A cut above

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By Stephen Knapp

Early one cold and snowy morning not so long ago, a small fleet of SUVs assembled in central Evergreen and headed south, into the teeth of the storm.

The road into Conifer was crummy, and the highway out to Pine Junction wasn’t much better. Turning east toward Deckers, the little squadron crept precariously down through Buffalo Creek and Pine, windshield wipers flailing, heat cranked up to boil and tires fighting for purchase on the snow-packed surface. A short distance past Spring Creek, at the Little Scraggy trailhead, they left the relative security of pavement and plowed straight into Pike National Forest, at last finding quiet harbor in a small clearing deep in the woods.

As if from nowhere, folding tables appeared, and red tablecloths to cover them. Boxes of juice and tasty snacks were produced, and the grown-ups set about bundling the small herd of excited children against the frigid temperatures and sifting snow. Then, one after another, each of seven families set out on a different course into the trackless wastes.

“We’re all from the Timbervale, and this is a tradition in our neighborhood,” explained Kathy Fuchigami. “We’ve been having a yearly Christmas tree-cutting party as long as I can remember.”

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”

— Burton Hillis

Just one more item on the long list of ways that living in Colorado is superior to, say, not living in Colorado, is that the Centennial State is positively lousy with Christmas trees.

True, for most of the calendar ’round, they’re just regular-old trees of no special distinction. Come December, though, those folks who keep Christmas best will venture into the forest primeval to rescue some undersized fir or spruce from its life of quiet anonymity. They’ll take it home, lavish it with attention, clothe it in finery and shower it with gifts. From obscurity, it will become the star of its own Christmas pageant.

At 8 years old, Timbervale twins Emily and Patrick Morlock were already veteran Christmas tree hunters. Each carried a clear picture of the perfect tree in their head, although their individual visions differed on one key point.

“I was going to pick a small one,” said Patrick from behind his lime-green jacket hood, “but now I want a big one, but skinny.”

“It should be big, but fat,” countered Emily, who clearly subscribes to the “more is more” school of Christmas tree design. “We had a skinny one last year.”

Fortunately, the region around the Little Scraggy trailhead offered an embarrassment of aromatic riches, and trees to suit every taste. This was fir country, and likely centerpieces stretched out in dense drifts, banks and billows on every side.

Emily and Patrick marched into the woods with their parents in tow. In a nod to Currier & Ives, nature had painted fir and pine alike with a thick coat of frost the night before. The white sky lay low on treetops, and the air was dead calm. Long after the twins had disappeared from sight, their crunching boots and happy chatter continued to drift in through the trees. A more perfect Christmas tableau one cannot imagine.

“I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled ’round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of tapers, and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.”

— Charles Dickens, from “A Christmas Tree”

“When the kids got up this morning, they were really unhappy because there wasn’t enough snow to play in,” said Sally Berne, a Pine resident on her own merry mission a few miles down Highway 126 from Little Scraggy. “The minute we started out, it started snowing, and it turned out to be perfect.”

Sally, her husband, Pete, and their three willing Sherpas — all 10 and under – moved West from New England nearly three years ago and wasted no time getting pro-active about their Christmas trees.

“In Connecticut there aren’t a lot of places to cut your own tree,” she said. “You basically have to go to a lot and buy it. Now we do it every year. I love the smell of a fresh-cut tree, but more than anything, it’s the family experience. The kids just love it.”

At about the same time the Bernes were lashing their 12-foot prize to the top of their car, Jefferson County Open Space employee Alicia Vermilye was pulling up at Elk Meadow Park off Stagecoach Boulevard in Evergreen. Vermilye had come to lead “Living Christmas Trees,” an educational stroll among nature’s piney bounty. Just because pine trees make lousy ornament platforms, she explained, doesn’t necessarily make them any less festive.

“This is more to celebrate the spirit of December,” said Vermilye, checking her watch. “Winter is a wonderful time to visit the forest.”

As it happened, the few families registered for “Living Christmas Trees” had taken one look out the window and begged off, and not without reason. Stagecoach Boulevard was a skating rink. Still, Elk Meadow lay quiet and white, and whoever left the snowshoe tracks leading out of the parking lot had the whole of nature to themselves.

“Think of all the animal tracks they could see today.”

While Open Space doesn’t allow tree harvesting on its land, Vermilye explained why going to the source for a Christmas tree can be a boon to Mother Nature.

“For some trees to be healthy, they need a lot of room,” she said. “When they’re packed together, some won’t get enough sun. They won’t be happy, and some of them will die. Thinning the forest can be a very good thing.”

After a time, Vermilye concluded that no late-comers were likely to appear and officially called the hike on account of weather. Then she hit the trail.

“I think I’ll go for a walk.”

“Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall.”

—Larry Wilde

Back at Little Scraggy, 11-year-old Josh Brown trudged into Timbervale’s isolated clearing, holding the butt end of an impressive 10-foot trophy and looking for all the world like young Peter triumphantly lugging his end of the Wolf. Josh’s 2-year-old brother, Bennett, marched ahead, making up in raw energy what he lacked in load-bearing capacity.

“I’d say it weighs about 70 pounds,” puffed Josh, missing the mark by maybe 50 pounds. Josh’s cheeks were red with cold, and his breath formed crystalline clouds around his face. “We got a good tree at Pickle Gulch two years ago, and it was just fun. This is just awesome.”

One by one, the Timbervale contingent tramped out of the woods, strapped their Christmas booty to the roof and headed for home. West of Little Scraggy, both sides of the highway were lined with vehicles of every description, many wearing shaggy crowns, many others about to. A couple of miles up the road, North Fork Volunteer Fire Department’s Station No. 1 stood before a grim forest of charred tree trunks. Shrouded in mist, the fire-swept landscape presented a Dali-esque counterpoint to Little Scraggy’s wild abundance.

Inside, however, Station No. 1 was anything but grim. By the door, Santa Claus posed for photographs, and dozens of North Fork volunteers dished up giant chili-cheese dogs, homemade pies, cakes and sinfully rich fudge. Happy families, fresh from the woods, sat at rows of tables and worked hard on their hot-chocolate mustaches. In the garage bays, Santa’s Shop offered a first-rate selection of handmade yuletide crafts, and little kids sat for pictures aboard bright-red Engine 1231. Every December, Station No. 1 becomes Christmas Central and, in return, harvests some sorely needed holiday bounty.

Each year, the U.S. Forest Service issues about 7,000 Christmas-tree permits for the Pike National Forest region. The $10 permits are good the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, plus the first two weekends in December and the five days between them. Altogether, an estimated 35,000 hungry bodies stream past Station No. 1 on their way to and from the Christmas tree hunting grounds.

“Maybe two-thirds of them come in here,” says North Fork Fire Protection District board member George McCullough. “This has become an important family tradition for a lot of people. We’ve been doing it for years, and you can almost watch the kids grow up.”

But if North Fork’s delightful Christmas oasis is an important tradition for seasonal woodcutters, it’s a critical one for North Fork.

“This is our biggest fund-raiser by far,” said McCullough, wearing a thick red sweater of the type often given as Christmas gifts. “Our district runs from Pine Junction to Trumbull, which is 200 square miles of forest and a very small tax base. All the money we raise here goes for equipment and medical supplies.”

The twins’ dad walked out of the woods toting a splendid compromise on his shoulder. Neither skinny nor fat, the Morlocks’ tree was definitely big — 12 feet if it was an inch. Following behind, Emily and Patrick were already imagining how great their presents will look under its green boughs on Christmas morning.

“I want Legos,” Patrick announced — a reasonable and commendably modest expectation, surely.

“I want a car,” said Emily, apparently quite serious. How Santa Claus will manage such an extravagant gift was not her concern. He’s magic, after all, and there’s never any harm in asking. She’ll worry about what to do with it upon delivery.

By noon, the folks from Timbervale had all departed, another year’s delightful Christmas duty accomplished, and the little clearing lay once more empty and still. From a great distance, the rasp of a handsaw floated among the frost-cloaked trees, faint but clear, along with the indistinct music of children’s voices.

One more magical Christmas memory in the making.