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On Climbing Frozen Trees and Killing Babies

Posted on 24 February 2011

Iceclimbing – Daybreak Edition

“Please don’t mess this up.”

That thought kept jumping into my head as I stood on the outskirts of the city, in a complete strangers’ front yard, against the backdrop of a completely frozen tree being used for iceclimbing.

That’s right. Iceclimbing. On a tree.

I first got wind of this before Christmas, when an associate producer based in Kelowna told us about some people who lived near her parents in Prince George.

She had been visiting three years ago over Christmas, and saw this tree, completely covered in ice.

She talked to them about having a story done for CBC, but the timing never worked out. Three years later, she still wanted to get the story out there.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the contact information. All we knew was the street, and that there was a tree covered in ice on it. Assuming the people were still there. Assuming they still did it.

So one day in December, after finishing all my other work, I took the CBC vehicle for a drive. Once I got to the street in question, my search began.

The problem was, on this particular street, there are A LOT of trees. Like, forests of them. I drove one way. Nothing. I drove the other, further. Nothing. Not yet.

I saw a couple of people walking dogs. I stopped and asked them: “Have you seen an ice tree? Like a tree covered in ice? For iceclimbing?” They thought I was crazy. “I’ve lived here for years, and I’ve never seen that. Someone would have told me about it.”

She paused.

“Unless it’s down that way. I don’t go that way very often.”

A glimmer of hope. But it was getting dark. And there were A LOT of trees. It would be easy to miss it if it was hidden behind another one. And what does an ice-covered tree LOOK like, anyways? I was ready to give up.

And then I saw this:

I couldn’t believe it. There really WAS no way you could miss it. The search was over.

Except no one was home. No one at the neighbour’s either. I wrote a note with context and contact information and left in the mailbox. I wrote down the address. I went back to the office.

The next day, I looked up the address. Yes! They were listed. I called. I left a message. I waited.

A few days later I got an email. Yes, they would be willing to have me come out and do a story. But they were busy. They didn’t use the tree often. They had a couple of neighbour’s who did, too, so they would try to coordinate.

A few weeks of back and forth and we finally found a time where one person from the house in question, and two neighbours could get out there and I could, too. So there I was, subzero weather (thank goodness– I had been worried the warmth we were experiencing might ruin the climbing conditions), them in their gear, me with my microphone and recorder, gathering the story of the ice tree.

And the whole time, I was worried about messing up. Everything about this story was perfect for weather. The story was great. Quirky, northern, sound-rich. The people were great talkers. The sound. Oh, my gosh, the sound. Gear being strapped on. Picks going into the tree. Ice shattering as it fell from the tree. I’ve done a lot of stories I like, but I knew this one was something special, even before I started putting it together. As they talked, and climbed, I just tried to stay out of it, make sure my levels weren’t too low or too high, that I wouldn’t miss a nugget. I didn’t want a story like this one to be ruined by my inexperience.

Not for me: for the story. I could hear how it would sound in the hands of someone more experienced. It would be amazing. I wanted it to be at least half that good. My worst fear was it completely falling flat because I failed to hit ‘record’ at the right time, or ruined the edits.

I have never spent so much time on a radio piece. I powered through all my other work so I could devote my full attention to isolating clips, mixing sounds and interviews, writing scripts. I stayed late.

After a full day of work on this, I was down to eight minutes. It was great, but eight minutes doesn’t cut it on radio. At least, not with my narrative skills. One thing I’ve been learning since starting at CBC just over a year ago was that the strength of a story isn’t about what you keep, it’s about what you cut. As the reporter, you’re invested in the story, so you think everything sounds great and is fascinating. To Joe Blow tuning in on his way to work, you’ve got to get the point. You’ve got to “kill your babies,” as the saying goes.

So I cut. Great things, too. Parts about how people would drive by as they were freezing the tree, alternately yelling support or about how they were crazy. Parts about how the one neighbour tried really hard to get introduced to the people with the tree. Clips about how if you’re climbing in the wind you get vertigo as all the other trees around you sway. I had to stay on focus: the tree. Climbing. It had to fit the arc.

I got great feedback from the others in the office. They told me what worked, what didn’t. I spent a few minutes working on it here and there in the weeks leading up to its airdate. I’m glad I had that time. This was my first “pac”, a packaged piece that stands on its own without the need for a host intro, because I’m the narrator. I introduce and end the story.

I borrowed techniques from shows like Spark and This American Life. Particularly narrating OVER the people as they talk so you can provide context and background while still keeping their flow. Narrating things as they happened (like the ice falling), trying to make it feel more like I’m “there”, on the scene, rather than sitting in a studio reading about things that already happened.

I’m proud of the end result. I don’t think it’s as good as it could be. Someone else probably could have done more. But I don’t think I ruined the story. It got out there. It’s been played on shows in Yukon, St. John’s, and Ontario. It was a great experience. It’s why I love radio. I hope you like it, too.

Iceclimbing – Syndicated Version by akurjata


Filed under: CBC, journalism, personal, Prince George, radio

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