A quarter century ago, tree-removal expert Ray McElfish planted a row of young oaks on WSU’s Riverpoint campus in Spokane.
Now those trees shade the extension campus, and McElfish returns every year to maintain them.
After four decades of intense labor, McElfish still has all his fingers and toes, even after a career in work that claims lives every year in America.
“This is all I’ve ever done – work in this area” with trees, he said, sitting in his tiny Ray McElfish Tree Specialist Inc. office off Interstate 90.
From 100-year-old monsters lurking in farmers’ backyards to trees ready to collapse on a house, McElfish is a master at working with trees. He’s even cleaned up hurricane-swept forests in the historic battlegrounds of Virginia.
His company has worked extensively with Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, University of Idaho, Fairchild Air Force Base and the city of Spokane. It also handles hundreds of jobs with private residents, offering pruning, urban logging, lot clearing, stump grinding, and planting.
McElfish said the biggest tree he ever worked on was near Edwall, Wash. A farmer called him, claiming to have the biggest poplar he’d seen. The farmer wanted it removed because the tree was dying and a falling branch had killed one of his bulls.
McElfish arrived to see a poplar roughly 15 feet wide and 175 feet tall.
McElfish leans in as he tells the story, his eyes widening with excitement.
He and his crew cut off all the outer limbs and removed the top 100 feet of the tree. The tree was still 6 feet across at that point and his chain saws weren’t enough to tackle a wall of wood like that.
“We left it standing,” he said, with a smile.
McElfish started working with trees after his father, Maril McElfish, started Tall Tree Service in Spokane in 1948. Tall Tree Service is still operating, but without a McElfish. Ray McElfish started his own business in 1995.
His father “started me working when I was 10 years old for 10 cents an hour. I have to admit, I don’t think I was worth it,” he said with a laugh. “My friends were out playing baseball and I had to go drag brush on a crew.”
He didn’t like dragging brush, but in his early teens, McElfish began climbing up into the trees. He loved it.
“That’s what really struck my interest,” he said.
“It gets in your blood. There’s just something about working on trees,” he said. Sometimes he’ll get calls to take out trees more than 150 years old, longer than Spokane has been a city.
“You’re dealing with history. … It’s about how you work on trees that were here long before anyone now was living,” he said.
His daughter Shannon Sullivan helps her father around the business, as does her oldest son.
McElfish and his wife recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary by bidding on and winning a trip to the Redwoods in California. They’ll spend three days in the forest, each night climbing 300 feet up into a giant Redwood tree where a canoe-like bed awaits them.