Every fall I find myself crossing the largest lake in the world to vacation on a wilderness island. Reached only by seaplane or by boat, Isle Royale National Park is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of Lake Superior. Isolated, remote, and due to the long severe winters, the park is closed for seven months of the year. There are many years that Isle Royale is the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states. If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, you’d be hard pressed to find a better location. As an added bonus, no Wi-Fi is available and cell phones register no bars.
This will be my 35th year vacationing on Isle Royale — I suspect the people I work with at my tree care company envy my annual sojourn to the wilderness. Every one of them hunts, fishes, hikes, bikes, gardens or is seriously engaged in some sort of outdoor recreational activity.
It’s safe to say that people who work in the tree care industry enjoy spending time outdoors, whether at work or at play.
Besides working outdoors, tree workers frequently look up. It’s kind of a job requirement. If you look up at trees as often as we do, you’re going to notice natural wonders that most people miss. We get to see interesting cloud formations on a regular basis. We notice raptors soaring on the thermals.
Then there are the trees themselves. Since we are outside so much of the time, because we’re looking skyward, and because of all the physical activity this job demands — despite its many hazards — I also believe we’re a healthier lot, which is terribly important benefit. As author Augusten Burroughs remarked, “If you can have your health you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.”
As a result, I’ve known several individuals in this trade who, when offered a so-called promotion, have turned the job down. And those who do accept new positions soon complain about how their waist lines are growing or about how they now breathe hard when climbing a flight of stairs.
We also work on crews, which keeps us on our toes. We don’t want to be that person who lets their crewmates down. More importantly, we want to make a positive difference in each other’s day.
And since we must work together, we must learn to communicate. We need to learn to speak quickly, clearly and often times, loudly. When someone needs direction and they’re running a saw or a chipper or hauling wood, you can’t hem and haw over your choice of words. It’s critically important that those working around you know what you’re doing and why. In fact, a good tree crew communicates so well that they often anticipate each other’s needs, handing that saw off just as he turns for it or having that line ready before it’s called for.
I return to Isle Royale each year because I love the wilderness setting. I’m literally outdoors 24/7 and I picked a good place to do that. The island park is so pristine that ecologists use its inland lakes and the air overhead for a barometer for what healthy water and air should look like. As such, Isle Royale was declared a wilderness area as soon as the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. The research projects conducted here have grown so scientifically important that Isle Royale was declared an International Biosphere Preserve by the United Nations’ Science and Environment Panel, which is a sort of Hall of Fame designation for environmentally important sites.
Due to the remote wilderness setting, several wildlife studies are conducted on Isle Royale, including the longest running predator-prey study in the world. Moose and wolves are the only large mammals that inhabit the island. The predator-prey balance between them is a living example of how important that relationship is. The 55-year-old study is often cited when explaining why predator-prey balances are so crucial. It’s a lesson arborists have learned well, for it certainly applies to growing healthy trees.
Places like Isle Royale, however, are important for more than just their scientific reasons. I had the privilege of spending an entire month here over my fiftieth birthday. I fished, canoed, hiked, camped and relaxed for an entire month without hearing the sound of any car or smelling the odor of exhaust. To say I felt inspired when I returned is an understatement. That month away spawned two books: “Naked in the Stream; Isle Royale Stories” and “Hidden in the Trees; an Isle Royale Sojourn.” The first became the official Great Lakes Region read for 2017 as chosen by the Michigan Center for the Book.
John Muir, a man who could honestly boast about spending much of his life outdoors and who would inspire the creation of the National Park System, once said, “I only went outside for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Those of us who work in the tree care industry well understand how Mr. Muir came to that conclusion.
If you work for a tree service, there’s no question that working conditions can be rough. It’s often too hot or too cold. You’re often wet and miserable. We work hard — even harder during storms. After natural disasters, we may work seven days a week. Our bodies ache. Our muscles are sore. Most of us are nursing cuts and bruises. But we get up the next morning and do it all over again. We’ve learned from experience that we can. We know the hard way that we’re capable of working through pain. We also know how to pace ourselves.
That all strikes me as being extremely valuable.
Ours’ is a type of self-awareness I believe few people acquire. It’s a confidence in oneself that can be carried with you into whatever endeavor you choose, be it professional or recreational.
As with tree work, wilderness camping has its challenges, too. I’ve experienced a great deal of “education” over the 35 years I’ve vacationed on Isle Royale. I’ve learned how to better prepare, how to pack and what to avoid. I’ve reached the limits of my physical endurance. I’ve learned to maintain my equipment in good working order.
And with each passing year, I learn something new. I’ll bring an improved piece of gear or clothing or footwear. It may be something as simple as a headlamp versus a handheld flashlight. Or polar tech outerwear versus a wool shirt. Or a new fishing lure “guaranteed” to catch fish.
You never quit learning in this trade.
It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. Our work crews now wear headsets in their hard hats so as to better communicate with each other. The new ascending devices dramatically improve that initial climb up a tree. Digital photography clarifies for customers, as well as for staff, what needs to be done. And I can’t remember the last time I didn’t email an estimate.
I’m sure future improvements will be just as big. Laser pruners? Jet packs? Holographic house calls? Chain saws and chippers so quiet they’re almost silent. New equipment that’s stronger and lighter than ever before, strong enough to lift tons of wood and yet do no damage to lawns.
I believe our trade will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. Given the many sharp minds at work in it, I think that future looks quite bright.