BOISE — Twenty years ago, David Anderson started climbing trees out of necessity. As a graduate student at Boise State University, he was researching birds in Honduras — but he was missing huge pieces of information about the treetop dwellers.
“My thesis required I climbed to the tallest trees,” Anderson said in an interview.
He spent years researching from the canopies of rainforests, where he found a completely different world. Now he’s bringing others there, too.
“I’m trying to send a message to the Treasure Valley,” Anderson said. “Tree climbing is really misunderstood.”
Anderson’s climbing is not the typical tree climbing kids do, monkeying from branch to branch. He climbs in a way similar to arborists, with a harness and ropes that allow him to head straight to the canopy. A biologist at the Peregrine Fund by trade, Anderson also has a side business called Canopy Watch, through which he leads guided climbs like the one he hosted this month at the Idaho Botanical Garden.
“What I noticed when I was doing research is climbing a tree has a big emotional impact on people,” Anderson said. “Everyone starts off scared, but when people go up the ropes they’re thrilled.
“They learn more about the natural world and about themselves,” he added. “I can see it on their faces every time. Everyone says it’s life-changing.”
Thirteen-year-old August Mussler-Wright enjoyed his first climb at the Botanical Garden so much that he went on a second climb with Anderson earlier this summer. He said Anderson taught climbers how to spot a healthy tree and showed them a new view of the garden.
“It reminded me of being in a plane,” Mussler-Wright said. “It’s a very interesting experience in that you get to see from a bird’s-eye view. That’s really the essence of the experience.”
Anderson said he tries to teach climbers about the role of trees in the Treasure Valley in hopes of giving them a new appreciation for the City of Trees.
“We live in a desert,” Anderson said. “Imagine Boise without these trees. Trees make us happy, and we take them for granted.”
Not only do they provide shade, trees in urban centers can also help reduce the effects of climate change and lower temperatures, research shows. In 2017, the Boise Community Forestry office estimated there were nearly 50,000 trees in Boise alone, and the Treasure Valley Canopy Network cooperative is working to plant even more.
That’s the kind of work Anderson is advocating for through his guided climbs. But his influence is spreading beyond the Treasure Valley. Anderson has also worked with researchers as close as Utah and as far away as Colombia and Honduras to teach climbing techniques to local biologists.
Becky Williams, an associate professor in biology at Utah State University, was introduced to Anderson by a student. His tree climbing training has quickly changed her work with the Raptor Research Foundation studying birds of prey.
“We really wanted to have access to our raptors,” Williams said in a phone interview. “But we needed a way to get up there.”
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That’s where Anderson came in. Students and staff alike have learned how to access the canopy, leading to more opportunities for data collection and research.
“We were able to access our nests and band our baby birds and collect blood samples,” Williams said.
Thanks to tree climbing, Williams said, her team will be able to fit ferruginous hawks with tracking backpacks, allowing researchers to collect information about where the birds are going and what exactly they’re doing at all times.
“The ability to reach habitats that we haven’t in the past ... is really a world that’s unexplored and completely alien to the ground environment we’re used to,” she said. “The potential research applications from tree climbing are very broad.”
How to climb trees by rope
Anderson starts each climb by threading a small rope over a branch he wants to reach, either by tossing the rope (weighted down at the far end) by hand or with the help of a comically large slingshot. From there, he feeds his climbing rope over the branch, secures his harness to the rope and begins his ascent using a rope wrench and friction hitch to allow him to move safely upward and downward. When he reaches the canopy, he’ll sometimes walk from branch to branch or, if the trees are close enough to allow it, from tree to tree.
Despite seemingly similar techniques and equipment, Anderson emphasized that tree climbing is not the same as rock climbing. Where rock climbers ascend a rock face, Anderson is climbing on the rope system rather than the tree itself. For that reason, his harnesses are heavily padded to make it more comfortable to support all his weight on the rope system.
Anderson said the rope method makes safety a priority (plus helmets are required on his climbs) and also makes tree climbing available for everyone. He hopes to have adaptive classes for climbers with disabilities.
“I want to unlock trees for that audience,” he said. “I can put literally anybody in a tree.”
Each year, Anderson offers a handful of guided climbs with participants ranging from kids to senior citizens to Boise State University students, whom he takes climbing in his favorite grove of trees at Julia Davis Park.
But Anderson notes that tree climbing is not permitted at the park without permission from the city, which the university obtains on his behalf for the classes. That’s been a major obstacle to Anderson expanding Canopy Watch, though he said he’s met with city forestry officials to try to create a partnership of sorts.
“The city will probably never just open the trees to climbing,” Anderson said.
Instead, Anderson said he hopes to work with Parks and Recreation and the city forester to gain access to the trees through a public climbing event.
In the meantime, he offers his public classes on private property, such as the Botanical Garden.
“There’s a closer connection when you’ve touched the canopy of a living thing,” Anderson said. “You can see the world from a different perspective.”