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, youre 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.
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.
Im 60 feet in the air and I feel like Im hanging on for dear life, said Emi King, an 11-year-old from Portland. Youre shocked, but its 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.
First, the aerial obstacle course is the parks 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 groups mettle, but tests are what theyre here for, anyway.
Black course is the hardest, but for me its 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. Its 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. Its amazing.
Tinney trusts the parks 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 bodys telling you youre going to die for that moment before the gear catches you.
Brown is less worried. Its kind of fun floating up there, she said. You know you wont 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. Theres a certain point I call fear-lock which you cant get back from, but to avoid that we try to break down the I cant 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.
Thats 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, isnt 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, theyre like, Wow, this so cool.
Tinney isnt 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.
Its 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.
Didnt think Id 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 werent standing together for the teepee so theyre 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 smores 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 youre made of ... and you can extend those everywhere else you go in life.