Fresh-cut Christmas trees are a symbol many families count among their holiday staples. It's easy to see why: The scent of spruce mingling with crisp mountain air and thoughts of colored lights, carols, and hot chocolate.
I've always looked at Christmas trees as a gift from Mother Nature and something to treasure for the short time it sits in the house, so purchasing one from the lot of a big box store never seemed quite right. As a kid, the annual tree hunt meant an entire day hiking in the woods, tossing snowballs back and forth, and watching my parents argue over the perfect specimen to adorn our living room.
While pagan lore places evergreen boughs and wintertime greenery far back in human history, the American story of Christmas trees dates to 19th-century German settlers who brought the tradition of trees inside homes, resplendent with ornaments from their home country.
As is true with many American fads, it didn't take long for Christmas trees to become a hot item during the holiday season, and with the advent of electricity, brighter and bigger became the norm. Today's Christmas trees appear almost as soon as Halloween is over, much to the consternation of many holiday purists, with bangles, baubles, and themed ornaments taking the place of traditional fruits, marzipan, popcorn, and apples of previous days.
Christmas trees are so popular in the United States, in fact, that the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, that's a real thing) estimates that 20-30 million real trees will be sold this year. Christmas tree farms are an agricultural phenomenon that has resulted in 350 million trees growing on farms in all 50 states (I could find only one listed for Alaska; the Dorman Tree Farm on Kodiak Island at 907-539-2338). But for many, a cultivated Christmas tree is no match for one secured after a frosty walk in the woods.
Here in Southcentral, growing the perfect Christmas tree is not easy. Our short season and cold weather often keeps our spruce from growing fast and full between June and September. Many people who want a real tree don't think they'll be able to find one — aside from the pricey out-of-state inventory trucked in to the aforementioned big-box stores. Southeast families have a few more options, given that their rainforest climate makes for more robust-looking trees like Sitka spruce and Douglas fir suitable for that weighty string of lights.
In checking with the Alaska offices of the U.S. Forest Service, I discovered that Christmas trees can be found in several areas of Alaska public lands.
Alicia King, spokeswoman for Chugach National Forest in Anchorage, says many Alaska families count the experience as a treasured part of each holiday season.
"Planning a day to come to the forest to cut a personal tree for the holidays can be a fun family activity. Getting everyone out doors, choosing, and then decorating the tree is a great way to spend time together," she said, noting that it's an important part of her own family's holiday tradition.
The Chugach and Tongass districts of the U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources have strict regulations about where and how to cut a Christmas tree for personal use, but with a bit of planning, going over the river and through the woods in search of a 2016 winner is doable.
Each family is allowed one tree, King says, and in the Chugach National Forest it must be less than 15 feet tall, and found at least 150 yards from main roads, waterways, and trails, which means a hike for kids, but with a job like spotting the perfect tree, most youngsters won't notice all the walking. Be sure to note your entry and exit points so you don't get lost, and dress for winter weather. Provide snacks and water for your crew, too. In fact, a holiday picnic before you cut your tree is a delightful way to share a bit of al fresco cheer with nature, and I find hot chocolate and Christmas cookies tend to taste far better when consumed outdoors.
King cautions against topping a taller tree over 15 feet in order to achieve perfection. This can damage the tree, she says, leaving it vulnerable to insects and disease.
"Also," she told me, "The leftover is just not very pretty."
Take care to cut trees with a bow saw (fairly inexpensive at a hardware store) as close to the ground as possible, and have someone hold on to the stem near the tip so branches stay protected. Once you get the tree home, stick it in a bucket of water overnight before bringing it inside, and remember to refresh that water daily — our Alaska winters are very dry and if you're not careful, your tree will be, too, creating a fire hazard.
King reminded me of an added benefit of fresh Christmas trees once the holiday is over. Put the tree outside load it with cranberries, seeds, and apples for Chickadees and other winter bird species that will also use the branches for cover.
And when your kids grow up and move away, hopefully they'll take some of seasonal memories with them and start a new tradition with their own families, no matter where that may be.
Christmas Trees: Where to go
*Southcentral: Alaska Public Lands Information Center on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage has a complete list of state and federal lands available for cutting Christmas trees. The building is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. www.alaskacenters.gov
*Chugach National Forest has an entire page of its website dedicated to tree-cutting.
*Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry allows Christmas trees to be cut in select areas of the Mat-Su. Call the office at 761-6300 for information.
*Interior: Tanana Valley State Forest operated by the Department of Natural Resources also has several sections of land available. The Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Fairbanks, located within the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center can assist you.
*Southeast: The Tongass National Forest has several districts open to tree-cutting. Trees in the Tongass should be 20 feet from main roads, campgrounds, or recreation sites, and one tree per family is permitted for personal use. Tongass National Forest spokesperson Dru Fenster encourages all woodsmen and women to look for trees in an overstocked areas and thickets, and to contact their particular ranger district with questions. For Ketchikan, check here. For other areas in the Tongass, visit here.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation.