Touring the Tall Treetops of Traverse City

Tree-climbing instructor Bo Burke heads up into another tree. (Photo by Ken Scott)


TRAVERSE CITY, MI – The dunelands of Northern Michigan have lots of sand, but no rocky cliffs or mountains. So what do you do when the climbing bug strikes?

Climb a tree, of course!

“Everybody here is  involved with outdoor adventures of one kind or another, and we’re surrounded by some of the biggest, nicest trees in North America,” ” says arborist Bo Burke. “It’s just a natural thing to do.”

Burke should know. For the past year he’s been taking artists, photographers, birders and other “tree huggers” on technical climbs into some of the Traverse City area’s biggest and best trees. Technical tree climbing with ropes and harnesses is the new frontier in outdoor adventure, Burke says; it’s more exciting than climbing a rock face because it’s a three-dimensional experience — but it’s not as difficult or as terrifying as many people think.

“There are degrees of difficulty,” he says. “I teach kids as young as seven and seniors as old as 77. It’s really up to each climber, and how much they want to challenge themselves. They can go up as high as they want. There’s no set goal – it’s about getting off the ground and enjoying the world from another perspective.”

People have been climbing trees for fun ever since the first youngster found he could reach a low-hanging branch. But organized recreational climbing with modern equipment got its start in the early 1980s with an arborist and rock-climber named Peter “Treeman” Jenkins, who founded Tree Climbers International, the world’s first tree climbing school, in Atlanta.

Burke does individual climbs and even group tours (some large trees can accommodate 12 to 15 people at a time) using a basic doubled-rope technique that employs a sliding friction knot known as a Blake’s Hitch. Climbers wear recreational harnesses for safety, but rarely need any other special gear. In the past year, he’s taught more than 200 people to climb.

“We do birthday parties, dinners, sunrises and sunsets, artists, birders, and people who just want to get away by themselves,” he says. So far there haven’t been any requests for treetop weddings, but he figures it’s only a matter of time.

One satisfied student is photographer Ken Scott, who lives on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula and took climbing lessons from Burke this summer. It was his first rope-assisted climb.  “Bo is an awesome instructor,” he says.

A Michigan native, Burke didn’t have any particular interest in trees until he moved to Colorado, where he happened upon a tree-pruning crew and decided it looked like a great way to make a living. As it happened, they needed someone who was willing to start at the bottom and work his way up. Along the way, he learned tree biology, identification, climbing safety and good tree care practices and eventually became a certified arborist.

After several years in Colorado and Chicago (where he worked as a tree surgeon for the city parks district) he started missing the wilderness again and decided to move to Traverse City, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. And although he found plenty of work trimming trees, he decided he’d much rather spend his time teaching people to climb them, so he founded a company called BBCA/Climb A Tree to do just that.

Burke describes his tree-climbing classes as “eco-adventures.” Student climbers get lessons in tree biology and proper tree care before starting their three-hour climb, for which he charges $150 per person. (Group rates are available.) And although summer is probably the busiest season for tree-climbing, it’s not his favorite.

“I think fall is one of the really nice times to be up in the trees,” he says. “You’re surrounded by the colors and you can hear the leaves whispering all around you in the wind. In winter, you can be up in the top of the trees and see for miles because the leaves are gone. You can even watch the little animals running around on the ground.”

And to watch a fast-motion video of Bo giving climbing lessons to photographer Ken Scott, go to


About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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