Chapter 5: Raising the Structure
By the fall of 2008, my lengthy search for the perfect tree was over and I was ready to start building. As for who’s land I was building on, that was a question I neglected to ask. I decided to just be respectful of the surroundings by keeping a clean site, and then leave the rest in the hands of fate.
The first order of business was finding a place to put my car. The road up was a private drive and parking was ostensibly prohibited. I had, however, parked on it in the past, for a variety of reconnaissance missions and sport sleeping ventures so I was willing to try my luck.
I found a convenient pull out about a minute up the road from the entry point. My tactic was to walk down the road casually as if taking a stroll, then dart into the bushes when the coast was clear. I was careful to disperse my entry point and lay down dead branches to avoid wearing a trail.
I remember arriving with my first load of materials. I had two 14ft. planks that were sticking through the passenger side window and hanging out of the back of my car. I pulled up to entry point and then sat there wondering what to do next. Trying to look inconspicuous, I listened carefully for traffic. Nothing seemed to be coming so I quickly grabbed the planks and, without much finesse, heaved them into the ditch.
There were some big construction projects happening up the road, so a car full of supplies wouldn’t turn heads. However, an armful of materials getting jettisoned into the bush would certainly look suspect. Within a few weeks, I had it down to an elegant 5 step process that involved hazard lights, some shuffling around, and a few stealthy dashes into the ditch. At any given time, I could have looked like I was checking my tire pressure or looking for a hub cap. In the case of pedestrian traffic, I’d sometimes start calling a random name, like I was looking for my dog.
Once the materials were in the ditch and out of sight, I had to park the car and get them up to the treehouse. Four round trips to the building site would be typical for a modest amount of material – one trip for tools and supplies, two for materials, and one for carrying out waste. I could clock a round trip in eight minutes. The ascent, fully loaded, was a cardiovascular grind. The descent, however, was much less strenuous, unless the ground was wet. In that case, it was a dangerous sport.
You don’t really realize how often you drop things until your’e on a 45 degree slope. Sometimes a tool left on the ground would just spontaneously take off. The first incident involved chasing a box of screws down the hill, that exploded into a constellation of shrapnel when it hit a log. Within a few weeks, I had lost a tape measure, destroyed a battery for my impactor, and spent a few too many hours looking for whatever tool or piece of material had gone hurtling into the rock field below.
The first thing I built was an entry-level walkway to the tree. It was a 14 foot beam that extended from a stump, situated high above the tree, on the uphill side. I knew that a step ladder on a steep slope was a bad idea, but it was all I had. Miraculously, the beam went up safely, although I did fail to consider one thing: what would happen to the beam if the tree started moving in a wind.
As Murphy would have it, a storm rolled in that night and the winds picked up. I couldn’t stop thinking about my new shiny walkway getting crushed between the trees, so at 11PM, I decided to head up and check things out. This is when I had my first treehouse related bear-encounter.
Running into bears in those parts was a common occurrence, but I had never done it in the dark. This was a whole new experience. Already unnerved from the groaning forest, and the eerie shadows cast by my head lamp, I came around a sharp rocky corner and heard an alarming huffing and snorting sound. I grabbed for the tree next to me and scanned around with my headlight. About 15 feet away was a medium sized black bear. I wanted to bolt, but common sense and my lack of vision told me that was a bad idea. To my relief, the bear made the first move. While I was still clenching tightly to the tree, he wheeled around and disappeared into the darkness.
Over the next week, I built scaffolding and started on the floor structure. Getting a floor perfectly level while building around a tree, is not an easy exercise for a novice carpenter. I started out with a couple futile attempts involving a string and a level before learning a clever technique with tin flashing. One by one, the joists went up, but not without some precarious balancing acts on the scaffolding. If I had known how much time I’d be spending on that scaffolding, and the theatrics that would ensue, I wouldn’t have built it so hastily.
With the floor in place, fabricating the ribs was the next big milestone. Because the ribs required so much custom work with electric power tools, I would need to build them offsite and then port them up. I constructed the ribs on Joe’s site – the house I was helping build. For some odd reason, Joe had taken a shine to Ryan and I, and our homeless exploits. He’d often let Ryan store his miscellaneous adventure gear in the crawl space, and for me, he let me use the site after hours for my personal building endeavors.
The plywood ribs went together in two layers of staggered pieces that formed one long continuous curve. I bought high-performance, marine-grade plywood for the final ribs, however, I first built a prototype out of scraps. The one thing I had failed to consider was how I’d get this 17 foot long monstrosity up to the treehouse. Ryan suggested having the rib project out of both driver-side and passenger-side windows like a small aircraft and then sneak it down the highway in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t trust Ryan’s judgement one bit … but he was right, that was the only way.
It happened at around 2:30 AM. I threaded the rib through the car windows, slipped in from the back, and proceeded cautiously down the shoulder of the road. I was alert for police, however, my main concern was clipping the rib on some roadside obstacle and cleaving my head off. I made it safely and swore I’d never do that again. At around 3 AM, I carried the rib up, but not without great difficulty (try to imagine poking your way through dark, steep bushes with an unwieldy 80 pound wing on your back). If any bears were roaming the bush that night, I’m sure I kept them amused with my long strings of profanity.
For the rest of the ribs, I took a safer approach: I brought them up in two halves, each about 8 feet long, and did the final lamination on the treehouse deck. I spent about 10 hours on each rib to get it built and finished. I got them done in a couple weeks of long moonlight shifts after work. By the time they were done, the days were getting cold and snow was threatening to fly. I was determined to get the structure built before winter so I began bringing a rib up every morning at 6:30 AM, laminate it, then let the glue dry through the heat of the day. Later that day, after work, I’d run back up to the treehouse and, god willing, install the rib before dark.
Installing the ribs solo was no easy feat and proved to be nearly disastrous on one occasion. Things were going smooth until I got to the high side of the treehouse. The trouble began when the top of the rib got hung up on a small branch above. As I tried to shake the rib free, the bottom slipped off its hold and I was caught straining with all my might to try to save the rib. As I was dragged onto my tippy toes my fear of losing the rib was preempted by fear of losing my own life. Out of instinct, I heaved the rib outward to regain my balance. It arced through the air in slow motion, sailing out so far from the treehouse that it landed nearly 40 feet below on a big rock, and sheered in half. It was a heartbreaker.
I recovered from the broken rib and by mid October the frame was complete. For the first time since I had started building, I came out just to enjoy the view. Being on such a sheer slope made me feel like I was standing in the tops of the trees. The air was crisp and the evening sun was setting behind the Tantalus mountain range. What a surreal experience! I promised myself I’d never forget that feeling.