Port Washington arborist Jon Crain loves trees, but sometimes he has to cut them down, even if it means going to a place he once fearedâhigh up in the branches.
Itâs not often the subject is 50 feet up in a tree when giving an interview.
But thatâs where Jon Crain, the City of Port Washingtonâs arborist and the only member of his staff trained to climb trees, is comfortable.
As he talked, occasionally swinging in his tethered saddle, Crain, who was equipped with a chainsaw, pole saw and a hand saw, pruned a large
willow in the front yard of his Port home. That morning, he helped a friend plant trees.
Crain loves trees.
Thatâs why he decided to major in urban forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, even though he is afraid of heights.
Thatâs right â heâs afraid of heights and still doesnât like climbing tall ladders or getting on high roofs.
âIâll never forget the first tree I climbed. I was shaking so bad, and I wouldnât move out of the spot the whole day,â Crain said.
âMy boss knew what was happening and said, âOnce you get comfortable, youâre going to love it.ââ
Crain said he almost quit that day, but after a few more climbs, he discovered his boss was right.
âNow, itâs fun,â he said from his tall perch. âIâm up here and Iâm looking around, and itâs like being a kid again.â
Early in his tree-climbing career, Crain, now 37 and the father of two boys, ages 4 and 6, said he was willing to take on almost any tree. He would
go to great heights to top a tree and cut off limbs as he descended, making sure they fell where they should.
Before he became the cityâs arborist, Crain had his own tree trimming business.
âIâm more on the end of preserving trees â pruning them properly and trying to save trees,â he said.
âBut when a tree needs to come down, itâs fun to figure out how to do it. I donât do the big dangerous stuff anymore. There are guys that are better
than me who love the thrill of taking it down.â
People often ask him if heâs afraid of falling when heâs high in a tree, but Crain said thatâs the last thing he worries about.
âItâs all about respecting the tree and respecting the height youâre at,â he said.
The times heâs had accidents, Crain said, were when he was too comfortable and became careless or pushed the envelope, defying high winds.
âOne time in Oak Creek, I sent a limb through a womanâs garage,â Crain said.
âI was 80 feet up in a honey locust and I was making my last cut, which I shouldnât have done because the wind was kicking up. But if I stopped, I
would have to come back.
âThe limb got away from me and the wind sent it through the garage door.â
Crain had to tell the homeowner what he had done.
She told him, âI knew you shouldnât have been up there. Youâre lucky to be alive.â
Another time, a chainsaw kicked back into his face and he lost two teeth.
âLuckily, I was holding it properly so the chain brake worked,â Crain said.
âIt made me stop and think that I could have been dead. It still scares me when I think about it. You have to take that extra second to be careful.â
Crain said his first rule is to never do tree work from a ladder. A saw or limb can hit the trimmer or the ladder.
âThe scariest thing is when a homeowner tells me, âIâll do it myself with a ladder,ââ Crain said.
âI try to explain why thatâs too dangerous without coming off as this macho, know-it-all, tree-climbing guy.â
One time, Crain saw a guy standing on a ladder reaching into a tree with a chainsaw.
âThat time, I actually stopped the guy,â he said. âIf I hadnât, he would have probably killed himself.â
The guy got down and was receptive to his advice, he said.
Over the years, Crain said, heâs learned tricks to make tree climbing easier and safer.
âA good arborist is a lazy one because we find easier ways to do things,â Crain said.
He carefully inspects each tree, looking for signs of decay and weakness.
âAny kind of mushroom indicates decay in the tree,â Crain said.
He plans the attack with the help of his ground person.
âI never go in a tree alone,â Crain said. âI always have someone on the ground who knows the plan and can anticipate whatâs going to happen.
âYou want a good plan when you go up, but youâre looking at from the ground, and a lot of times it changes when you get to the top.â
He communicates with his ground person through signals.
âFor instance, you rap on your helmet when something is coming down,â he said.
Crain looks for a spot in the center of the tree to set his line, then uses a slingshot to send an 8-ounce shot into the tree. The rope is pulled through
a loop attached to the shot.
Crain uses a foot-locking technique to walk up the rope, wrapping the rope around his foot as he ascends.
âIt looks like Iâm pulling myself up by the rope, but Iâm actually walking up the rope, which saves a lot of energy,â Crain said.
Before he goes into the tree, Crain ties his chainsaw to the end of the rope. When heâs in the tree, he pulls the saw up.
When heâs not using the pole saw, he hangs it on a limb far away from him with the blade pointing in the opposite direction so it wonât fall into him if
the limb breaks.
When the top of a tree is removed or a large branch cut off, it is a shock to the tree and the whole trunk shakes. The climber has to be prepared for
that, Crain said.
âThere are different ways to do it to minimize the shock on the tree,â Crain said. âYou want to be efficient, but you donât want to go too big. When in
doubt, go small.â
Trimming a tree properly will extend its life, Crain said, allowing the wind to blow through it and removing branches that are crossed or rubbing
against each other, which cause structural weakness.
Willow trees are money-makers for tree trimmers because theyâre the first ones to come down in a storm, Crain said.
âFirst itâs willows, then box elders and then silver maples,â he said.
Crain doesnât climb as many trees as he used to because the city has bucket trucks that reach to the top of most trees.
âItâs a whole different ball game with a bucket truck,â Crain said. âYouâre not attached to the tree. Youâre not a part of it.â
But there are areas where a bucket truck wonât fit. Then Crain gets to climb a tree.
He plans to teach his two assistants to climb trees this winter so theyâre ready in spring.
âThe emerald ash borer is going to keep us busy for the next couple of years,â Crain said.
The city is treating about half of its 1,100 ash trees and will remove others when they are infested.
Crain is checking into the cost of hiring someone to cut the trees for lumber and also toying with buying a sawmill to make the lumber to replace
boards on city benches.
âWe want to do whatâs most cost effective,â he said.
Crain chooses the types and locations for city-owned trees and advises developers.
âI love my job. I like the fact that Iâm more managing the trees for the city. I enjoy the science of it,â Crain said.
âThe biggest thing now is diversity so we donât run into another epidemic like this â knowing what trees will do well in our soil conditions and our