To get to his workplace, Bo Burke of Cedar, Michigan has to do some climbing. He’s a certified arborist – “an individual trained in the science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees,” according to the International Society of Arboriculture.
He also teaches people to climb trees for fun.
Growing up, Bo heard stories of his great grandfather – a lumberjack – who was originally from Finland.
“I always thought that was intriguing and thought that was in our blood. That we were Vikings or something,” says Bo. “I’ve always had a longing for the woods and for you know cutting wood and seeing what that’s all about.”
Bo lived in Colorado for a while. He cut down trees and made firewood and fence posts. Then one day, he spotted some tree climbers.
“I saw a bunch of guys hooting and hollering, swinging around in the trees with chainsaws, having a good time, taking care of trees,” recalls Bo. “I watched them for a little bit. They were very professional and knew how to have fun. And I thought this is my kind of group, you know. I need to get in with these guys and see what this is all about.”
Bo became an apprentice to one of the most experienced arborists in that area. But it was two years before he was allowed to start climbing.
He says that being an apprentice was like the Karate Kid—being trained by the master and never knowing if he was going to get into the tree or not. After two years of training, he realized he was ready to climb on his own.
“I was really anxious,” he remembers.
But his teacher trained him well because Bo knew exactly how to put a harness on and which ropes to use.
“I knew exactly what to wear. I knew what to put on, where it went. I knew what to tie what kind of system it was. What trees what were what, by the Latin names. Everything. Like to a t.”
That was more than 15 years ago. Now, he teaches other people how to climb trees. He says that his passion turned into an unexpected business.
“I just enjoy climbing trees so much that people started to pay me to take them tree climbing,” says Bo. “I would never accept payment but they would always tip me and give me money because they had such a good time. And it just kind of dawned on me that you know maybe this is a type of business idea that I could go off of.”
He says the best way to enjoy a climb is to test your limits and venture far out on a limb.
“Get over your fears, you know. You're not going to fall out,” reassures Bo.
Bo says the people he takes on climbs tell him that hanging in the branches is close to enlightenment.
“When you come tree climbing with me, it's not an experience that you've ever experienced before so you’re not going to be coming into it with the same frame of mind that you come into other things with. And that allows them to open up their minds and use it more.”
Bo Burke also competes in tree climbing events. He rescues stranded dummies, balances on limbs and races to the tree top. He hasn’t won a competition yet, but he says he’ll be the guy to look out for this year.
You can learn more about Bo Burke on his website.
Taylor Wizner is a Detroit-based freelance radio producer. She is attending Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.