Odd Job: Teaching in the Trees

Featured Article, Odd Jobs, People
on April 18, 2013
Jeffrey Foster Master tree-climbing instructor Tim Kovar has been teaching others how to safely ascend trees since 1992.

With his odd job as one of the few master tree-climbing instructors in the world, Tim Kovar has explored the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, set ropes for a canopy researcher in Costa Rica, hunted for tree-slithering cobras in India’s Western Ghats, and hoisted himself up a 250-foot giant sequoia in California’s Sierra Nevada.

“I feel at peace when I’m up here,” says Kovar, 43, perched high on a branch of an oak tree at Tree Climbing Planet, his school near Oregon City, Ore. (pop 31,859).

“It feels like coming home.”

In the picturesque setting, Kovar instructs climbers-in-training how to use saddles attached to ropes and demonstrates a safety knot that each must tie before hoisting themselves aloft into a towering white oak he calls “Pagoda.”

“You can go as high and as fast as you want, but this isn’t a competition,” he tells a group of beginning climbers.

“Take your time.”

Kovar first discovered the joy of climbing trees as a boy in Fremont, Neb. (pop. 26,397), where he spent hours in a weeping willow and elm in his backyard. His first rope was his dad’s garden hose. Climbing trees initially was “about finding cool hiding places,” but eventually Kovar found sanctuary and independence among the leaves and limbs.

Trees became a source of employment for Kovar in 1992 when he worked as a professional arborist and learned about recreational climbing through Tree Climbers International, Peter Jenkins’ pioneering school in Atlanta, Ga.

As soon as Kovar started helping others ascend into the treetops, Jenkins knew his young protégé would be leaving the tree-trimming business. “He’s the quintessential teacher,” says Jenkins, 64, who awarded Kovar the title of master tree-climbing instructor in 1996.

A few memorable climbs early in Kovar’s teaching career deepened his resolve to help people appreciate the environment and understand that trees are more than glorified jungle gyms.

In 1992 in Atlanta, two 75-year-old women thought they’d never climb a tree again, but Kovar shepherded them 25 feet up an oak and helped them recapture a piece of their childhood. It showed him, he says, that “the inner child just beams when you’re up in the treetop.”

Four years later, he coached a blind climber who taught him to slow down and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. “She started telling me about the smells and the sounds—all the stuff I was missing on these fast climbs,” Kovar says. “I realized there’s a whole other world that I was zipping past.”

For about six months each year, Kovar travels the globe—to 15 countries so far—to work on ecotourism projects, scientific expeditions, and photography and film productions. In the summer, he returns to Oregon to teach classes at his own school.

During the last 20 years, he has coached an estimated 15,000 people, ages 4 to 84, into the canopy. He also teaches technical knot tying and other skills to students so they can climb trees on their own or instruct others.

His clientele is diverse, ranging from thrill-seekers and nature lovers to arborists and researchers whose work requires climbing know-how. Last year, Kovar worked with a college anthropology professor who tracks wild lemurs in Madagascar and a physician in Portland, Ore., seeking to reconnect with her youth when she scrambled into the trees in her grandmother’s cherry orchard in Romania.

“You’re just kind of free,” says John Voneynern, 15, of Mulino, Ore. “You can see everything.”