WATKINSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Naomi Rice didn't meet her husband in a tree, but she does have a special memory while they were perched in the branches.
"Jody proposed to me in a tree and that's another whole story," Rice said with a slight chuckle.
Today, she and her husband actually help others climb trees through their Oconee County-based business Wild Rice Adventures.
Kids as young as 8 years old take their tree climbing course and the ages go up from there. They once climbed with someone who was 92 years old.
"You're never too old to climb trees," Rice said.
Spending time high in the canopy of a tree is a relaxing experience that immerses one in nature, according to the mother of four.
"Close your eyes and breathe everything in," she said. "There are the birds, the wind."
Rice and her husband use the Hardigree Wildlife Sanctuary in Watkinsville as their base, although they host tree climbing events from the mountains to the coast of Georgia.
At the sanctuary, they and some volunteers saved a towering white oak from the slow death of English Ivy. They named the tree Lazarus in honor of its rescue from the death-dealing vine and now use it for climbing classes.
The canopy in this tree is high as the oak reaches about 100 feet into the air.
"To get into the canopy you have to go up about 50 feet," she said. "Once you start climbing trees you see how each tree is different, unique in it's own way."
Many youngsters have tried their hand at tree climbing as a way of having an outdoors challenge.
"A lot of kids have become detached from nature. They're living in a digital age and the connection with nature isn't there anymore, so it's more important for youth in today's world to have that experience," Rice said.
Rice herself has been climbing trees since she was a small child. When she was 6 years old she fell about two-stories from a tree in her backyard, breaking a femur bone and fracturing her jaw.
"It put me out of tree climbing for a long time," said Rich, who grew up Lilburn.
When she was in the fifth grade she heard about a tree climbing club in Atlanta, and with her father's blessing, she tried the experience of climbing trees with safety ropes, and a harness or saddle.
"I tried it out and it was the most amazing thing in the world," she said.
So began her love of tree climbing. She trained under the tutelage of Abram "Abe" Winters, one of the founding fathers of recreational tree climbing. She eventually began helping Winters at events and soon the guru of tree climbing became her godfather.
At a tree climbing gathering in 2006, she met Jody Rice, who was working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He was interested in implementing tree climbing programs in state parks. The pair enjoyed each others company, so they exchanged contact information. Jody Rice soon invited her to join him on a walk in the mountains.
"We went on a hike together and everything after that is history," Rice said. Today, they have four children, the youngest only a month old.
The Rices eventually took over some facets of Winter's business as he was retiring in stages. Winters is the author of a book on tree climbing, "Hanging Out with Shady Characters."
The couple, who moved to Oconee County in 2011, formed Wild Rice Adventures two years ago.
They eventually met Steve Scruggs, the executive director of Hardigree Wildlife Sanctuary, and found that he was interested in having tree climbing at the sanctuary as one of its outdoor experiences.
"We worked out an arrangement to do tree climbing and use their property, but we have our own insurance," she said.
Rice has also tried rock climbing, but she said the two sports have more differences than similarities.
"You're relying on your strength, each finger hold," she said of rock climbing. In tree climbing "you're actually climbing the rope at your own pace, so if you're tired, it holds you in place. You don't have to be super fit to climb a tree."
The Rices also host open climbs during the year, where people don't have to register as a group to try tree climbing.
"Those are a great way to try it out. Some of the kids who climb are 12 and 13 years old and they become interested enough to take classes," she said.
"It's a pretty new sport that many people don't know about," said the woman who found romance in a tree.