Snow and Do: How about a national forest Christmas tree?
By Terry Karkos , Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Oh Christmas tree, oh (natural) Christmas tree, how lovely are thy imperfect-but-inexpensive branches.
Boots and gloves - check. Bow saw and ax - check. Thermos of hot chocolate - we'll get it at Dunkin' Donuts in Rumford. Gas for the car - it's now cheaper than heating oil - check.
And then my wife, Beth, and I were off on a sentimental journey on the last day of November to bag our Yuletide tree during Maine's annual tree hunt. Only this time, we wanted the real experience, not those wicked perfect commercial trees conveniently sold in parking lots everywhere.
It was the earliest we'd ever gone looking for a tree, but we wanted to beat the snow.
Additionally, for all of you sentimental do-it-yourselfers, we wanted to try out the White Mountain National Forest's permitting system. For $5, you can get a Christmas tree permit, then traipse around WMNF land and cut your own tree. That way, you know it's freshly cut.
There are some rules though, like it's got to be 100 feet off the road and you must use hand tools only - no chain saws.
In Mexico, we stopped at Labonville on Route 2 for a couple of inexpensive fluorescent orange vests, because it was still deer-hunting season, albeit for muzzleloaders. Hunting is allowed on national forest lands.
After tanking up on hot chocolate, we drove to the WMNF Evans Notch Ranger Station in Bethel (824-2134) for a permit. The station is open during the winter Fridays and Saturdays only, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Permits can also be obtained at WMNF offices in New Hampshire at Gorham, Bethlehem, Plymouth and Conway.
In Bethel, we were greeted by Emily Beers, a WMNF forest technician and visitor information assistant.
"It's the perfect New England experience - go into the woods, cut down a tree, haul it home and there you go," she said when we asked for a permit.
Other than once in Maine, on a friend's property with permission, my only experiences getting Christmas trees from forests were with my parents and siblings, tromping through snow in Payson, Ariz.
Don't fret if you can't tell a fir from a spruce or a pine from a tamarack. Emily will give you a quick lesson. She'll also tell you where to go if you haven't done any pre-season scouting, but remember, roads in the national forest are not maintained for winter travel.
Along with the permit, you also get a two-page handout: Christmas Tree Gathering. It tells you an easy way to distinguish fir (soft needles) from spruce (spiky needles), lists rules for taking a tree, and how to care for it at home.
A chain saw enthusiast - my wife and I maintain a section of the Appalachian Trail in Monson - I asked why they're not allowed. After Emily made a few phone calls, she told us it's always been a WMNF regulation. Then, she added, "With a chain saw, it's too tempting to get a bigger tree."
She sent us into the Crocker Pond area five miles south of Bethel on Route 5, to Patte Brook Road, which alternates between pavement and dirt. On Nov. 30, parts of it were covered in ice and light snow tracked up by coyotes and deer.
We stopped at one spot that looked promising and ventured into the woods. Be prepared to walk a ways just to find worthy trees in the 6-foot-and-up range if you head into this area, because there is a wealth of Charlie Brown trees out there.
We found no suitable Christmas trees on that first foray, but it was good exercise.
Driving farther in, we stopped at the Albany Notch Trail parking lot and walked a ways out. No Christmas trees to our liking.
At another spot, we found some pretty pines after wending through a raspberry thorn thicket, and I spotted some British soldiers lichen, something I haven't seen in Maine in years. But the pines had large gaps between branches.
About two hours and another stop later, we found a perfect tree, which I thought was fir at the time (tree guidebook Christmas present hint, honey).
After cutting it down and dragging it back to our minivan, I heaved it up and bungeed it into place.
Then, we drove back to Bethel and checked with Emily to make sure of the species I'd be writing about. Emily thought it was hemlock and confirmed it with a phone call.
Although it is our first hemlock and second do-it-yourself experience in Maine, it was worth it, we thought, despite taking much longer than we'd expected. As for my wife's sprained ankle, which she got when she slipped on ice, that's a holiday happening we'll try not to turn into a Christmas tradition.
Before you go
Conditions for cutting a Christmas tree in the White Mountain National Forest after you get your $5 permit:
• One tree per permit for personal use only, not resale.
• Chain saws are not permitted. Use hand tools only.
• Make sure you're on WMNF land.
• Don't cut trees larger than 8 inches in diameter at chest height. Pack down limb piles to within two inches of the ground. Scatter limbs and wood at least 25 feet away from roads, streams, hiking trails and property boundaries.
• Remaining stump must be less than 10 inches tall.
• Don't cut trees that provide screening along roads and power lines or enhance wildlife cover in openings.
• Don't cut trees in or near campgrounds, picnic areas, experimental forests, active timber sales or within 100 feet of a state highway. Ask if there are any known "off limit" areas.
• Attach your tree tag after cutting and before transporting tree.