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Hiking to find the perfect tree

I'm not a lumberjack. The one time I was actually involved in the felling of a full-grown tree was a near fiasco involving rope and a mad dash toward safety in ankle-deep water as my buddies and I splashed out of the way of a toppling pine. We didn't do that again.

I cut down a Christmas tree once when I was a kid, with my mom and sister. That involved a lot more sawing and tramping about in the cold than it probably had to. It was also quite a bit pricier than the pre-cut trees at the grocery store. We didn't do that again.

Maybe it's just me, but at something like $5 a foot or a flat fee nearing $50, Christmas trees seem kind of expensive. So I was stoked to learn that they're legally available for a modest $5 permit fee in the Olympic National Forest. A real tree, even if it doesn't look exactly like a perfectly groomed specimen from a tree farm, would be a major step up from the 2-foot, battered, artificial tree that masqueraded as a Christmas tree before I lost part of its stand in one of my past moves.

Besides, it would be a fun escapade for my fiancee Mandy and me on our first Christmas since our engagement.

Of course, I dilly-dallied before sending my permit in and it didn't arrive in the mail until the day before we were scheduled to go to the peninsula for a pre-Christmas visit with Mandy's family. Her brother Ryan had flown in and we planned to get the tree while in Sequim that weekend. The permit, with its accompanying map and instructions, prompted twin sighs of relief when we found them in the mailbox.

The forest service offices are open during the weekends in November and December to help would-be holiday foresters find their perfect tree. The woman at the Quilcene office who answered the phone Saturday had some helpful advice. I wanted to stick to forest service roads that I was most familiar with: mostly roads 28 and 27 and some of the main offshoots in the Dungeness area.

Using that as a starting point, she suggested I try a spot off Forest Service Road 2870 on spur 050, where the forest service is creating elk habitat. There might be some Christmas-tree-sized trees there, she suggested. Higher elevations would be risky without four-wheel drive and snow chains.

I didn't have either, so was content to look for a lower-elevation tree. Some people prefer the more Christmassy subalpine firs, but they're only near the ridge tops and are hard to reach in the snow, especially in a two-wheel-drive sedan. I figured a nice Douglas-fir would do me just fine.

The permit allows a person to harvest one tree of any type but silver fir. I'm horrible at identifying trees but figured I'd just nix anything with 5-10 centimeter needles, which silver firs have. Douglas-firs have short, soft needles, so I figured I'd be pretty safe.

I didn't know how much time it'd take to find a tree, so we left in the morning an hour or so after sunrise, figuring that would give us plenty of time. Though it was incredibly windy in Sequim, in the mountains the weather was calm. The sun was shining and though the temperature was slightly brisk, it was a gorgeous day for tree hunting.

We headed up Lost Mountain Road and turned onto Slab Camp Road, also known as Forest Service Road 2870. Just in case, we scoped out the trees alongside the road. There sure were a bunch of them, but none of them were exactly what we were hoping for. See, the forest service isn't planting that many trees anymore. That means there are few young trees of an appropriate size for a Christmas tree. If we had a house with 18-foot ceilings, we could probably find an awesome Christmas tree nearing the maximum size allowed under the permit. But we were looking for an apartment-sized tree to squeeze into our dining nook. There weren't many of those.

We soon came to the 050 spur and pulled onto it. We parked almost immediately and scouted a few trees at the edge of a large clearing littered with broken clay pigeons and shotgun shells. There were some, but they all seemed kind of spindly or uneven. Two trees would grow right next to each other and each would have thick branches on just one side.

We drove slowly down the spur, stopping here and there to check out the saplings sprouting in the sunlight at the road edge. Deeper in the forest there were only adult trees. We weren't having much luck and I wondered if we'd have to drive around all day. Then we found Christmas Tree Alley. I'm pretty sure that's not the real name, but it sure looked like it. Tree after Christmas-tree-sized tree lined the narrow road leading off 050. It didn't look like elk habitat, but it looked like there might be a tree there somewhere we could take home.

We skipped down the trail from tree to tree, checking to see if the branches were thick enough, it was the right height, had branches on all sides, etc. We found a few to come back to in the event of nothing better but kept going in search of the mythical perfect tree. Eventually we went back to the best of our fallbacks. It was the right height, branches were evenly spaced all around. It looked a lot thinner and sparser than the pruned trees one finds on a tree farm or pre-cut tree lot, but it was quite charming.

I took out my hand-powered chain saw - basically a length of bladed chain with loop handles at each end - and set to work. I'd never used the saw before and marveled at how quickly it cut through the tree - in less than 30 seconds it toppled onto my head. We carried it back to the car, tied it to the roof with rope and attached the orange permit to the tree trunk.

We borrowed a spare stand from Mandy's folks and headed down to Olympia to set up the tree. I had to cut off a couple of the lowest branches with a steak knife (the chain saw was too big for the little branches and the wood was too green to easily snap them off) to get it to fit. We decorated it with lights strung around the trunk (they weighed the branches down too much and the wiring was too obvious on such a sparse tree), a handful of ornaments including some clay decorations we'd made at a do-it-yourself place in Olympia and garlands of popcorn and cranberries threaded on string.

It was almost as much fun to make the decorations as it was to get the tree. Even though it's sort of a tall Charlie Brown tree, it was a lot of fun to get. In fact, it might be the best $5 I spent all year.



Leif Nesheim is hiking columnist and a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He is the editor at the Snoqualmie Valley Record. He can be reached at leif.nesheim@valleyrecord.com.



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