Meet Django Kroner, Canopy Crew’s Treehouse Master

Meet Django Kroner, Canopy Crew’s Treehouse Master

Django kroner in front of tree house


Canopy Crew’s Django Kroner is a ‘Canopy King’


One summer day out in the yard, his older brother was chasing him. Being beaten up was an everyday occurrence but there was a real fear this time. He ran and scurried up a beautiful Sweetgum tree with a straight trunk and horizontal limbs every two feet. It was perfect for speed.

He climbed quickly with his brother right behind him. But 60 feet up, where the branches dwindled to twigs, the brother froze, and then climbed back down in defeat.

Django was not only safe — it was the first time he’d outdone his brother. He felt triumphant. He’d found his sanctuary.

Ace April 2018 Cover featuring Django Kroner

Spending hours studying the Sugar Maples in his parents’ backyard led to watching PBS documentaries about orangutans and replicating their movement, topping out canopies and waving to his parents through their window on the third floor.

That’s how it all began.

This is Django Kroner.

Kroner is probably building your next weekend getaway. He runs Canopy Crew, a custom treehouse building and tree care company that offers treehouse rentals in the Red River Gorge and builds custom treehouses around the nation.

His success brought him a TV show pilot and led to him authoring a book and giving talks about the treehouse movement.

Kroner is able to quickly clear up the occasional misconceptions about treehouses vs. the ubiquitous tiny house trend.

“We build tiny houses in trees. I’ll use an analogy. Riding a motorcycle is loads of fun but it will never compare to the intimacy of riding a horse.”

“Most people still think treehouses are little wooden boxes for kids. Nowadays they can be full on houses for adults, with the added benefit of being magical and life enhancing,” Kroner said.

“While a ground house can be beautiful and cozy, you aren’t residing in a living being. People forget it but trees are alive. When you spend a lot of time with one you will learn that they are growing and pulsing and are just as connected to the earth as you are.”

Business has been good for Kroner’s Canopy Crew and the ‘fame’ surprises him sometimes. “I took an Uber in Chicago and the driver knew who I was! Other than that the whole experience is fairly surreal. Just seeing yourself on TV (especially dubbed over in another language!) is hilarious and strange.”

man on rock climbing wall
LEF Climbing General Manager Tommy Marshall

Jason Majewski, an organizer at Creative Mornings in Lexington, is responsible for getting inspiring speakers to share their unique stories for Lexington’s rapt audiences.

Creative Mornings has 184 chapters across the globe and each month, a different chapter chooses a theme and hosts a corresponding event. Majewski knew Kroner would be perfect for “Courage,” and booked him for a recent Friday assembly at LEF Climbing.

“Django’s story really resonates with people,” Majewski said. “He embodies the theme of courage of really taking a leap in following things the things he did in his life.”

LEF Climbing General Manager Tommy Marshall echoed Majewski’s sentiments. Marshall, a fellow rock climber, was so inspired by Kroner’s story that he started looking at pieces of property to satisfy his own ambitions. He left realizing that there’s practical ways to chase dreams.

“We build tiny houses in trees. I’ll use an analogy. Riding a motorcycle is loads of fun but it will never compare to the intimacy of riding a horse.”

Canopy Crew projects usually run about two months and can cost $10,000 for a kid’s treehouse and around $16,000 for an adult treehouse depending on the design. Usually Kroner is the one pushing for wild ideas but even he was no match for the imagination of a little girl who once requested to have an elevator built for her pet turtle.

As challenging as building a structure for turtles may sound, in reality, there are many factors that come into play with designing and living in the custom treehouses that Canopy Crew builds, especially when Kroner is allowed to test the limits of his imagination.

man building tree house
Photo by Megan McCardwell / Ace

“Trees are alive, grow, and move in the wind. We have to take all of that into consideration when designing treehouses,” Kroner said. “We have made plenty of mistakes, learned from them and honed our techniques. My imagination can get carried away and sometimes my crew has to bring me back down to reality when it comes to architecture and design. The hardest part about living in the actual canopy is when you forget your keys, you have to climb to the top of a tree. I think one particularly forgetful day I climbed 400-feet of rope ladder.”

According to Kroner, there aren’t many limitations to what you can do. You can have it all, you just might have to cross a bridge to get from one room to the next. Although, he prefers a tree that’s well balanced, maybe in its late twenties, healthy crotches with large horizontal limbs, and a nice resilient species.

“It’s important to be realistic with your need for creature comforts. To me, it’s all worth it. You may make some sacrifices in space or luxury but you will end up loving the connection. There’s nothing like being rocked to sleep by a giant plant.”

Kroner certainly understands life in the trees. He samples every house he builds and before he gained notoriety, he designed a treehouse 45-feet off the ground at 19 years old and lived in it for three years.

Out of high school and terrified of debt, Kroner didn’t want to go to college, and had the approval of his parents. Instead, he moved to Milwaukee and got a job with Habitat for Humanity and learned how to build homes. Soon after, he grew close to the rock climbing lifestyle and became obsessed.

In an Into the Wild sort of way, Kroner set off for his own adventure and fervent solitude. He bought a tent and got dropped off in Red River Gorge to begin his pursuit of rock climbing.

The descriptions of that allure resonates with LEF’s Marshall who explains, “The fact that rock climbing is a physical sport and you’re not necessarily competing against other people, you’re competing against yourself. A lot of the challenges can be internalized. The nature of climbing takes you outside, just to be able to get outside and climbing just allows people to push their boundaries and find what they’re looking for.”

Kroner was no exception, and it didn’t take long for the Cincinnati native to fall in love with his new surroundings.

man working on treehouse
Photo by Megan McCardwell / Ace

“Hiking down from a day of climbing always felt amazing. It’s the full package, great sand stone, beautiful wildlife and an almost prehistoric vibe,” Kroner said. “I’ve always felt like the Gorge and its community breeds nostalgia. There’s nothing like the morning fog there.”

Just a 19-year old kid with an admittedly ill-advised rattail, Kroner had no vehicle or computer and thought capitalism was out to get him. He was content just riding it out in the Gorge. But fate had other plans, and he got a job with a timber-framed cabin builder.

He would work half a day and spend the rest of the day up the cliff, climbing until sunset. In exchange for working, he’d have a place to pitch his tent and cook. But life in a tent can eventually grow tiresome for anyone and Kroner was no exception.

“It can get really wet and really hot. About six months in, one morning, I woke up looking at the black mold on the tent. I swung my legs out and grabbed my boot and a copperhead slithered out. My heart stopped. It was a bad way to start the day,” Kroner said. “I laid down, I was wet and smelly and looked up at the tops of the trees. They were swaying in the wind and I could see the morning sun was heating up the leaves. It reminded me of my old friends, my sanctuary and I thought to myself, ‘I can build a treehouse.’”

Living life 45 feet off the ground, he loved that no one knew he was there. He would lie in bed at night and listen to tree frogs, owls mating, the crunching of sticks under the feet of unseen animals.

Voices of excited hikers would drift up to his roost when they spotted Kroner’s new house. He’d have pizzas delivered. Friends would come over for sleepovers and be entertained by the absurdity of it. But for Kroner, it was his new reality.

“Usually a pizza guy is thrilled to climb aboard. You may be connected to the grid and have everything a ground house would have, or you may be mimicking the lifestyle of a chimpanzee,” Kroner said. “You can have anything in a treehouse, as long as you have the trees to support it and crew to build it. I’m a chips and salsa guy, but my secret trick in my first treehouse was keeping beverages in a net down in the creek. I’d just ask guests to pull up on a rope and cold beers would rise through the floor.”

To combat the loneliness of living in a tree, he spent a lot of time stretching, drawing, and day dreaming when he wasn’t climbing or working. It became about routines and normalizing it all, taking in the little things.

“It was lonely and that was hard at times. Ultimately when I went up, it was my alone time and I learned to love it,” Kroner said. “I’d wake up, and look up at the way the sun lit up the broad sycamore leaves. If it was early enough, I would be floating above the morning fog, which I loved. I’d get dressed (I kept my clothes in a 50-gallon drum and sweep off the deck). Then I’d make a little breakfast and let the sun warm things up a bit. I would always rappel down with a webbing harness I made. It was quick to put on and off, which was handy because the outhouse was a bit of a hike.”

Still dedicated to rock climbing, Kroner put the beast to rest once he climbed El Capitan in Yosemite. He was ready to turn the page and go back to his first love—trees. But he hadn’t thought about it in terms of a business yet.

canopy crew on a tree house build site
Photo by Zaburi Kiogora

Deciding he should know more about tree health, Kroner moved back to Cincinnati and got an apprenticeship with an arborist. He did this for years and got a crew for projects and in November of 2013, he started the Canopy Crew.

Grinding away, eventually he saved up enough money to build his first treehouse rental in Red River Gorge. In less than three months, Kroner and his crew had built a cozy two-person treehouse between a Red Oak and Hickory. He took a picture and put it on Instagram and that was where his fame took off.

“That photo went viral. Pretty soon I was getting calls to do articles and do talks. I got a call to write a book with Popular Woodworking Magazine about treehouse building. I got a call to do a TV show and I said yes to everything. All of a sudden, it was crazy,” Kroner said. “It took everything I had to navigate the emotions of my crew and I did my best to be a good leader. While failures are guaranteed, success is inevitable.”

Sarah Carey and her husband Burgess build ziplines for a living. The two were doing some work on their trees and wanted a large private tree house behind their Lexington home on Old Richmond Road. Since the family goes to the Gorge all the time, they’d heard the rumblings about this “tree guy” from arborists they had in common.

“My husband talked to him and the timing wasn’t quite right, then he got back to us that he had six weeks he could build,” Carey said. “The production company contacted Django separately and said, ‘We’d like to film a pilot series for you guys and it just worked out that Django thought our project was the right one to try that on.”

Kroner’s crew took over their farm for weeks on end, rolling in 20 deep every morning to film the Careys’ vision coming to life. However, Carey’s project was mostly a kid hangout and up to that point, Kroner was used to building places to live in. Carey wanted a super interactive playground and climbing gym style treehouse. Even after completion, they keep making additions such as a cargo net, an aerial silk rig for their oldest daughter, rings, balance beams, a drop ladder, pulley buckets and a slide.

“Our treehouse is super specific to us,” Carey said. “Because we build ziplines, we’re really into swinging bridges and using bridges as a way to move around in the canopy.”

Kroner and the Canopy Crew built them a 50-foot bridge to get into their treehouse. It was an incredible first for Kroner and it was all featured on the Animal Planet pilot series.

Now, as Kroner juggles the success and fame from his career, it still comes back to the moments as a child when he eluded his brother and found safety in that Sweetgum tree.

Kroner lives by the idea that  “Dreams don’t have to be dreams” and you’re not bound to the grips of a pre-determined life. His confidence and optimism pours out through his work, which is one long love letter to nature. When he looks to the future, he still daydreams of the possibilities just as he did at 19, lying on his back in the first treehouse he built.

“In twenty years,” he says,  “I’ll be enjoying my treehouse village. I’ll work on my homestead, chase my fleeting paragliding hobby, climb, and raise my kids.”

Kroner is the author of The Perfect Treehouse: From Site Selection to Design and Construction, and was featured on Animal Planet’s Canopy Kings, “Custom treehouse builder, Django Kroner, and his team take on a new treehouse build near Lexington, Kentucky. Challenged by his clients’ request to get them over 70 feet into the tree, Django gets creative with a solution, taking this build to new heights.”

This article also appears on page 6 of the April 2018 print edition of Ace.

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