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Professional tree climbers swing into Charlotte for industry expo

Climber hanging from a rope
Nick de la Canal
Sean MacDonald of Atlanta, Georgia hangs out above the Charlotte Convention Center floor at the Tree Care Industry Expo on Nov. 10, 2022.

Sometimes the world gets so crazy that you just want to go outside and, well, climb a tree.

"It's the most symbolically relaxing experience because you have the opportunity to just be off the ground, you're in the air and you're free," said Elizabeth Rodewald.

She spoke from beneath a giant steel truss inside the Charlotte Convention Center at the annual Tree Care Industry Expo, running from Nov. 10-12.

Thousands of tree care professionals and climbing enthusiasts swung in from around the country to meet each other and share tips on tying knots, pruning branches and going out on a limb.

Beneath the steel truss, and beside booths selling helmets and carabiners, thick ropes dangled from the ceiling to the floor.

Rodewald was literally teaching people the ropes.

"Patience," is her answer when asked what the key is to climbing trees. "Patience, patience patience. And having a fantastic mentor."

It also requires some specialized knowledge, because expert tree climbing isn't quite what you might remember from childhood scrambles up the tree in your backyard.

Now you need the right ropes, a harness and special knots.

To demonstrate, Rodewald found a harness and buckled herself in, then snapped on a helmet and pulled herself up the rope above the convention center.

Nick de la Canal
Professional and amateur tree climbers were offered the chance to dangle over the crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center on Nov. 10, 2022.

"You would go up like this," she said with a grunt. "And then I just pull this cord down, and as I'm going down, I can stop myself with my feet or with my hand, but, double the safety, double the fun."

Rodewald mostly climbs trees in her spare time for fun, but many others at the event were professionals working in landscaping or tree care. That included Megan Bujnowski.

"I've been climbing trees, with chainsaws specifically, for about 20 years," she said.

She didn't have a chainsaw with her at the time — just a machete strapped to her leg.

Bujnowski said she most enjoys the puzzle of working inside a tree. It's both an art and a science.

"All the things that I thought I was getting away from working in trees — like physics and math — played a massive role in it. So I'm up there doing geometry and physics and understanding load forces and bisecting angles, as well as operating a chainsaw at 80 feet," she said.

Nick de la Canal
Megan Bujnowski at the Tree Care Industry expo on Nov. 10, 2022. Bujnowski said the coolest tree she's ever climbed was a large banyan tree in South Africa. "It was just a really beautiful canopy, and a really beautiful experience" she said.

That sort of expertise comes with a cost. Tree care can be a major expense for homeowners, as anyone who has shelled out thousands to take down a diseased oak tree looming precariously over their roof knows.

David White is the president and CEO of the Tree Care Industry Association. He said this weekend's expo comes at a pivotal time for the industry.

Business has been good, especially as people did more home and yard improvements during the pandemic, but White said a labor shortage has been plaguing the industry over the past year.

"This is a very unique and rewarding profession that I think some people look at and go — oh, it's just a person in a tree with a chainsaw, and that's not true," he said. "There's much, much more to this industry than meets the eye, and yet, like everyone else, we have trouble attracting people to get involved in this work."

That's why the expo this weekend not only has seminars on aerial rescues and limb walking, but also career training for college students interested in forestry and horticulture.

White said tree care will only grow more important as global warming increases the frequency and strength of storms.

"It's our members that are going out there and cleaning those trees up. It's our members going out and pruning those trees before the storm happens so they don't fall on power lines," he said.

The industry will need more workers, White said, and he hopes the Charlotte expo might plant some seeds.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal