Monday, December 4, 2023

Ag teacher takes message on forestry to the treetops

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Van Wagner ascends a tree during his first climb in Montour County on Jan. 28.

BEAVER SPRINGS — What started out as a quest by Van Wagner to teach students more about forestry has quickly grabbed headlines in raising awareness about the threats and challenges that Pennsylvania’s forests face.

“I spend a lot of time in the woods as well as a lot of time with my students,” said Wagner, an agriculture teacher at Danville High School and certified forester. “Earlier this year, I was hiking in the woods in my home county on Montour Ridge when I thought it would be interesting to climb a tree at the highest point on my mountain.

“I then realized no one had likely ever done this and it would be a great challenge for myself as well as a way to capture my students’ attention,” he added. “It has worked! My students are asking me all about the adventures and asking more forest questions than ever.”

And so are others around the Commonwealth.

Wagner quickly set a goal to climb to the highest point of all 67 counties in Pennsylvania. Once at the summit, he climbs to the top of the highest tree he can find in hopes of drawing public attention to the forests.

He completed climbs in seven counties: Montour, Union, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Colombia, Luzerne, Sullivan and Clinton counties before stopping in Snyder and Juniata counties for his ninth and 10th stops.

Joining him on previous climbs were his sons, Luke and Calvin Wagner.

He has scheduled a visit to Mifflin County on Sunday, April 16.

The highest peak in Snyder County is located on the top of Shade Mountain, just outside Beaver Springs, Wagner said.

He filmed his climb of a Pitch Pine tree and posted it on his YouTube channel.

“We’ve got a rainy, windy, cloudy day, but that’s okay because it gives more character to the woods,” Wagner told subscribers on the March 25 climb. “See the winds are just ripping up here, it’s going to be a wild climb.”

Wagner treated the less-than-ideal climbing conditions as an educational experience rather than a challenge. “I’ve been to this site before and the view isn’t going to be very impressive because of the fog,” he explained.

For the Snyder County climb, he was joined by a gang of friends from the Ulsh Gap Hunting Camp. They met at Mount Pisgah Altar and hiked through a forest of Pitch Pine and Black Gum.

“I’ve been here for weddings believe it or not,” Wagner joked while hiking in the blustery, foggy land. “On a nice, clear day, you would not believe the view. It kind of creates its own character today.

I’ve been here before, so I don’t feel ripped off.”

While hiking east to the high point at the top of Shade Mountain, Wagner pays careful attention to his surroundings. He pauses to educate others as well, hearing the call of nearby ruffed grouse which have struggled under recent conditions.

“That’s a rare sight and a rare thing any more it seems – to flush out a grouse,” Wagner said. “The West Nile Virus has really knocked their numbers down.

“But these ridge tops hold out some hope because there’s less mosquitos up on these dry ridge tops, and I think that some of the newer research is suggesting that the grouse are hanging on in these dryer sites.”

Wagner also talked about the particular forest he’s hiking. The Snyder County forest contains a “lot of Pitch Pine,” he said. “I’m hoping for Short-Leafed Pine, but no luck yet.” He’s seen Mountain Laurel and some White Pine as well.

He finally selects a Pitch Pine and climbs it using a pulley system to pull himself to the treetop in a matter of minutes, reaching an elevation of 2,175 feet.

Once at the top, Wagner’s engaging dialogue continued despite blustery conditions that Mother Nature had in store. “It’s pretty cool, even though it’s foggy,” he said, talking over the rumbling of the wind. “It looks like a totally different forest.”

He pauses momentarily to take a photo of his crew below.

“It’s plenty windy, that’s for sure,” he joked. “OK, I’m coming down.”

Before he descends, he finds one last educational opportunity, collecting a pinecone for one of the youngsters who has joined him on the climb. “That’s a pinecone from the highest tree in Snyder County.”

Less than 30 seconds later, Wagner has slid down and has both feet on solid ground. “It was rocking; it was really moving up there,” he added. “I can’t feel my fingers.”

On the same incredibly foggy day, Wagner ventured into Juniata County’s Tuscarora State Forest for a climb to the highest point with friend Bryan Pearson.

“The view isn’t going to be terribly breathtaking,” Wagner said. “What I can’t tell is how much I’m going to see anyway. We drove through some valleys getting here. I feel like it drops off pretty quickly on that side so maybe I would have seen pretty far to the north.”

Wagner eventually found a nice red oak to climb. “I don’t mind that its foggy, it gives the forest an entirely different feel,” Wagner explained.

He finds a benchmark – without any elevation markings – and stumbles onto the remains of another historical treasure: remains of what he believes to be stone stairs to an old fire lookout tower.

Minutes later, he found a Red Oak, stating, “This may be our climb.”

Nearing the top, Wagner throws caution to the wind. “Usually, I don’t like to see woodpecker holes in a tree when I’m climbing it,” he said. “That’s usually a sign of decay.

“Woodpeckers are after some bugs,” he added. “There wouldn’t be bugs in this tree unless there was bacteria and decay, so it’s not the greatest thing you want to see when you’re working in a tree. I’m not going to go much higher. There’s no reason to risk it, I’m plenty high.”

He follows with one last observation, reaffirming any earlier point before making his descent.

“It’s a shame it’s foggy because I can tell that right over this way – to the east – it looks like the mountain just drops off and it would have been a heck of a view,” Wagner said.

After wrapping up his climbs in the Juniata Valley, Wagner plans to continue to other counties around the state. “It’s going to take me several years, but I hope the effort will give me a chance to get people’s attention and allow me to create discussions about forestry.

“Pennsylvania is blessed with some of the most incredible forests in the world,” he added. “I want to celebrate this, while also helping to raise awareness about some of the threats and challenges they face.”

Wagner’s hikes are posted on his YouTube channel at @vanwags. You can also find him on Facebook and at

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