Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Great Christmas Tree Hunt of 2009

The Christmas Tree Hunt has always been a favorite part of Christmas for me, starting way back before I really knew what Christmas was about. I can still remember myself as a little tyke hopping from one footprint to the next while following my Dad through knee-deep snow on the quest for the perfect tree. This is one tradition that I can't wait to instill in my children, and we got a good start this year. This was truly a hunt to remember, and here is its story: (The end is that we got home safely with a pretty tree for those who don't want to read a novel, slide show follows.)

It is vital that you understand that it is not a real Christmas tree hunt if you go to a farm. That is a Christmas tree choose. A Christmas tree hunt involves dirt roads, hiking, and tracking down the "perfect" tree from the ranks of lop-sided, animal-chewed, hill-side growing, wild trees, then sawing it down and hauling it back to your vehicle in victory. We started out a bit late, as we had to do some research to ascertain exactly how and where to obtain our Christmas tree permits for the Olympic National Forest. We then had to stop to buy a sled (a mandatory piece of equipment) and a hatchet (you never know when you'll need a sharp hatchet!). After then stopping to buy our permit, we were on our way. We found the access to the forest without difficulty, although due to the out-datedness of the map provided by the forest service it was a bit difficult to tell exactly where in the maze of unlabeled, single-car-wide dirt roads we were. Still, we found a likely spot with several potential trees, so we unloaded the AdventureGirls, got them bundled, and started scouting trees. At this point I should mention that on the map there was an area labeled where one could find Silver Firs, and it noted that they preferred high slopes and ridges, only growing at the higher elevations. The silver firs sounded mystical and beautiful, but it was a bit far away and the daylight was fading, so we decided to be prudent and look here, in a lower elevation, much closer to home. and settle for a Douglas Fir (pretty much the only trees besides hemlocks, because the pines were off-limits). It was then that we discovered a problem that I had never encountered in Montana. On the Olympic peninsula trees grow at such a rapid rate that all of the Christmas-tree sized Doug Firs were extremely wimpy, being only a few years old. The branches were very thin and flexible, and not up to holding much in the way of ornaments. As we were discovering this, a couple drove by and asked if we knew what road number we were on. We did not, but gave them some clues. It turns out that they were much more familiar with the area than we were, and they knew the location of the mystical silver firs. It turns out that by serendipity we were on the road that led to them, so we decided to load up and go see if they were more of a more ornament-worthy stature.
On our way up the road we came across the same family coming back down... the road was apparently washed out ahead, but not to worry, they knew a different way to the ridge-top where the trees grew, and they were willing to lead the way. We faithfully turned around and followed them, and followed, and followed. More than 10 more miles of forest road went by before we wound our way up an extremely steep valley to the high country where the silver fir grows. As we were gaining elevation, we crossed the snow line, which thrilled AdventureGirl, and AdventureMom too for that matter. It just feels more Christmasy when there is snow. So, we were now following a single-track road up a very steep ridge-side in deep snow ruts. At one point we had the bare rock mountain looming about 2,000 feet straight up 5 feet from the driver's door, and another 1500-ish foot drop on the passenger's side that literally had 2 feet of road between the truck's tires and the vertical drop-off... no shoulder, no guard rails, nothing but air. Luckily the road was virtually carved out of rock, and there was dirt in the bottom of the foot-deep snow ruts, so it felt pretty secure. However, the sun was only shining on the highest ridges now, and the valleys were in deep dusk, so we were starting to feel the tree-finding pressure. Ahead of us we could see where the road came out on a sunlit ridge-top, and we decided that was where we would stop to cut our tree. We passed our guides when they stopped at a turn-out, and headed for the ridge. Ah, best made plans. We rounded a corner to discover that the snow suddenly became much deeper, and the rut-makers had decided to turn around at this point, so there was no longer a good trail to follow. We decided to turn around here too, not wanting to risk an unknown road in a dangerous area in the dark (and did I mention it was COLD, at least for WA, meaning temps around 18 degrees F). Then we discovered that we had a problem. The extreme cold had frozen the snow into cement. I walked on it without even a hint of breaking through when I got out to spot the truck in our turn-around attempt. Worse, the truck tires could not break through it either, which meant that we COULD NOT get the wheels up out of the ruts. In the end there was no option but to back down the road, and AdventureDad ended up having to back about 1/4 mile down the same slippery, curvy, NARROW road, in the dark, to a point where we could turn around. I wish I could have taken pictures, but it was much too dark to appreciate the true magnitude of this feat.
So, at the turn-around we ran into our guides again... they had seen us struggling and backed down much sooner than we did. We all piled out of our respective cars to take stock of the local silver firs in the fading light. We were on a very steep slope, so we ended up hiking a short distance up a side road to a more level place that offered a few smaller trees. However, in the end the ones we could find in the dark were either much too big or much too spindly. Ironically we ended up sliding our way back to the truck, and cutting a tree that we had originally seen from the road on the way up, and it wasn't much more robust than the Doug firs we had eyed hours (and miles) before-hand. The one benefit was that the branches were indeed ever so slightly thicker, because the trees grow more slowly at high elevations. Ever so slightly.
Luckily, since it was so close to the road, the tree was very easy to get back to the truck, and we wended our way home with a mystical silver fir safely in the truck bed, a very tired AdventureGirl who was jabbering non-stop about the snow and the Christmas Trees, a sleeping AdventureBaby, and two very contented AdventureParents. Thank God for take-out Chinese.

Note: Hold your cursor over the images to see captions in the slide show.

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