The first time I found myself higher than six feet in a tree happened as my second summer working at High Cascade was coming to an end. I was helping to pack up skate ramps, move vans into storage and deep-cleaning all of the houses that campers and staff had lived in for a whole summer season. At the end of one of these long, tiring days, my friend Anastasia called me from Portland and asked if I would want to camp out in the branches of a giant old-growth tree for a night. What? Yes. Of course I would.
After spending another day or two scrubbing, sweeping and packing, I was finally freed from my summer post. Anastasia cruised up to Government Camp, swept me away from the place I’d been living for the past 2 ½ months, and steered us out towards the Salmon River. We made a quick pit-stop at a climbing spot called, “Salmon Slab,” a mild face of rock set against the woods and overlooking the nearby Salmon river. [I’d taken my La Sportiva Miuras with me to camp and though I’d left them in the back of my closet all summer, it felt great to lace back into them and find myself on a rock face once again.] We happily sent a few routes while her ornery shitsu watched us from the open hatchback of her Saturn. Once we’d absorbed as much of the view as possible at the top of the route, we loaded back up and drove further into the woods.
Eventually, we reached a small dirt parking lot. After parking the car, shouldering our packs and hiking about a mile in, we found our group of enthusiastic arborists. They were happily milling about the wooded floor, chatting about the amazing arborculture that surrounded us. They were excited to see us and immediately took us over towards the tree we’d be sleeping in that night. It was massive. It stood just over 200ft tall and our friends estimated it was somewhere around 500 years old. That’s a highly respectable tree in my book.
After learning some quick information about how we’d be sleeping and checking that we had on hard-toed, high-ankled hiking boots, we were shown exactly what we’d be sleeping in. The beds, or as they’re better known, “tree boats” looked like army-green reinforced hammocks. They were ridged around the edges, holding themselves out to be rectangular and giving the sleeper some room to roll around in. They were currently lodged 190 ft up in the branches of this old growth doug fir; tucked so far away that we couldn’t see them as we squinted up from the ground.
We were also told that we should try to drink minimal liquids over the next couple hours leading up to our airy camp-out. Our friends explained to us that we’d be wearing a harness the whole time we’d be up there (meaning, yes, even when we slept). If we had to pee, it’d be an awkward endeavor of scooting our butts to the side of the boat, shifting the harness to the side of our thighs and getting our pants out of the way. Not so easy to do in pitch-dark at 1am. Other than that, our friends gave us few warnings. They were taking care of all of the technical stuff, all we had to do was listen to what they told us and enjoy our evening.
Pretty soon, it was time for Anastasia and I to leave the ground and begin making our way up to the topof the tree. We grabbed our packs, slipped on the harnesses and clipped onto our friend that would be running us up the “elevator.”As I was slowly hoisted into the air, my surroundings changed dramatically. The world became simultaneously quieter and louder. You know how trees sound when they sway in the breeze? From the ground it’s a low, comfortable creaking. When you’re in the tree itself, that same noise becomes far louder and far less comforting. You move with the tree. You’re in space, in the air, over 100 ft from the ground. You have one lifeline and it begins to move. And so you move. You’re softly swaying together, undulating in the breeze. It’s at the same time a very unnerving very amazing feeling.
We reached our beds easily, slid into our respective tree-beds and allowed our friend to unattach us from the elevator line and then link us in to our individual safety branches. Once looped in, we’d be anchored to the same branch until morning.
We brought snacks to share and even a little whiskey. We giddily munched on some cookies while we took in the rest of our surroundings. Looking out from our beds, we could see across what seemed to be the entire Mt. Hood wilderness, with tree tops stretching out in front of us for miles upon miles. We chatted as the sun dipped lower on the horizon and although we broke out our headlamps to continue keeping each other company into the dark, we soon all fell into comfortable silence, allowing ourselves to be rocked to sleep by the swaying tree that was delicately suspending us above the ground.
Daylight came fresh, crisp and beautiful. There is no greater way to be greeted in the morning than by the energizing mountain air above such an expanse of wilderness. One of our friends had a jetboil and brewed us coffee in the branches of this ancient doug fir. I don’t remember if it was instant Folgers or hand-ground Stumptown, but I know it was one of the best coffees I’ve ever had in my life. There’s no better place to sip dark coffee and nibble leftover cookies than after sleeping in the branches of an ancient doug fir.
Finally the time came to lower back down to the forrest floor (Anastasia and I couldn’t deny the fact that nature was finally “calling”). It was sad watching our temporary beds shrink away and get swallowed by the mass green needles that steadily grew above our heads. We were leaving behind the first experience of something so unique and inexplicable. But of course, we were overcome with excitement of what we’d just done and couldn’t wait to talk with our other friends about what we’d gotten to do!
Once we’d reached the ground, we spent the rest of the morning playing around with some silk fabric and drinking as much water as we wanted. After a few hours, we loaded all of the gear back into our packs and hiked back out to our car. Anastasia and I happily tossed our bags into her car and clambered into the front.
As we began the dusty drive back to the city, I watched the trees slowly shrink and change outside the car window. I couldn’t help but feel I had a new and deeper understanding of the woods around us, one that I would hold onto for the rest of my life. There are no words to describe exactly the feel that I have about this adventure, except for the words that urge you to make friends with a talented arborist and convince them that you need to spend a night suspended in the arms of a Doug Fir that’s last nearly half a century.