At 71, still tree climbing and chopping

Posted Dec. 22, 2011, at 10:07 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 23, 2011, at 12:10 p.m.

WINTHROP, Maine — Somewhere along the way, the massive white pine divided itself into separate, gnarly trunks, making its crown more like four trees in one. It’s the kind of crooked tree loggers leave behind because it wouldn’t make straight lumber. A windstorm earlier this year started to uproot the tree and now it’s Bob Doyle’s job to take it down.

From his position about 60-feet above the the ground, Doyle takes a minute to study the cluster of branches that made up the crown. Then he fires up his chain saw and makes a series of notches in each of the four vertical trunks. His last cut, just inches above the safety line that connects him to the tree, starts sort of a chain reaction. Treetops topple around him, one by one, like petals dropping off a tulip.

A few minutes later he rappels back down to earth.

“I tell anybody they can take a tree down with a bucket truck but you got to know what you’re doing when you go up there. You got to know which one you’re going to cut first and which one you’re going to cut last,” he said. “They went beautiful.”

A homeowner on whose front lawn the big pine stood feared it might not make it through another storm. Simply felling the pine would have damaged nearby trees. It was time to call in the professionals.

It would be a challenge to find someone with more experience than the team of Bob Doyle and his son Sheridan. The elder Doyle, who turns 72 in January, did his first tree job back in 1954 at the age of 14. Bob Doyle estimates he has cut down nearly 1,500 trees in Gardiner alone. Sheridan Doyle, 48, has been working with his dad since he was 10.

The Doyles own two bucket trucks, but when the ground is soft or if the tree is out of the way, Bob is the one who climbs the tree. Sheridan works as the groundman, clearing limbs and serving as a second set of eyes for his dad. They use hand signals to communicate.

Sheridan also climbs trees but not when he’s working with his father. “He can’t stand it,” said Sheridan. “I think it makes him nervous.” He jokes that his dad recently promoted him to “branch manager.”

Bob uses one rope for climbing and another to loop around the tree to keep him in place while he makes the cut. The ropes clip into a heavy-duty safety harness. Steel spurs strapped onto his boots give him secure footing.

Because of the difficulty in reaching limbs, most of his cuts are made while holding the 10-pound chain saw with just one arm. “The other day on a big tree I swung that arm 310 times,” he said.

Despite the obvious dangers associated with the job, Bob says he has always been lucky.

“In the morning, when you know you’re going to be climbing trees all day, you never know if you’ll be going home at night. I mean you’re hanging on a piece of rope all day,” he said. “I pulled a shoulder out of the joint once, but other than that, nothing bad.”

While unstrapping the climbing spurs from his boots, Bob noticed the steel spikes were getting short from years of sharpening. It was time to retire that pair. As for Bob, he’s got no plans to start taking it easy. “I don’t know why. I still love climbing,” he said.