Ten Minutes With Katy Bigelow // Certified Arborist and Cat Rescuer

By Leigh Calvez

Katy Bigelow has built her life among the trees. As a certified arborist, she devotes her professional life to consulting with people about working with their trees for the beauty, health and safety of their property. Most recently she’s added daring, cat-in-a-tree rescues to her list of for-hire activities. In her spare time she climbs big trees both recreationally and competitively. This spring Bigelow organized her 3rd Annual Bainbridge Island Open Master’s tree climbing competition.

How did you start your cat-in-a-tree rescues?

A couple of years ago I got called for it out of the blue and decided, why not add that service? I love cats and love helping them when they just can’t figure out the down part. It’s the most satisfying part of my job.

When did you start climbing trees?

Back in 2005, someone gave me a gift certificate for a climb in an old growth tree. There are companies that will put people up in trees for recreation. I work for one in Seattle, Canopy Climbers. So, someone did that for me and I ended up climbing an old-growth Doug fir. I was just blown away. I thought it was so amazing that people could do this.

What does competitive tree climbing involve?

In competitions sponsored by the ISA, International Society of Arboriculture, you have to be a certified arborist to compete in the five events. The first one is aerial rescue with a dummy in a tree and you’ve got six minutes to rescue him—that’s my favorite. It’s pretty technical. The second event is a work climb where there are five bells, or stations, in a tree and you have five minutes to get to them all. There’s a timed rope climb where you have a certain amount of time to climb 40 feet. There’s a speed climb where you’re basically climbing as fast as you can. And then there’s an event called “throw ball” where you throw a heavy ball with a very small line attached to it at targets in the tree. It’s basically target practice to mimic how you would enter a tree using ropes instead of spikes.

What inspired you to create the Bainbridge Island Open Master’s climb?

Well, I always panic when I go to competitions. I want to have a place where people can come who are too nervous to compete or are new to the field and they can come see some of the techniques.

Are climbers competing for prizes?

We win gear—carabiners, ropes, helmets, gloves, stuff we use all the time.

What’s important to you about getting up into trees?

Particularly in an old-growth tree, there’s so much life up there that you cannot see from the ground. There are whole ecosystems. The first time I was in an old-growth tree, I was up at 200 feet and there was a little mushroom up there growing on this pad of soil and moss. That blew me away! How did that get there? For me it’s the seeing of things that people just don’t get to see.