Arrow-right Camera

Unusual Jobs: McElfish Tree Specialists spans four generations

Ray McElfish of Ray McElfish Tree Specialists, removes a maple tree on East 17th Avenue, Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)
Ray McElfish of Ray McElfish Tree Specialists, removes a maple tree on East 17th Avenue, Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)

Shannon Sullivan shuts off the roar of the gas powered stump grinder, pulls a smartphone out of a pocket and sticks an earbud in her ear to answer a phone call. By the time the grinder has stopped rumbling she’s set up an appointment to do an estimate the next day. She fires the grinder back up and gets on with shaving down a big tree stump.

Sullivan owns Ray McElfish Tree Specialists, a landscaping and tree business that’s been in her family since her grandfather, Maril McElfish, started Tall Tree Service in Spokane in 1948.

“Now my son Dylan is the fourth generation working in the business,” Sullivan said.

She bought the business from her dad, Ray McElfish, last year, and since then she’s learned that many don’t expect a female owner of a tree service business.

“Sometimes when I show up to do an estimate the customer asks if my husband is doing the work,” she said, laughing. “They can’t quite wrap their mind around a woman doing a tree business.”

Every day, she gathers her crew for a safety meeting at 7 a.m. Permits in hand, she runs down that day’s agenda and then the trucks are loaded with chainsaws, tools and tree climbing gear. The wood chipper is hitched behind one of the trucks and off they go.

On this sunny Wednesday morning, she’s headed to the South Hill to remove a three-story Norwegian maple that’s growing inches from one house, wedged in between a driveway and the foundation.

McElfish meets her there with the bucket truck.

The crew moves the bucket truck and the chipper around trying to get into the best position in the narrow space.

Road construction on nearby Grand Boulevard means a tour around the block to get the bucket truck positioned in exactly the right spot.

Avista shows up to take down a couple of lines that are intertwined in the tree.

McElfish stands back and surveys the scene.

“The tree is probably 75 years old or so,” he said. “I bet it started as a volunteer maple and people just didn’t notice how big it got.” Now it’s leaning on the eaves of one house casting a deep shade into the backyard.

By 9 a.m. McElfish is up in the bucket with a chainsaw and branches are beginning to fall, one at a time, as he works his way up along and into the canopy of the tree.

From the bucket McElfish has a great panoramic view of the South Hill.

He maneuvers the boom as easily as if it was an extension of his own arm, swinging it over the roof of one house, deftly avoiding chimneys and antenna.

“Everything looks a little different from up here,” he said, laughing.

No, he’s not afraid of heights.

“I was in the military – I jumped out of planes – this doesn’t bother me at all,” he said, sawing away at the branches.

Below McElfish, Sullivan and her crew work in a drizzle of sawdust to stuff the tree limbs into the shredder as quickly as they fall. By 10 a.m. – when it’s time for a morning doughnut and water break – about half the tree canopy is gone and the sun is shining in the backyard for the first time in a long time.

When the crew starts up again, Sullivan whips out a folding lawn chair and her day planner and continues to make calls to customers.

“Most of our customers are repeat customers or they are referred to us,” Sullivan said.

She spends most of her day driving around the area giving estimates on everything from complete tree removal to pruning and other maintenance.

Gonzaga University is one client Sullivan is especially proud of.

“We have worked for them for ages,” she said. “Look around you on campus – it’s beautiful – it’s all us.”

Sullivan is a tiny woman – that can be an advantage when learning how to climb trees she joked – and she is feisty and determined, softened by a great sense of humor.

If her name sounds familiar it’s because she was the woman behind the successful petition to recall Spokane Mayor Jim West in 2005. In 2011 she launched a recall campaign against Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker, but it was not successful.

“I did what I had to do,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Today, she’s completely focused on continuing her successful tree business. She drug tests the crews and keeps the company licensed, bonded and insured.

She rants against people who go from house to house with a chainsaw offering to take down trees.

“They have no clue what they are doing,” Sullivan said. “And then people end up having to call us anyway.”

As the maple removal progresses as planned, Sullivan gets ready to head over to Gonzaga for some stump grinding. She puts on her pink hardhat and loads a pink “Women Working” sign into the back of her Jeep. Before leaving, she tips her head back and looks up at her dad who’s once again high up in the bucket pruning away. She gives a little wave knowing he can’t hear her.

“He’s my hero,” she said. “He has taught me everything I know about this business.”