Profiles

THIS CITY: Catching up with professional tree climber Leilak Anderson

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine. 

Wakefield’s Leilak Anderson lives and breathes trees. He also climbs them. Besides running his own tree business, the certified arborist competes at international climbing events. The five-time Quebec champion, who placed 30th at the International Tree Climbing Competition in Tampa, Florida this year, spoke with Stephen Dale about climbing competitively, his start as an arborist, and the evolving outlook of his profession.

Leilak Anderson. Photo by Matt Liteplo
Leilak Anderson. Photo by Matt Liteplo

You work all day with trees. Why do you spend your downtime at tree-climbing competitions?
It’s important for me to go to these competitions [in order] to be on the cutting edge, to see how they’re doing it in New Zealand or Hong Kong. Everyone is dissecting what they do to the point of perfection, and they want to share the information. In the climbing culture, safety is the most important thing.

Can you describe the various climbing events?
One of the events is foot-locking. It’s where you ascend a rope 50 feet and ring a bell at the top to see who’s fastest. In another, you climb a tree, rope-assisted, but never with spurs on. If you break a branch, you’re disqualified. Then there’s the aerial rescue, where you have five minutes to bring an injured climber — a mannequin, actually — down to the ground for transfer to the paramedics.

That’s extremely demanding stuff.  How long do you think you can you keep doing this?
I’m 32 and I’m only getting better. To be a master of my trade, I see another 10 years.

How did you get into the tree business?
I started when I was in high school. I’m second-generation. I learned the business from my dad. My father was originally setting chokers — basically attaching cables to fallen trees so they can be dragged away — on the West Coast on the Queen Charlotte Islands on very steep terrain. Then he was a reforestation contractor who planted millions of trees in Ontario. After that, he specialized in climbing and removal, which is where I started.

Have you seen a change in the culture over the years?
The old-school “get ’er done” loggers’ mentality has to be faded out of this business. Today, we’re not lumberjacks cutting down trees; we’re specially trained arborists caring for trees. As arborists, we find the balance between the trees’ needs and people’s needs, because the coexistence of humans and trees is very much a symbiotic relationship.

What do you have to learn to become an arborist?
First you study plant biology. Trees are among the oldest living organisms on the planet, and unlike humans, who heal, trees compartmentalize, sealing off most of a wounded area to continue to grow. We study how trees react to what we do with them, so we know how to prune them properly. Knowing the tree species is the first step of any assessment. Tree identification tells you about the growth habit of a tree — say, a poplar versus an elm — so you can identify proper anchor points. If you don’t know about the tree, you can easily hurt it.

Ottawa has been hit hard by tree diseases.
Yes, in the ’70s, King Edward [Avenue] was lined with majestic elms that all had to be cut down because of Dutch elm disease. History is repeating itself with the ash trees. It comes down to human transportation. We can follow the main transport route from Michigan to here and see how the emerald ash borer spreads. So now a lot of what we do is pruning the Manitoba maples, for example. Many people consider it [the Manitoba maple] to be a sprouting weed, but we’re finding that they provide a great canopy.