A Leafy Livelihood in the Treetops
Look, up in the tree. Is it a bird? Is it a squirrel? No, it’s an arborist!
Cantigny Park forestry supervisor Beau Nagan has roots in trees — as a kid he often helped his landscaper father. But the 38-year-old with a degree in urban forest management from Western Illinois University upped his game in 2007 — he entered the Illinois Tree Climbing Championship. He has won five times in the past seven years.
The Westchester resident, whose younger brother competes in North Carolina, placed fourth in the 2012 International Tree Climbing Championships, his best finish.
On September 22, Nagan turns 39 and defends his Illinois championship. The event, open to the public in Morton Grove this year, is what Nagan calls a cross between a competitive athletic contest and a learning environment for tree professionals.
“We pick up information and techniques — companies get together and we learn from each other,” he says.
He’s not the youngest guy in the forest but, like trees, the older “industrial athletes” have advantages.
“The young guys often come in first in the preliminaries, but it’s the more experienced guys who win the Masters’ Challenge,” says Nagan.
Preliminary events designed to simulate working conditions of arborists in the field include:
• A scored “work climb” in which participants, in a harness and using a tree-climbing line, hit five different bells located at various parts of the tree, completing a specific task at each, such as making a cut or tossing a branch to a target.
• A “throw line” event in which competitors toss a line through various targets in the tree. “The higher the target, the more points,” explains Nagan.
• An “aerial rescue” timed event, in which a contestant must climb to and safely lower a person who is unable to descend without assistance.
Top finishers qualify for the Masters’ Challenge, held in the biggest tree on that year’s site’s property. Contestants use all of their skills to climb, set their ropes, hit all the stations, undo their equipment and return to the ground quickly.
According to the Illinois Arborist Association, the Masters’ Challenge is designed to judge the contestant’s overall productivity and skill with a rope and saddle in the tree. Contestants are scored on their knowledge and ability to demonstrate mastery of climbing techniques, use of equipment, poise in the tree, and safe working practices.”
Winners from each state or region branch out to the 19-country international championship.
“My favorite there is to watch the women climbers from around the world,” says Nagan, a father of two girls, ages 5 and 7, who have accompanied him up in trees a few times. “The guys can be strong and muscle their way through, but the women plan and are more efficient at the way they do it.”
The perks to having a tree-climbing dad include visiting him at work — formerly the Morton Arboretum and since April 2017 on Cantigny’s 500 acres — and having a 60-ft rope swing for birthday party rides.
“The kids were wearing helmets and harnesses,” Nagan says quickly. “We have a big emphasis on safety — hard hats, safety glasses, chain saw protective pants — in this industry.”
Nagan’s leafy livelihood often inspires interest. The most common question he hears is “How did you get that rope to the top of that tree?”
“They’ll walk up and I will be there already; they see how far the rope is in the tree. It’s like taking a basketball shot 65 feet off the ground — I hold the string between two fingers and throw it underhand through the tree — some people swing it between their legs like a pendulum. I can throw it 100 feet into a tree and get it where it needs to go.”
Working in a tree is not at all like playing in one. “As a kid, you get up and it’s fun, but as a working arborist, you get up into a tree and the sheer magnitude of a fully grown shade tree poses a daunting task to get all the work done. It’s a bit of
a challenge in planning and strategy to minimize friction (protecting the tree) and maximize efficiency.”
To answer the other question Nagan is often asked: the tallest tree he’s ever climbed was just for fun, a 200-ft-tall Tulip Poplar in North Carolina — with his younger brother. Even pros like to climb trees with their siblings.Edit Module