Climbing Trees

Climbing trees in my youth was as natural as it must be for young monkeys. Every tree offered an opportunity, and a challenge. Some, with low limbs were easy. Other required skill in “shinnying” up the trunk with arms and legs wrapped around it to the first branches.

All that climbing was not without danger. I will never forget a naturalist on an Alaskan cruise asking us, as we watched mountain goats on impossibly steep cliffs, if we knew the main cause of death for them. The answer? Gravity.

Gravity offered dangers but fun, too. I got a too close look at the danger one day while climbing a big sweetgum that acted as a corner fence post on our hog pen. I was about 15 feet up when, reaching for a limb, I missed my hold and fell backwards.

Landing on my back, it took me a few seconds to figure out I was not hurt. Then I looked up. I was lying within inches of a vertical 2×6 that helped support the fence. The upper end that my back barely missed was jagged and pointed. A little more to that side and I would have been skewered.

We had fun with gravity, too. Many times, two or three of us would go to the woods with our hatchets, pick a sapling 20 or so feet tall, and one of us would climb near the top. The others would hack away at the base until the tree fell.

Riding the tree down was an early carnival ride for us. We always tried to stay on the upper side so the tree hit the ground first, but that was hard to do since our weight turned it so we fell first. Somehow, we never got hurt doing this. I guess the tree limbs cushioned our impact.

We climbed to make tree houses, attaching ropes to pull up boards, hammers and nails. On a good tree we used limbs to reach the tree house after it was built, on others we nailed short boards to the trunk to use as steps. Ladders were just too easy, and they were hard to come by.

When I started deer hunting I bought a small metal platform with a chain that went around the tree trunk and an arm that went down to brace it against the trunk. I spent many hours standing or sitting on that 16-inch square of metal many feet off the ground.

Just like for tree houses, some trees gave me limbs to climb to where I wanted to attach my stand. On some, like straight trunk pines, I nailed boards for steps. Its a miracle I never fell from it since I used no safety rope.

When I was 16, our youth leader at church, Mr. Ed
Henderson, who also managed the McDuffie Public Fishing Area and loved to hunt, saw a new-fangled deer stand in a magazine and copied it. He made them for many of us and I still have mine.

It was a board with iron bars that supported the bottom and went up at the back. Angled arms attached to the front of the bottom bar and went past the back, where angled flat iron made a “V”. The back of the board had metal strips across it in an inverted, matching “V”.

You could take a bolt out of one side of the arm, put it around a tree and reattach the bolt. The downward pressure on the board while standing or sitting on it clamped it against the tree. You slipped your boots into straps on the platform, reached up and hugged the tree trunk, bent your knees up to pull up the stand, then repeated.

It was easy to climb a pine or other straight trunk tree, in my youth. This was the beginning of modern climbing stands that work on the same principal but have two parts, one to raise up then move the bottom part with your feet. You can even do a sit down, stand up, sit down, over and over to climb in some of them.

They are much easier to use, a good thing since I no longer have the arm or leg strength of my youth and cannot hug the tree or raise the bottom of the old, heavy stand with my legs.

The older guys I worked in construction with the summer between high school and college, did not believe my tales about the stand. So, I took it to work with me one day to show them. Unfortunately, the only thing to climb in the lumber yard was a telephone pole. I easily went up it about 15 feet, amazing them and proving my tales.

Unfortunately, the telephone pole was hard, without the soft bark of a tree for the stand to bite into. When at the top of my climb, the stand suddenly lost its bite and I slid to the ground, skinning my arms and legs and ripping my shirt.

But that same day, they all started making their own copies of the stand!

The first deer I killed when I was 18 in the fall of 1968 was from that stand. I got so excited after shooting the small eight-point buck that I got in a hurry. I vaguely remember jumping the last few feet to the ground to go check the deer.

When I confirmed the deer was dead and went back to get my stand, I could barely reach the bottom of it with the tip of my gun barrel to make it slide the rest of the way down to the ground. I had jumped from at least 10 feet high!

I doubt many youth still climb trees, its too dangerous for most parents to allow it. But they are missing fun, too.