The Cascade Mountains form a kingdom and the trees below are subjects. Nobility lives high up in a castle.
To get to the palace, one must cross rivers and forests. There he rests on sheets of snow, soft and white like Egyptian cotton. The king of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest: a noble fir.
And there he’ll stay, because we didn’t find one.
For several years, it’s been a Chronicle tradition to venture into the forest for a wild Christmas tree. For as many years, this hunt has yielded a tree that can barely hold an ornament. Once placed in the office, they seem even more straggly than they were beside their neighbors in the forest.
Christmas tree permits from any ranger station or qualifying store cost $5. Online, they cost $7.50 because of an extra processing fee.
This year, I wasn’t going to settle. I wanted a noble, which typically only grow between 2,000- and 5,000-foot elevation.
In 2021, myself and Photo Editor Jared Wenzelburger came back from our tree hunt with a
Douglas fir tree and wrote that we knew nothing about identifying young evergreens. In a display of unconditional kindness, Bruce Reed, a resident of Randle, on the northern end of the Gifford Pinchot, sent us a shoebox filled with boughs of various evergreens, tagged with their species name.
Though we’ve never met in person, Reed became the influence for this year’s preparation. I printed maps and highlighted forest service roads that reached high elevations and called the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District for tips. With the help of the shoebox, I even created my own field guide on young evergreens.
Because of snow, the ranger recommended we gain elevation on plowed U.S. Highway 12 before venturing to forest service roads. On Thursday morning, armed with two saws, an assortment of Bungee cords and my makeshift field guide, we set off toward White Pass. Passing forests that were shrouded in smoke just two months ago, we ascended to Forest Service Road 1284, which stops abruptly at a workshop filled with plows and other road equipment. The employees at the shop paid us no mind as myself and Wenzelburger stepped out of his Jeep, ill-prepared for the amount of snow we were about to trudge through.
We were almost immediately in waist-deep and spent about 40 minutes gingerly trodding in each other’s steps to avoid any tree wells or creeks below us.
“Note to self: buy snowshoes,” I thought.
Making our way from tree-to-tree, we’d shake off the snow and stare at the candidates until one of us found a flaw too jarring to overcome. This one is too tall, this one is too thin, this one is bent funny, etc.
But then, somehow so sweaty from hiking yet so frostbitten all at once, our spirits were lifted as we glanced upon “the one.” Not a noble, not a hemlock or a Douglas fir. A spruce.
A spruce I named “Bruce,” in honor of Reed.
And, despite being half-dead where the bottom boughs were covered in snow, it’s actually quite beautiful. More beautiful even than the nobles we set out for.
Wenzelburger was embarrassed for me to include this in the story but we ran out of gas just east of Morton on the way back. Fortunately, the kindness of strangers continued to define this adventure and two separate cars helped him hitchhike into town and back.
The National Forest Service recommends bringing traction devices for cars, a shovel, extra food and water, winter clothing, blankets, a flashlight and a first aid kit, a saw for cutting down the tree and a rope to secure it to the vehicle afterward.
I recommend an extra gas can and an open mind.
If You Go:
Ranger district hours vary, so calling ahead to check current office hours is advised. Winter weather in the forest can change rapidly and most forest service roads are not maintained for winter driving.
Tree cutting and travel may take longer than anticipated, so it’s always a good idea to get an early start, leave the woods well before dark and share trip itineraries with a friend.
For additional information and a video on successful tree harvesting visit www.fs.usda.gov/goto/gp/treepermit. For more information on current road status and closures, visit www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/giffordpinchot/recreation#conditions.
Visitors can purchase Christmas tree permits at the following Forest Service offices and vendor locations:
Mt. Adams Ranger District
2455 state Route 141, Trout Lake; 509-395-3400
Office hours vary. Call for the current schedule.
Walk-up window service for all sales or by phone/mail.
Cowlitz Valley Ranger District
10024 U.S. Highway 12, Randle; 360-497-1100
Office hours vary. Call for current schedule.
Walk-up window service for all sales.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
42218 NE Yale Bridge Road, Amboy; 360-449-7800
Office hours vary. Call for current schedules.
Vendor Locations (Call for hours of operation and information):
Ashford — Ashford General Store, 360-569-2377
Ashford — Ashford Valley Grocery, 360-569-2560
Elbe — Elbe Mall, 360-569-2772
Packwood — Blanton’s Market, 360-494-6101
Randle — Fischer’s Market, 360-497-5355
Cougar — Lakeside Country Store, 360-238-5202
Cougar —Cougar Store, 360-238-5228
Cougar — Lone Fir Resort, 360-238-5210
Kalama — Kalama Spirits and Tobacco, 360-673-4991
Carson — Wind River Market, 509-427-5565
Home Valley — Home Valley Store, 509-427-4015
Trout Lake — Little Mountain (True Value) Hardware, 509-395-2773
Stevenson — Main St. Convenience Store, (open 24 hours) 509-427-5653
Amboy — Chelatchie Prairie General Store, 360-247-5529
Kelso — Sportsman's Warehouse, 360-423-2600
Vancouver — Sportsman's Warehouse, 360-604-8000