Riveredge director is teaching kids how to explore the world above the ground
Jessica Jens, executive director of Riveredge Nature Center and the mother of two children, may spend part of Mother’s Day high in a tree at her farm near Cedar Grove.
Jens, who was the director at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in Wisconsin Dells before taking the Riveredge job last year, is an avid tree climber who is starting a youth tree climbing club at the Town of Saukville nature center.
Last week, Jens’ daughter Aspen, 7, a member of the club, had her first experience climbing a tree using a youth-sized saddle harness and rope similar to those used by arborists and professional tree trimmers.
“I love it,” Aspen said as she dangled about 20 feet off the ground trusting her mother would keep her safe. “But being upside down is scary.”
She then willingly turned upside down for Ozaukee Press photographer Sam Arendt.
Jens’ 3-year-old son Ian is too young to climb, but his mother let him swing in the harness and he loved that.
Jens started the club as a way for families to learn about nature from a different perspective. Seeing the world from high atop a tree, she said, gives people a greater appreciation for the wonders of nature and, hopefully, will motive them to get involved in preserving it for future generations.
Recreational tree climbing has become a popular eco-tourist adventure worldwide.
“I read an article in Green Teacher magazine on recreational tree climbing and thought, ‘That’s what we should do,’” Jens said. “There are people who travel the globe to climb special trees.
“I’m really a proponent of using adventures that take people out of their comfort zone and get them working with a team.”
The nonprofit Global Organization of Tree Climbers based in Colorado has developed guidelines for climbing trees safely without harming the tree or the surrounding environment.
Two members came to Riveredge in November to train six staff members tree climbing basics. Each must do 25 unassisted climbs before they can facilitate climbs at the center.
“There is no harm to the tree. That is very important to us at Riveredge,” Jens said. “When you use professional equipment, there is no friction on the tree.
“We’re not teaching people to climb on their own. We’re facilitating climbs. There are people on the ground who can stop your ascent or descent. It’s very important for us to follow all the safety standards in the field.”
The nature center received a private donation to help pay for the equipment and training.
“It’s an incredibly different perspective you get way up there. It definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Jens said.
“It’s two different experiences. You have this adrenalin going while you’re climbing, having to trust your equipment and the knots you tie. I thought there would be a rush when I got to the top, but instead it was very calming and relaxing — listening to the wind in the trees, being so high above the ground just hanging there.”
The trees they climb at Riveredge get extra care because staff members remove dead limbs before anyone climbs them. Every tree that is climbed is named and shown respect, Jens said.
“Wild Bill is my favorite to climb,” she said. “It’s a big burr oak. There is LuAnn, a beech tree, and white oaks named Gemini Twins and Apollo.”
Aspen named the tree she climbed at her home Big Ben.
Tree climbers also have climbing names. Jens’ name is Cricket. Aspen, whose name is a popular Colorado tree, hasn’t chosen her climbing moniker yet.
The Riveredge job, Jens said, is a perfect fit not only for her career and education — she has a degree in agriculture and master’s in outdoor education — but also for her family.
“They were involved at Upham Woods, but that’s a residential camp and there was only so much they could do,” Jens said.
“Here, they’ve been involved in lots of things.”
Her husband Jim, an executive chef who worked at the American Club in Kohler, now cooks for parties and special events. He prepared the meal for last year’s Dinner on the Farm fall fundraiser at Riveredge. He also made hearty soup lunches when staff members learned to climb trees.
Aspen attended the Trailblazers day camp at Riveredge last summer. The group waded through the river to an island, where they did a variety of activities, ending up muddy from head to toe, something she loved. She also helped plant and tend the children’s vegetable garden.
“It got her to eat vegetables,” Jens said.
Ian held and released a sturgeon at last year’s Sturgeonfest held at Lakeshore State Park, an island east of the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee.
“Some of the regulars were there, but there were also a lot of new people who learned about our sturgeon rearing program,” Jens said.
Jens recently hosted a Wine and Chocolates With Jessica night where people talked about the center’s history, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last year, and planned for the future.
“It’s a beautiful sanctuary that has so many different programs going on,” Jens said. “We’re teetering on the edge of our next phase of growth. What’s it going to look like? I’m a big believer in brainstorming, encouraging people to think outside the box.”
Moving to Cedar Grove brought the Jenses back to their roots. Both grew up on farms in Sheboygan County.
The family moved to their five-acre farm last May, bringing two horses, a pony, dog, cats and other critters with them.
For more information on the Riveredge Youth Tree Climbing Club, which is open to children ages 7 to 18, visit the website www.riveredgenaturecenter.org or contact Jens at
Riveredge will hold several open recreational tree climbing events for anyone age 7 or older. The first one is set for 2 to 4 p.m. Friday, June 27. Registration is required.
Image information: Jessica Jens held her son Ian, 3, while her daughter Aspen, 7, was suspended in her saddle harness.
Photo by Sam Arendt