The Cohocton Tree Sitters

Sit in a tree for an entire weekend? In October? 

When I first proposed writing about the Cohocton Tree Sitters, I had only one fear: that I’d be asked to participate. Enjoying the fall colors, picking out pumpkins, kicking up some leaves – these were my ideas of how to spend an autumn afternoon. Sitting in a tree for two frigid nights was not.

To my relief, I was asked only to interview the Tree Sitters. Who are these people who subject themselves to the elements year after year? And why do they do it?

How it all began
In Cohocton, the Tree Sitting Contest is as much a part of the season as the grape pies and fresh cider sold at roadside stands. The contest is only one of the events that takes place at the Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival held in early October.

Tree sitting began in the mid-1960s when a couple of local women decided on a whim to sit in a tree for a weekend. Nancy Carey Bennett and Betsy Burns began the tradition, hauling up a thousand pounds of gear – including a platform, food, stove, and TV – to keep comfortable. Villagers had so much fun talking to the sitters that the idea of a contest was born and has continued to this day.

About the contest

What’s the object of this contest? “To stay up for 48 hours with the least amount of gear,” according to Bob Fleishman, festival organizer. Only about a third of those who start actually finish.

Contestants can bring up to 50 pounds of gear into the trees, but everything except street clothes is weighed. Nothing can be dropped from the tree or passed up to a participant. The same maples are used year after year – those that surround the school. Any “ground time” spent out of the tree counts against a contestant.

Ground time? You mean…“Yes, they do have bathroom breaks. We charge everyone at least three minutes per bathroom break,” claimed Bob, “so that those who have a longer trip won’t be penalized.”

The prizes range from $50 to $200, plus special prizes for the oldest and youngest participants. And in case you were wondering, there are safety measures in place. “We have EMTs check for signs of hypothermia or frostbite every morning,” said Bob. “This year, we did have to get a 14-year-old boy out of the tree. But we’ve never had anyone injured from falling out of a tree.”

Falling out of the trees? “Sure, it happens,” Bob admitted. “One guy woke up in the morning, thought he was in bed, and rolled right out.”

The 2001 Tree Sitters
Last year’s contest was only for the very hardy. Temperatures dipped into the 20s on both nights under blustery skies. In 2001, only 11 people entered; on milder years, there can be as many as 30. And by Sunday afternoon, only three sitters were left.

Joshua
When I first approached Joshua, he was huddled in the crotch of his tree, gloved hands covering his face. The only gear with him was the backpack he had strapped to a limb. His cheeks were crimson and he was visibly shaking. It was clear that this 16-year-old was suffering, but he was going to stick it out for a few more hours.

I wondered why he didn’t fall out. “I just don’t sleep,” he said. Hmmm…two days in the cold without sleep. No wonder his lips barely moved during our entire interview.

Did you have anything to eat or drink? “Not much,” he answered. “Just a few Doritos.”

I was beginning to understand. Josh had decided to bring up only the bare necessities – and things that weighed next to nothing. Josh weighed in with just five pounds of gear, including his outerwear.

I had to ask this two-time veteran: Why do you do this? “For fun,” he answered.

I had my doubts.

Corissa
Corissa comes from a tree-sitting family. Her father and three of her brothers have participated, and this was her fifth – and coldest – year so far.

Her father, Don, is a renowned champion who has won seven or eight times. “He gave me some good advice,” said Corissa. “But I’m the only one in the family who’s never been disqualified. One time my dad dropped a lighter. And one of my brothers dropped a shoe.”

Corissa was cocooned in a sleeping bag, suspended from a hammock. A blue tarp was strung overhead to keep out the wind. About all I could see of Corissa were her glasses.

Corissa brought up 17 pounds with her. At least she looked comfortable. “I’ve been able to sleep,” she mentioned.

I suppose that was one way to pass the time.

Shawn
Shawn was by far the most relaxed and happy of the bunch. I found him reclined on a limb, outside of the home he’d made for himself – a hammock strung inside a tent. “It keeps the wind out from the top and the bottom,” he says. “Makes a big difference.”

Indeed. Shawn was talkative and happy and looked like he could stay up there another two days. He brought the most gear – 22 pounds worth – and claimed that he was much better prepared than last year.

Does it get boring? “Sometimes,” he explained, “but I brought up my DiscMan.” Plus he had the company of his parents, who parked there all weekend long.

Is this a family tradition? “Sort of,” said Shawn. “My dad has never done it, but my brother was the youngest winner. He won when he was 13, before they raised the minimum age.”

Shawn planned well in advance of the event. “I ate about a half a lunch each day for the week before.” So that’s how he managed to survive on Gorilla Bars for two days.

Hungry? “Nope.”

And the winner was… Joshua. After all, he brought up hardly anything – no hammock, no tarp, no sleeping bag.

I wanted to know. What was the first thing Josh would do once he got out of the tree?

“Take a hot shower.” But of course.

An Internationally-known Event
If you think that the Tree Sitters are known only locally, think again. Bob Fleishman regularly receives articles about the contest from as far away as Japan, Germany, and Sweden.

“A few years ago, we got a plug from Paul Harvey,” added Bob, “and we have no idea how he found out about us.” Bob’s even seen a Trivial Pursuit card, asking what types of trees are used for the contest. “That one was a surprise!”

The Tree Sitters and the festival in general have also been featured in National Geo­graphic and on a Dunkin Donuts commercial.

“As far as I know,” said Bob, “this contest is unique.”
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Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival
The Tree Sitters are only one of the attractions at the Fall Foliage Festival. Check out the arts and crafts sold at the flea market or the historical exhibit on the village green. For the sports-minded, an annual soccer tournament is held on the school grounds. The antique tractor pull always draws a good crowd. Children will no doubt enjoy the fireworks and the “candy drop,” a variation on an Easter Egg hunt that leaves most kids with a full bag of treats.

When you get hungry, choose from chicken barbeque, beef-on-a-wick, a ham dinner, or a pancake breakfast. All of the events surround the Wayland-Cohocton Central School, which is just a block away from the business district. The festival takes place the first weekend in October and has something for every family member. For historical information about Cohocton and a schedule of events, see www.cohocton.org


by Joy Underhill, photographs by Vera Elyjiw
Joy Underhill is a freelance business and magazine writer who enjoys covering stories that are off the beaten track. Finger Lakes culture and history are two of her favorite topics. You can contact her at
joyhill@rochester.rr.com. When Vera isn’t writing about digital photography at Eastman Kodak Company, she can often be found with a digital camera in hand in search of her next subject.