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Hunting the Wild Christmas Tree

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Hunting the Wild Christmas Tree

A few tips if you're looking to head out into the woods and cut your own

With Thanksgiving behind us, and bags of leftover turkey meat filling the refrigerator and freezer, thoughts now turn to that most American of holidays, the celebration of consumerism we call Christmas.

And what is Christmas without a Christmas tree? At this time of year, storefronts everywhere are lined with handsome fir and spruce, awaiting only your lights and decorations to transform themselves into your family’s symbol of the holiday season; or, as my daughter Amy once characterized its most important role, the depository of gifts.

But for some, a way to add joy and celebration to the season is to gather up the family and head out into our North Woods to hunt out a tree in the wild to grace our homes with its majestic presence. For those, here are some tips for a successful hunt.

First, get permission to cut. If you’re looking on national forest lands for your holiday tree, stop by the local Forest Service office and obtain a permit. If you’re looking on state lands, a permit is not necessary, though only two trees are allowed per family, and they’re for personal use only, not for resale. If you’re looking on private land, it should go without saying that you need to obtain permission first—if you’re tempted to skip this step, be aware that many landowners in the area are armed, and trespassing is a crime.

Permission in hand, you should focus your hunt on open areas. Idaho Department of Lands asks that you cut trees from road right-of-ways and underneath power lines; this is a benefit to them, because these are areas where they don’t really want trees to grow, but it’s also a benefit to you, because this is an area where you’re likely to find a better tree. A tree in the open has the opportunity to fully develop on all sides; trees grown close together (like those on Ernie’s property where I got my tree one year) are likely to present you with a surprise, no-growth area once you get it cut down that will have to be hidden in a corner, where it will still look odd anyway.

Be aware that the very best wild Christmas trees are often found in the top ten feet of a 30- to 80-foot wild tree. Really, it’s slightly excessive to cut down a perfectly healthy, 30-foot-plus wild tree just to get something to grace your living room for 30 days or so. That’s not to say you won’t do it, but if you do you should at least feel a bit of shame in the process.

By the way, although they look lovely out in the woods, leave the cedar trees alone. They are a terrible choice for a Christmas tree. Those lacy, delicate fronds absolutely die under the weight of Christmas lights, not to mention ornaments, and you’ll find that if you choose a cedar for a Christmas tree, the branches will all droop straight down. It’s not an attractive look.

Fir trees generally have sturdy branches (you can identify a wild fir tree in the woods by its sturdy branches) and make an excellent tree. The one exception to this is the so-called Piss Fir (white fir). Although its branches are also sturdy, it fully lives up to its name and can be identified by its smell as soon as you start to cut it. This is not a successful choice for your living room. Spruce trees are also an excellent choice, but I’m allergic to them so they’re a no-go on my Christmas tree cutting list. Actually, I have many years ended up with a spruce so that’s not completely true, but each and every year, covered with little red bumps up to my elbows, I’ve regretted it. If you’re not allergic, however, a spruce is a nice choice for a tree. Scotch pine is also a popular choice for a Christmas tree, and you can identify them by the way the needles stab into your skin like knives. Need I say more?

Department of Lands suggests you cut the tree right below the lowest live limb on the tree. You might be surprised to find how far up the tree that is, especially if there’s a lot of ‘forest stuff’ growing near and around the trunk, but this is a plus—trees are much easier to cut right around the level of your arms than they are if you’re close to the ground or, god forbid, way over your head.

For wild trees, a chain saw is generally a bit excessive (trunks are usually small) and really, you don’t feel like you’ve actually cut a tree unless you’ve cut it with an axe. Don’t try to cut it with a hand saw unless you plan to spend hours doing so.

If you have brought children along, make sure to let them take a few cuts at the tree—do like David did on this year’s tree hunt for my family and teach them the proper way to do so, cutting down at an angle. And if they’re unsteady with the axe, you might want to steady them a bit—rapid trips to the emergency room tend to dampen the cutting-the-tree festivities.

Once you’ve cut your tree, it’s time to evaluate the hiking trip that got you to it in the first place. This year, for us, that included passage over several old barbed wire fences and the crossing of a small creek. This can make returning while carrying an overly large Christmas tree quite an adventure. Although I don’t recommend planning your hike with the return trip in mind (after all, pretty much all of us can use a little more adventure in our lives), this rule can be bent slightly if you find yourself climbing through precarious cliffs, etc... especially if you have children along. When the going gets tough, give a little thought to the return trip.

All trees look beautiful in their natural habitat—the woods—but keep in mind that your living room is, by no stretch of the imagination, natural habitat. If nothing else, in most cases, a living room is smaller than any natural habitat you’ll find in northern Idaho or western Montana. This can be a problem when you discover that the base of your tree, limb to limb, measures twelve feet or more. I still remember the year we had to give up the dining room in order to contain the Christmas tree. Judicious pruning can solve this problem sometimes, but not always—if you have to prune off half the tree, you’re not always left with the most attractive result.

By the way, if you’ve never hunted a wild tree before, you might be surprised when you get it home and try to stand it up in your Christmas tree stand—because these stands are not made for wild trees. See, a ‘farmed’ tree generally has a fairly sturdy trunk. That is not the case for a tree grown in the wild, so when trying to place it in the stand you might well find that no matter how much you screw those little eye bolts, they never even come close to the trunk of your little wild tree.

I will leave it to you to discover the best way to overcome this dilemma, mostly because I don’t have a really good answer. Through the years, I have tried any number of solutions, from tying the tree to a wall to stuffing Styrofoam and stray pieces of wood into the stand. None have worked particularly well. The best solution was to stand the tree in a bucket full of rocks, but the tree died pretty quickly (I’m not sure how well it can take in water when smothered in rocks), and then, of course, you have to find a way to decorate the bucket.

With the tree up and decorated, the other important thing to remember is to water it every day. I can tell you from experience that a dead, dry tree, while remaining amazingly attractive, is an incredible fire hazard, an adventure you might want to skip during the holiday season.

Once you’ve become a dedicated tree-killer, it’s hard to go back to buying trees at the store. So consider one more thing... for every tree you cut, plant a new one (or two) each Arbor Day, to ensure that generations to come can also experience the thrill of the hunt.

Happy hunting!

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Landon Otis

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Christmas, Christmas tree

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