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John-san 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.

Ben Foot BenBen and JohnsanBen up a Tree
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.
Ben up another TreeSunset and Eagle
During 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.
Eagle Chick in NestEagle Chicks

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.

If 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."
Ben 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.
Today 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.
Eagle Landing in Tree at SunsetCedar Tree

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.
Eagle with FishNorth America Bald Headed Eagle
When 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.

North America Bald Headed EagleNorth America Bald Headed Eagle

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.

That's 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.
Ben, Johnsan and FamilyNorth America Bald Headed EagleBen In Climbing Gear
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.
Johnsan is a World renowned Speaker and founder of
Tree Climbing Japan
an organization that is devoted to bringing people of all ages and physical ability into the forests to climb trees, and to enjoy nature. Tree Climbing Japan is also active in bettering forests and empowering people world wide
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