| recounts his tree climbing experience with "Bare Foot Ben"
A shroud of mist surrounds us on our 200-foot Douglas fir perch.
Visibility is limited to the tips of the majestic evergreen branches
that we are resting on, so we use our ears to perceive the surrounding
environment on this foggy, west coast morning. We listen to the
comfortably monotonous splash and wash of the ocean as it massages
the shore below us. Rooted in a seaside embankment, our tree reaches
into an ethereal region where there is an amazing collection of
living creatures. Small birds call to each other as they flit
from branch to branch. A scratching noise reveals the presence
of a squirrel as it scurries along the rough bark to its home
hidden somewhere in the branches. Above our heads are the sounds
of an eagle family in a nearby tree, lifting off and swooping
close by. The great whoosh of each giant wing flap is the sound
of pure freedom. Welcome to Ben Kramer's world.
Earlier that day I was
introduced for the first time to Ben Kramer, also known as "Barefoot
Ben" by Hornby Island neighbors who have lovingly nicknamed him
(Ben's contempt for footwear is obvious and each step in his daily
routine and life activities is supported by a well worn, tough human
sole). I have traveled to his home, a remote island situated midway
off the east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, because
I am interested in learning how Ben communes with eagles. This is
something for which he is locally famous and for which he has received
attention in the Canadian news media.
the summer months, Ben is caretaker to Bradsdadsland, a campsite on
Hornby Island that Ben and his brother Isaac (Isaac used to call himself
Brad) inherited from their father. Ben has become somewhat of an attraction
for campers and tourists visiting the island. Ben loves to show a
video that was taken one summer as he attempted to rescue a baby eagle
that had fallen from its nest. Placing the baby eagle in a gym bag,
Ben climbed to the eagle nest and reunited the baby with its sibling.
Somehow, the other eagle fell out of the nest and was caught in the
branches a few feet below. No problem. Ben climbed down and with one
arm clinging to a branch, all the while the tree was swaying back
and forth in the wind, he grabbed the second baby eagle. Its talons
dug into his bare arm and then disaster almost struck. Ben's branch
snapped with a loud crack that was terrifyingly audible to everyone
watching from below. Ben did not panic. He skillfully shifted his
position and successfully completed his baby eagle rescue.
Rescuing baby eagles is all in a day's
work for Ben. There are eagle trees all along the coast of the Hornby
Island. The eagles have come to recognize Ben's presence because
he gradually introduced himself to them by climbing up neighboring
trees to offer gifts. Ben once waited for hours in a tree, holding
out a piece of fish until his patience paid off. His eagle friends
now regularly accept Ben and he collects road kill and fish heads
so that the eagles have enough food for their young and are not
forced to push out any extra mouths to feed. Really, he is helping
to prevent the need to ever have to perform another daring rescue,
although he'd be there to do it all again in an instant.
Ben finds a tree, which is far away enough from a neighboring eagle
family (eagle families need approximately a mile of space between
them), he will use his expertise to prune the treetop so that it is
hospitable for a new nest. The nests are big enough for a man to sleep
in, says Ben. I asked if he has ever slept in an abandoned nest, and
he answers "No, but I've thought about of it."
is also thinking about ways to carefully maintain the trees he climbs.
He cuts dead branches away with a meticulous skill and care that reflects
his desire to maintain the health and beauty of the tree. When he
prunes a tree for climbing he is considering the aesthetics of the
work. He will not simply cut away branches to create a living ladder.
we are at the base of one of Ben's trees. His whole body is animated.
It is easy to tell that he is excited. Swaying back and forth on his
legs and chopping his hands at the air, he asks me very directly if
I like trees. I answer in the affirmative and he then asks me if I
like eagles. Having assured him that I share his interest in these
beautiful creatures of the sky, it is now time to go tree climbing.
Ben takes the lead, and with the help of his
rope he is 50 feet above my head in no time at all. Ben hasn't always
been climbing with ropes and safety equipment. I've been asked by
Isaac to check the safety of Ben's rope, which Ben has recently
placed in his tree. At first I am reluctant to follow him up into
the tree without tying my own line. I am breaking a cardinal rule
in tree climbing and that is to never climb on an untested line.
I want to win Ben's trust however, and so I resist the urge to tug
violently on Ben's line, which dangles from high above, it's origin
obscured by the high evergreen branches. I begin my ascent.
Almost immediately my
fears have dissolved. I can see Ben in the Tree, barefoot and with
no gloves, pulling his whole body up with one arm. I am amazed at
the pure strength and power of this man who is totally focused on
the task and obviously in his own element. He is using his toes to
find grip on the hard, sharp bark.
I am later told that I
am the first person to ever tree climb with Ben. This makes me feel
special, for Ben is a very amazing character. He is master of the
200-foot trees on Hornby Island, he explores the ocean depths 200
feet below the surface as a fully licensed and ticketed scuba diver,
and he is a marathon swimmer. Ben has participated numerous times
in the Island of Manhattan swim race in New York. He can swim around
the metropolitan island (43 kilometers) in 9 hours. He is a survivor,
someone who overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds. He is a living
example of how someone with autism can function and excel in a world
that is all too often preoccupied with being normal.
we reach the top, I can see that the rope has been properly anchored
around the tree; all the knots were tied with perfection. Out of an
obligation to Isaac I have thoroughly tested the rope, but after spending
the last two hours with Ben in the tree I didn't really feel like
I had to. Ben had already won my complete trust and confidence by
the time we reached the top. I felt as though we had been climbing
together for years.
As a tree climber,
I learned a lot from climbing with Ben. Ben climbs with the enthusiasm
of a child discovering for the first time an escape from the rest
of the world. We didn't use gloves that day, Ben never does, and
so it was like being a kid again, climbing down from the tree with
sticky, black pitch and sap covering my palms.
Ben and I are planning to tree climb together
again in the future. His enthusiasm is irresistible. No sooner had
we descended the tree then he was asking me to go diving with him.
I'll be back again to share in Ben's magical world, a world that
anyone can experience through an incredible collection of wildlife
photographs that Ben has produced.
right, Ben is a professional photographer as well. What he might consider
as a hobby cannot be discounted as amateur work. His nature and wildlife
photographs (everything from eagles in the trees to six gill sharks
off the Hornby Island coast) find their way into framed prints and
postcards or into meticulously organized folders within the house
he shares with his brother. Isaac says that Ben's satisfaction comes
from the fact that there is always someone else out there who appreciates
his work. Ben wants others to share in his world, to see what he sees.
Before I leave, we ride
in Ben's truck to the store where he sells his pictures. Ben finds
that two of his favorite pictures have recently sold. He couldn't
be happier. "People like my eagles" says Ben. Yes they do, Ben; thanks
for sharing these natural wonders with us.
is a World renowned Speaker and founder of an organization that is devoted to bringing
people of all ages and physical ability into the forests to climb
and to enjoy nature. is also active in bettering
forests and empowering people world wide.