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  • 30 Oct 2014

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  • 31 Oct 2014

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Learning to fly

The three-day Tree to Tree Adventure Camp teaches youngsters wilderness and communication skills


They look like construction workers, or a telephone line repair crew in harnesses and blue helmets.

They take a few last sips of water, strap themselves in and clip on to cables suspended 60 feet above the forest floor.

As they traverse the tree canopy, the limbic-frontal cortex systems of their minds start to scream at them: ‘Get down from there, you’re going to fall!’ But the climbers show no sign of fear as they step methodically between swaying ropes and platforms. Then they laugh, shout, throw foam footballs, and squirt water at each other.Photo Credit: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Lovell Soares, 16, from Hawaii, shoots a nerf dart at his cousin Camen, also 16, from Portland. The cousins did the zipline course multiple times at the Tree to Tree Adventure Camp.

This is the final day at Tree to Tree Adventure Camp, a three-day camp hosted by Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park that is meant to gently push kids ages 11 to 16 out of their comfort zones and into the trees overlooking the east bank of Hagg Lake.

“I’m 60 feet in the air and I feel like I’m hanging on for dear life,” said Emi King, an 11-year-old from Portland. “You’re shocked, but it’s a good way to face your fear. I really like this place.”

The oldest of the 13 campers dangling from the tree limbs is 17, but most of the bunch are younger than 12. Regardless of age, for the past three days they have learned to work together while hanging from cables, crossing rope swings, and building shelters out of twigs and tree leaves.

“I love to see each of the kids grow as an individual and together as a team,” said camp instructor Nolan Tinney, 26, who lives in Forest Grove. “And I love working this three-day camp, where we get to do everything the park has to offer.”

Tinney explained that there are three ‘branches’ of the Tree to Tree park.Photo Credit: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: KATE STRINGER - Adventure campers step into their harnesses before heading out to a zip line course of their choosing for a few hours. The three-day camp teaches kids nature survival skills in addition to zip line challenges.

First, the aerial obstacle course is the park’s oldest feature. It consists of cables that are strung between platforms in the trees. On the strings dangle ladders, climbing rope and wooden planks. Visitors must negotiate these obstacles to get from platform to platform and complete the course.

Of the six routes offered, the Black Course is notoriously difficult because of its height and the wide spaces between obstacles where you could fall. It even tests this battle-hardened group’s mettle, but tests are what they’re here for, anyway.

“Black course is the hardest, but for me it’s the funnest,” said 11-year-old McMinnville native Olivia Brown, who, along with her peers, has a rubber wristband with ‘Black Course’ written on it. “It’s a challenge, but I like that.”

“Jumping across platforms and logs hung up by wires pushes (you) to your limits,” said 16-year-old Hawaii native Lovell Soares, who was visiting his cousins in Portland (who were also taking the course) with his 11-year-old sister Mariah. “It’s amazing.”

Tinney trusts the park’s equipment to make falling out of a tree a perfectly safe activity.

“We use a Bornack Smart Safety Belay (SSB), which is an interchangeable system of locks that makes the challenge course and the zip lines very secure,” he said. “Still, I fell yesterday and it was scary. Your body’s telling you you’re going to die for that moment before the gear catches you.”

Brown is less worried. “It’s kind of fun floating up there,” she said. “You know you won’t fall to the ground.”

However, not all visitors are like Brown. Some kids freeze up and panic while in the air.

“As soon as you get off the ground, your limbic-frontal cortex system starts interacting and telling your body to be afraid,” explained Tinney. “There’s a certain point I call ‘fear-lock’ which you can’t get back from, but to avoid that we try to break down the ‘I can’t’ barriers kids throw up on themselves.”

Tinney explained that the instructors remind the kids of all they have accomplished so far, like learning the locks or going through the challenges that qualify them for a particular course. This shows them what they are capable of.

“We try to get them to breathe over the crux,” said Tinney.

“That’s my favorite part,” said Kirstin Thompson, the 25-year-old safety manager for the park. “I love talking with people and helping them overcome their fears.”

The second branch of the park, called “Low Elements,” isn’t even in the trees. The branch includes team-building activities like trust walks, where the group must negotiate an obstacle blindfolded, and trust falls, where visitors fall and trust their partners to catch them.

“Everyone thinks team-building is so corny,” said Tinney. “But when they get out here and see all the ropes and gear we have set up, they’re like, ‘Wow, this so cool.’”

Tinney isn’t just referring to the reactions of his group of teenagers. Local companies such as Intel, Adidas and Nike have sent corporate teams here to work on communication and trust skills since the park first strung up the cables of its challenge course in 2009.

For the Adventure Campers, “Low Elements” also includes wilderness survival skills like identifying poison oak and building a shelter out of whatever materials are on hand, which is what this group spent most of the morning doing.

“It’s like Minecraft but slower,” said Mariah, referring to the open world video game where players build their own worlds, as she carpeted leaves onto the floor of a makeshift lean-to made of fallen tree trunks. Meanwhile, her brother Lovell led a group tying together tree branches to make a teepee.

“Didn’t think I’d be doing this out here,” he said.

“We like to teach coyote style, where we give some instructions but mostly let the students learn the rest by trial and error,” Tinney said. “Like here they could see the branches weren’t standing together for the teepee so they’re tying it with string.”

Sure enough, within a few minutes the campers had a teepee skeleton standing in the woods. The campers were about to start tying leaves together for the walls but it was time for lunch, and then the third branch of the park: the zipline tour.

Instead of negotiating obstacles, visitors of the zip line tour slide freely down cables between platforms as fast as they can. To make it more competitive, Tinney distributed an array of weaponry — including water sprayers, foam rockets and foam footballs — which the campers could throw at each other as they raced to the end of the course.

After all, the campers would have to work up an appetite for the s’mores they would share over a campfire later that night.

“For me this is better than Disneyland,” Tinney said as he snapped pictures and yelled encouragement to his campers. “Tree to Tree is one of those challenging places where you can discover new parts of what you’re made of ... and you can extend those everywhere else you go in life.”