Standout Detroit Tree Trimmer is Special,
But Not for the Obvious Reason

September 3, 2019

Lisa Bagalay was, by all accounts, an exceptional member of Detroit Local 17's Line Clearance and Tree Trimmer apprenticeship program.

Detroit Local 17 journeyman line clearance tree trimmer Lisa Bagalay

“But, before we get to her story, Business Manager Dean Bradley wants everyone to understand something important: Lisa Bagalay isn't special because she's a woman doing a job that's mostly done by men. Yes, by Bradley's reckoning she is the first woman to top out of the local's program in at least 20 years, and yes, that is extraordinary.

She also isn't special because she did it after being a stay-at-home mom for a 15 years. Though a fair number of her fellow apprentices were in their 20s, it's not unusual to have apprentices closer to 40, like Bagalay.

What Bradley wants people to understand, from the first, is just how special anyone is who makes it through Local 17's line clearance program, whoever they are.

"We have a 25% washout rate just in the nine-day bootcamp before the apprenticeship starts and 50% during the full program. The line clearance trade is exceptionally hazardous, technical and physically demanding," he said.

Not many people want to climb to the swaying top of an 80-foot tree in the dead of a Detroit winter with a chainsaw and plans to bring that tree down, piece by controlled piece. Even fewer succeed.

"The strength, the extreme weather, the hazards. I challenge anyone to try it," he said

Once you understand that, Bradley said, now he can tell you about Lisa Bagalay. He is at pains to say Bagalay isn't exceptional simply because she finished. Roughly 20 women have topped out of the only other IBEW Line Clearance Tree Trimming apprenticeship — run by the Northwest Line JATC in Vancouver, Wash. — since 1991.

What makes Bagalay special is that even among the crew that succeeded, she stood out.

"Everyone who leaves this program knows how to do it right, but Lisa always went further to do it the best way using the best techniques. It was going to be over and above correct, every time," said Line Clearance Tree Trimming Trainer and Safety Instructor Winston Likert.

Likert has known Lisa and her husband, Eric, for decades, since Eric was an apprentice. But Likert — and it turns out, Eric — were surprised when Lisa announced she was signing up. And surprise quickly turned to concern.

"Eric wasn't happy. He was nervous for me. I just told him he had no chance of stopping me," Bagalay said. "I've been told my whole life to work hard and set goals. A few people told me I would never be a journeyman. I am."

Likert says he wasn't one of them. After training apprentices for more than 15 years, he has concluded that successful tree trimmer apprentices come from all different kinds of jobs, or this may be their first. There are a handful still shaking off the last traces of teenage years and others who feel accumulation of life in knees that click and backs that ache. The only traits he thinks they all share is that they love a life outdoors and they're all physical. Some are big and powerful, some are wiry and small, but as long as they understand how to control their movement in an effective way, it can work.

"We didn't know what it would look like," he said. "We knew it was a male-dominated world she was coming into, and it was new for all of us."

From the beginning, she said, she knew her best chance to get where she wanted was to work smart.

"We have so much equipment available to us that we don't have to muscle anything, but you have to learn how to use it. You can do the rigging to move a 2,000-pound log with one person and one rope," she said. "This is a mental game way more than a physical one. You have to think 10 steps ahead or something will go wrong, and you will get hurt."

Happily, this is exactly what Likert wants to see in apprentices.

"There is a lot of stored up energy in a tree, kinetic energy, dynamic energy, tension, compression. She never stopped studying how to engineer the structure to take the stress out of the tree and off of her body," Likert said. "You can body the work, but you won't last."

Lisa Bagalay is the first woman to top out of Detroit Local 17's Line Clearance and Tree Trimmer apprenticeship in at least 20 years, but it's her dedication to her craft that sets her apart, colleagues say.

Bagalay's biggest supporters in her quest to work smart, she said, were three Local 17 journeyman who trained her well — Cory van Kuren, Matt Nichols and Terry Leitch — and Likert. Because her husband was on the apprentice board at Local 17, they decided to keep work and home completely separate, so no one could say she didn't earn it.

And then she made sure everyone else earned it too, Bradley said.

"Leaders always surface in apprenticeships. And she asserted herself from the beginning. There was never a lot of questioning about would they follow a woman. Lisa made it clear that she was someone they could all rely on," Bradley said.

But before anyone comes to the wrong conclusion, Bagalay is far from "all clipboard, no chainsaw," Likert said.

She did the grunt work same as everyone else. Sometimes brush just needs dragging and it doesn't require anything other than sweat.

And there were ways, Likert said, that Bagalay's physical skills exceeded the norm.

Bagalay climbs without hooks. Everyone climbs without hooks sometimes, but Bagalay always did. While they might be a necessity when working on poles, they are damaging to trees and can do long-term damage to the back and knees. Bagalay's knees are a mess from her time as a youth gymnast, and she tore her ACL and meniscus during the apprenticeship.

She was only out for three months. Athletes routinely take a year to recover from the same injury.

Likert, who also climbs without hooks, thinks it's easy to rely on them as a short-term cover, using productivity as an excuse to not learn the most sustainable way of doing things.

In all his years, he has never seen anyone work all the way up to journeyman without using hooks.

"There are a lot of guys who climb hookless, and we are promoting it a lot. People do it more than ever before, but in my 14 years, I've never seen anyone go to that degree," he said. "She made it a point."

The most surprising part of the job, Bagalay said, is how much more than just a job it has turned out to be.

Eric and Lisa's home is now host to Christmas parties in winter and pool parties in the summer for crews she's worked with, past and present. They make annual pilgrimages to events like ArborCon, Arborfest and Tree Jam, and she is a frequent presence at Local 17 union meetings.

She didn't get a job, she said, she got a tribe.

"All these people are my family," she said.

Bradley hopes Bagalay is an inspiration for people who wouldn't think this job or the trades is for them.

"Anyone who is all in, there for their brothers and sisters and willing to put in the work, with the right training and attitude, the trades are for everyone," Bradley said.