Canopy Tower

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The IslandWood Canopy Tower is an elevated classroom with a 15 person maximum capacity.  The tower is a remanufactured fire lookout tower originally constructed for the US Army at Fort Lewis, now know as JBLM, just south of Tacoma, WA.  Originally built in 1966, and subsequently upgraded in 1978, the tower was surplused and dismantled by the army around 1998.  After IslandWood acquired the tower, it was reengineered by Sahale, LLC - the same company that designed and built our Suspension Bridge.  Among the changes Sahale made to the original structure were:

  • The pitch of the stairs were changed (to 7.5" rise to 10" run)
  • Raining and fencing were added to both sides of the stairs to make them safer
  • The original enclosed cabin was replaced by a cabin with removable sides and the roof was replaced by an observation platform.


Number of steps: 191

Height: 118 feet (from the top of the cement footing to the top of the rails on the observation deck.)

The tower was located not so much to provide a territorial view, but rather to allow people to examine various levels of the forest - from the floor to the top of the canopy.  It overlooks one of the oldest Western red cedar (170-180 years old) on the property (directly to the north of the tower - to the right as you face the gate.)

Activities at the Canopy Tower:

Comparison of Abiotic Elements

A great activity is to compare the temperature, relative humidity and wind speed both at the base of the tower and at the top of the tower. 

  • There is an anemometer and temperature/relative humidity gauge at the base and the top of the tower.  

This activity is great to get the learners asking/thinking about how the differing amount of abiotic elements effects the local environment. Relative humidity is the amount of water present, temperature is the heat (energy) and the wind will impact both of these.


At the door begin the climb with a question that ignites their curiosity (Inquiry).

Will it be warmer or colder at the top? (Why do you think that?)

Will there be more or less moisture in the air up there? (What can you offer to support that prediction?)

Be sure to record the temperature in some of the students' journals, and the relative humidity in others.

Check out the page with directions on how to change the batteries for the anemometers and temperature/relative humidity gauges on the tower.

Cedar Tree Observation

Have the learners take a look at the cedar tree just to the north (right) of the tower as you unlock the gate.  Ask them to describe what they see as the main parts of the tree.  Once you are at the top, point out the same tree.  How does it look now?  What's different?  (Perhaps the most important recognition is that the tree has a structure much like other, smaller plants.  Children often think of "trees" as different organisms than "plants.")

Determining the Height

How high is the canopy tower?  When students ask this question there are a variety of ways to answer it.  How you decide to respond will be determined by the situation of your learners at that specific point of time.  Sometimes it's OK to provide the answer: 115 feet to the deck of the observation platform.  At other times, though, it may be worth giving the learners a chance to develop a strategy to measure the height. 

We can encourage them to find a way to answer it themsleves. Ask "How can we figure that out?"

The students can count the steps. (Multiply that by the height of each step to get a rough idea.)

Have them take an educated guessand explain how they got their estimates.

Use a tool such as "HowHighFar" or "Theodolite" in the iPods and measure from across the ravine.

Taking a Group on the Canopy Tower:

Before Climbing the Tower:

  • Make a bathroom stop soon before ascending the tower.
  • Check for physical challenges among the group or known fears of heights.
  • If a person is tentative, offer a climb to a particular level and then check-in to see if they are comfortable going higher.
  • Mention in advance that it will feel wobbly but that it is very sturdy.
  • Share that it will take 10-15 minutes to reach the top. Keep them moving slowly and take breaks.

General Safety Guidelines:

  • Use is restricted to daylight hours only.
  • Instructors are responsible for unlocking the structure at the time access is needed, and relocking it upon exiting.
  • Maximum group size is 15 people.
  • Instructors should lead the ascent and descent, with another adult "sweeping" at the end of the line. An adult should always be first up and last off the tower.
  • Walk single file, unless an adult is assisting someone.
  • No throwing items of any kind off tower.
  • No climbing on railings, guardrails, struts or supports.
  • No running on any part of the tower.
  • No rocking or swaying the tower.
  • Chaperones may wait alone at any level they are comfortable.
  • No child should be left at the bottom without at least two other persons present. The "rule of three" applies: No adult should be alone with a child at any time or at any location while a participant in IW activities.
  • There should be at least one trained adult on each platform level occupied by children in order to provide direct supervision.


  • A first aid kit is available in the locked box at the tower's base. If any items are used, report to Facilities, who will replace them.
  • If a person becomes extremely fearful, radio Coordinator for assistance.
  • Conditions under which an evacuation or closure would be necessary: fire, earthquake, high winds (25 mph and up), lightning, injury/illness, ice on the tower, or any other safety hazard.
  • If a rescue is required due to injury/illness, radio the Coordinator.