringing a lot of tree awareness to the southeastern USA. I noticed, however, that there was no professional tree climbing school west of the Rockies. Having vagabond blood in my veins, I decided to move out to the Pacific Northwest and open the first technical tree climbing school on the west coast. After a few years of teaching in Southern Oregon, I landed on a location that has become a tree climbing mecca for many. Tree Climbing Planet’s home base is on a 150-acre Oak savannah. Many of the students actually stay on site during their training. TCP is actually growing into a tree climbing camp.
Mongabay.com: Are there specific types of trees that are more suitable for climbing than others?
Tim Kovar: Oak, Maple, and Walnut trees are ideal trees for training. Trees with wide spreading crowns offer a variety of experiences and diversity for lateral movement when climbing. The really tall trees, like old growth redwoods, are more challenging and should only be climbed for purpose beyond self. These old trees are the elders of the forest and needed to be treated with respect.
Mongabay.com: If part of your goal in teaching is to offer your students a deeper appreciation for our natural world, do you have examples of student carrying this knowledge forward?
Tim Kovar: Many of my students come to learn tree climbing to help spread natural awareness. Some of my students take these skills back to their country and start eco-tourism projects, exploring the canopy in unique ecosystems. Others have created documentaries and online science projects to help re-educate the public to the natural world.
Mongabay.com: What is your desire for students to take away from your courses?
Tim Kovar: I want my students to experience a deeper connection to themselves and to our natural world.
Mongabay.com: Tell us about your students. What draws people to your courses?
Tim Kovar: My students range from age six to eighty-five, from all around the world. They all have a passion to be around the trees, regardless of their purpose for attending my classes. I believe people are drawn to my courses due to the approach that TCP takes to the trees. We treat the trees we climb with the utmost respect. Safety for both climber and tree is our first priority. I teach from worldly experience; I’ve climbed all around the planet and I teach from that experience. People come to my classes as students but leave as friends.
Mongabay.com: What has been your favorite tree climbing experience so far?
Tim Kovar: I love introducing tree climbing to foreign countries, knowing that my students will be sharing this new world with their own citizens. One of my students once told me, “Tim, you need to keep planting tree climbers around the world,” and I’m driven by this statement.
Mongabay.com: Do you have any funny anecdotes from your adventures?
Tim Kovar: There’s nothing like climbing trees in the rainforest and looking down to see a monkey climbing up your rope. It’s fantastic, thrilling and humorous when the monkey realizes the rope is not a ‘natural’ vine.
Mongabay.com: What has been your scariest tree climbing moment?
Tim Kovar: My biggest fear in tree climbing is individuals not receiving the proper training, resulting in an accident. Tree Climbing Planet has a perfect safety record with no serious injuries; we’ve only had a few rope burns and blisters. My scariest moments are when I enter a tree with bees or wasps; you need to keep your cool and descend as quickly as possible. Ants also can create a problem in some trees.
Mongabay.com: What is the tallest tree you’ve ever climbed?
Tim Kovar: I’ve worked with some researchers in tall redwoods, up to 350 feet. I was also part of an expedition that climbed into the world’s fifth largest tree, a giant sequoia on private property.
Mongabay.com: Is there a location you would love to climb, but have not yet experienced?
Tim Kovar: Madagascar is on the bucket list. I would love to experience the Baobab trees and also get to climb with the lemurs.
Mongabay.com: When you climb abroad, what profession of people do you take into the tree canopies?
Tim Kovar: I usually teach my international students the art of facilitating others into the tree tops of their country, for eco-tourism and guiding others into their canopies. Other international courses focus on working with canopy researchers who are exploring the trees for research.
Mongabay.com: If you could only continue your tree climbing in one location, where would you choose?
Tim Kovar: I would stay here in Oregon. The trees at the tree climbing school are perfect for teaching and the diversity of Oregon offers a wide variety of tree climbing opportunities.
Mongabay.com: Can you describe the feeling of being in the canopy of the trees?
Tim Kovar: Peace. When you ascend into the tree tops, all of your worldly problems seem to sink back into the earth. It has been a great place to collect my thoughts and help connect with myself. For me, being in the top of a tree is like going to church – you feel closer to the creator.
Mongabay.com: What does tree climbing provide for individuals beyond just sitting underneath a tree, or exploring nature in a different fashion?
Tim Kovar: You see life with different eyes when you are perched on a branch. A few years ago, I guided an elderly Amazonian indigenous man into the canopy of his jungle home. He lived his whole life in this forest and could walk the trails blindfolded. He knew where all the medicinal and edible plants were, knew when and where to hunt and fish, the flowers, the insects and the winds. This man was connected to his home. After about twenty minutes in the top of a tall tree, I saw a tear come from his eye. He said, “I thought I knew my home, but today I realize there is much more to learn and see. Being in this tree has opened my eyes to a much bigger picture of where I am and who I am. Thank you.” His thanks were not to me, but to the tree for giving him this new perspective on life.
Mongabay.com: Are you looking to expand Tree Climbing Planet in the future?
Tim Kovar: TCP is continuing to grow. It is a very organic organization and I look forward to see where it will be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, etc.
Mongabay.com: How do you balance your tree climbing excursions with your family life?
Tim Kovar: One of my dreams is to take my family on a worldwide adventure, where we can visit TCP’s international friends and explore the exceptional canopies of the world. I feel very blessed to have the life I created; sharing this blessing with my loved ones makes my heart sing.
Mongabay.com: Have you ever taken your family into the tree canopies?
Tim Kovar: Yes. One of my tree climbing highlights was when I took my mother and father up into the crown of a Black Walnut and we spent the night aloft in the tree’s arms. We still talk about that magical time. My daughter is my tree climbing sidekick; she’s a natural.
Mongabay.com: If you could define your tree climbing experience in one word, what would you choose and why?
Tim Kovar: “Connectedness.” When you are aloft in a tree, you open a door to a deeper sense of being, a deeper sense to our natural world. We use trees every day; they are essential for our survival. From the house we live in to the air we breathe, we need them to live. When you climb up into the arms of a tree with an open mind, you slip into a very peaceful state – abandoned of burdens and voided of earthly responsibilities. It becomes a meditation, creating a true sense of connectedness to our natural existence. Welcome to the world of TreeTime.