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Outside for Summer: Climb a Tree
Outside for Summer: Climb a Tree
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Under the tulip poplar. It’s Bob Wray’s favorite tree, and this one is located at the western end of his property. He climbs it to watch sunsets.
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Tulip Poplar II
Up, up and away. Tulip poplars are good for climbing – Wray estimates he can climb them to about 85 feet.
There are few people who live in an area so ideally suited for both their passion and profession as Bob Wray.
Right off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Meadows of Dan, Va., just east of Galax, Wray resides in a house settled in among 40 unspoiled and picturesque acres. Step out onto his expansive back porch and it’s nothing but lush green fields and forests. It’s a spectacular view.
But Wray does more than just admire the scenery. Nearly every day he strolls the 50 yards or so from his house and into the forest, selects one of his favorite trees, and starts climbing.
But don’t confuse what Wray does with the kind of tree climbing you may have done in the back yard as a kid. Wray is one the most noted recreational tree climbers in the region. The unique activity is a hybrid of rock climbing and arboriculture, as it uses similar equipment and techniques. It’s also becoming an increasingly popular sport among outdoor enthusiasts.
Wray, a rock climber and Eagle Scout, took up recreational tree climbing about six years ago. He purchased a couple of arboriculture books and climbing gear, and largely through trial and error, taught himself the basics. After a couple of years he took all of the climbing classes he could find, and as his skills progressed he scaled bigger and more challenging trees, including ones in the rainforests of Panama and the mammoth redwoods in northern California. In 2005, he opened his own school, Blue Ridge Tree Climbing, at his 40-acre spread.
“If you want to climb trees you go where the trees are,” Wray says as we sit at the living room table inside his rustic, comfortable house. Originally from Reidsville, N.C., Wray and his family vacationed at Meadows of Dan when he was a kid, and he fell in love with the area. When his father died in 1980, he moved back to look after his mother, and started building his house.
“This is home,” he says. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Wray’s 1,300-square-foot house has a cozy upstairs loft and is unmistakably the domain of a bachelor. Climbing equipment is scattered everywhere. Wray shares the house with Big Foot and Brown Dog, two old, lovable strays he picked up along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While he’s put a lot of time and effort in building his house, Wray actually prefers to sleep outside in a tipi, or better yet, in the treetops. After he shows me around his cluttered bachelor pad, Wray and I walk to a clearing in the woods where he has set up a campsite.
At 57, Wray’s lean and fit, with ropy, muscled forearms and an iron grip from years of rock and tree climbing. He pulls his grayish-white, shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail, tucks it under his helmet and steps into a climbing harness. With practiced ease he secures a series of knots along a rope that has been looped over a branch high overhead. Then, via a climbing technique called “foot locking,” he pulls himself up alongside the towering oak tree, where about 50 feet up he has secured a Fish Econoledge where he often spends the night.
He plops down on the ledge and looks down at me.
“I’ve had the best sleep in my life up here,” he says. “Everything feels and sounds different.”
Wray hosts several climbing events every year, and teaches both basic and advanced climbing classes. He’s developed a unique method of climbing that uses a minimal amount of gear.
“I feel it’s both efficient and less costly,” he said. “I like to call myself a ‘software’ climber versus a ‘hardware’ climber.”
Last April Joseph Pate, director of Pfeiffer University’s Haltiwanger Retreat Center in Misenheimer, N.C., brought about a half dozen students to Wray’s place, and they all slept atop a poplar tree some 80 feet in the air.
“It was a great experience,” Pate says. “And it’s a night the students will always remember.”
After a few minutes in the treetop, Wray effortlessly descends, and we stroll deeper into the woods. He’s marked his favorite climbing trees with pink and red ribbons, and is like a kid in a candy store, pointing out his favorite trees and their unique attributes. Wray says that while tree climbing started out as a technical and adventurous pursuit, in recent years it’s become more meditative and therapeutic.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says almost reverently as we looked up at a towering tulip poplar that stretches more than 100 feet into the sky, “but there’s magic in the trees.”
Blue Ridge Tree Climbing, LLC, 182180 Blue Ridge Parkway, Meadows of Dan, Va. 276/398-2639, www.blueridgetreeclimbing.com.