ELKIN — Bob Wray will spend part of Saturday during N.C. Trail Days weekend in Elkin sitting in a camp chair amid the limbs of the giant sycamore tree on Main Street across from Galloway Memorial Episcopal Church.
His life is a study in departures from ground level via an array of ascending and descending hobbies, ranging from rock climbing to cave diving, the latter of which he describes as “scuba diving in a black hole.” But for the past 20 years, tree climbing has been more than a hobby, more than a profession. It’s his identity.
“I’m in a tree,” is not an uncommon way for Wray to answer an incoming phone call.
The possibilities range from 30 feet off the ground in a poplar on his home property to more than 250 feet off the ground in a California redwood. He spends plenty of time on the ground, too, but usually it’s planning the next climb — for himself and others. As a professional tree climbing teacher, he instructs students through his own company, Blue Ridge Tree Climbing, as well as at the Primland resort in Virginia.
In addition to climbing, his Trail Days demonstration will include a rundown of equipment and especially knots. Wray’s students need to learn 12 knots in order to climb trees safely on their own. For students who attend a three-day instruction course with Wray, they will be told to learn 10 of the 12 knots before they arrive, and the final two he will show them in person to avoid the risk of what he calls “learning bad habits.”
Wray, who lives just off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Meadows of Dan, Va., fell in love with trees at an early age.
“My dad loved trees and he never cut any,” said Wray, who now lives on that same family land that was once a weekend getaway spot. “I have some really big poplars. Three of them are pushing 100 feet.”
After studying philosophy in college and trying a variety of trades from welding to commercial roofing consulting, Wray found his niche in professional tree climbing.
“That’s just past life stuff,” said Wray. “Tree climbing is pretty much who I am now.”
Being in a tree is a transformational experience that can be difficult to explain to “non-climbers,” he said.
“You get so much from the tree — it’s hard to explain to people,” Wray said. “I’m not a really new age, woo woo person. All I can say is, my pack is heavy. Some days, it feels extremely heavy because I’ve worked all day. If I climb a tree, come down, pack it up and head back out … I’ve actually walked back to the tree before thinking I’ve left something out because it felt so light.”
Like any good teacher, Wray tries his best to explain how impactful the experience of tree climbing can be. Just be prepared: He’s likely to conclude his explanation with an offer to climb up a tree and experience it for yourself.
“It’s a unique hobby and it’s far more than it appears to be,” he said.
Lisa Michals may be reached at 336-448-4968 or follow her on Twitter @lisamichals3.