The bright daylight of the brilliant winter sun in crystal clear skies was starting to fade as the horizon of rugged mountains gained the sun. And that meant it was already getting palpably colder. The other problem was that we were still a long way from the truck, and even that bus ticket out of the mountains was questionable. I hadn’t brought tire chains up in the back of the four-wheel drive GMC, and was now wondering if I would have problems turning around in the 2 feet of snow we had crawled our way up in.
We were up at the end of the two-track trail on Morse Creek, about 12 miles from Alderspring Headquarters, but it might as have well been a hundred. The time was December about 12 years ago, and the sliver of crescent moon already was clear in the deep blue sky.
I gave out our traditional whoop for the kids to locate them in the thick timber in gathering darkness. The second reason I called out was to see if I got another sort of response: a canine one.
I hadn’t told anyone what I had seen, but we had been crossing the telltale deep bounding tracks of several wolves, likely after an elk in the deepening early winter snow. Even more disturbing was that they looked like today’s tracks, as they had not melted out and still had good impressions where the pads made prints. Another clue that they were fresh was they hadn’t yet frozen hard, as they would have if they’d been through the frigidity of an intermountain night.
The mountainside was quite steep, and it looked as if the elk took to the canyon bottom, as they usually do when pursued. I’ve seen elk span over 20 feet between footfalls when I’ve startled them downward. They’ll use gravity combined with their agility as their best defense, and it means they can cover incredible amounts of real estate downhill. Wolves had they same thing going for them, although the simple difference of the length of their legs would make it difficult to be quite as efficient in the snow, especially where it had drifted to depths of over 3 feet.
I looked at their prints. Impressions about 12 feet apart, almost like blow holes in the deep snow, were clear evidence of where they had bounded. The wolves were definitely good at what they do. We weren’t afraid of them—but it’s just common sense to be aware and wise when you are in the territory of the food chain apex. You don’t want you or your family to be caught in a sort of predator-prey crossfire. These canids played for keeps in the winter when food was scarce, and they were on alert for anything alive in the wilds. My eyes and ears were on red alert too.
There. The kids whooped back. And they were all together by the sounds of it, just as I asked them to be. I paused for a second as the echo of their call bounced off the dark and unbroken forests of the East face of Morse Creek Canyon wall, also dark with mixed conifer. Another 500 or so feet up the mountainside, they were trudging, “post-holing” through the deep white on their quest. It wouldn’t stop until perfection was realized in the form of a narrow perfectly pyramidically formed Douglas-fir, Psuedotsuga menziesii, about 8 feet in height.
Yes. You guessed it. It was our annual Christmas Tree Gather. Each year, we head up into the mountains as high as our trucks can get us—until snow depth stops us cold—to find the perfect tree. It’s always quite a project, and we unfortunately are doomed to an always late start. By the time chores on the ranch our done, and all 400 are fed and happy, it is afternoon, and we quickly load up in two trucks to start the hunt.
Border collies and sometimes a Pyrenees or two climb in with us, and we board our rolling stock up to the high country, hand saws or axe in the back, and plenty of rope to tie our prize to the roof. We’ve never lost one, although have gotten them very ice-crusted in a sudden snowstorm encountered on the way home.
“We got one!” The call came to me twice; first from the kids above me, and again from across the broad canyon of dark timber. I half expected a wolf to howl a plaintive call out in reply, but no such luck. I looked down toward Caryl, with our youngest Maddy in a bundle next to her. A little blaze was going, and their faces were lit by the warm fire as they waited. Maddy was simply too young to make the trek through the thick white.
I began the long post-hole trudge uphill, single-bit axe in hand, two steps up and one step back. It was the same axe I had been relentlessly trained to perfect back in forestry school, now 30 years prior. We had an entire tech college level course on just axes. No kidding. The fact was that we were graded on the perfection of shape and sharpness on our axe. There were no cheesy Harbor Freight axes allowed. You could only bring one that was forged and hung on its hickory hand just right. Then, over several weeks, we worked the steel to razor sharp perfection. If you could not shave with your 3-lb axe, it was back to the drawing board.
Or the sharpening wheel. It took hours of slow and expert shaping to make an axe perfect. And when we were done, a practiced timber faller could whack through a 12-inch tree in less than 5 minutes with our simple, but fully tuned woods axes. It was faster than sawing.
Our tree wouldn’t be nearly that large; my axe was overkill. But it felt good to hold the balanced tool in hand. In only 4 blows the Christmas tree would succumb.
I fell into the trail left by the girls. It was kind of a channel, with all 6 of their snowsuited forms carving through the deep. The youngest ones trailed, as their legs were simply not long enough to break trail. In a few minutes, I arrived, red-faced and overheating at the work up the steep mountainside in the unforgiving snow. I was no elk, or wolf, for that matter.
The kids beamed, proud in the fading light. “What do you think, Dad?”
I looked it over. First, I looked at the tree; it was lovely and well worth the quest. Then, I looked at each of them, waiting, expectantly. And then, my eyes went past them and took it all in. And their eyes followed mine, savoring the moment. We stood silently looking, feeling, listening to the entire scene. The thick forest of Morse Creek Canyon wound steeply to the north, yielding finally to rock and snow of the alpine wilderness of the Lemhi high peaks. There was no sound in the thickening night air, except the murmur of the creek far below and the occasional crackle of Caryl and Maddy’s fire at the base of the mountainside.
I turned back to the tree. “I think it’s perfect.” The kids sighed with a sort of relief. The tree had been found!
In a few minutes, we had the tree in hand, and started to make our way down. In just another two hours (the truck turned around!), we’d be back in our log home, tree in living room, kids hanging ornaments and John McCutcheon playing Christmas Carols on cassette (Caryl and I recorded it off the vinyl years ago, which we still own, ironically, although we have no turntable to play it on).
This year, just yesterday, we went up Christian Gulch. The broad canyon opens to a stunning alpine valley, surrounded by 11,000-foot peaks resplendent in the lowering sunlight and glowing with snow above timberline. It is a wild and unvisited country that are surrounded with. In all the years that we’ve gone for a tree, I can recall none that we’ve ever encountered another human being. It would be quite a surprise if we met someone.
In the bottom of Christian, there is a mixed forest of Douglas-fir, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, Limber pine and lodgepole. It’s a fun place to look, because there’s all of these different species to choose from. Some are bluish in needle; others are deeply fragrant and fill the house with the scents of a Christmas forest. It’s a pretty open stretch of timber, so the kids all fan out. I worry far less about keeping them together—at this point in their lives, they are nearly all adults, and wise in the ways of woods and wilderness. They’ve camped entire summers in the wilds with the cattle in remote cow camps and have even camped with me in the dead of winter on backcountry ski trips. They have built maps in their minds, and their sense of direction is keen.
And they finally have a better eye for trees than Caryl and I do. We no longer need to approve.
And so, my bride and I slowly, but not reluctantly, pass these batons. We relish seeing our adult daughters and Ethan (our second oldest is married to him) take over. Ethan brough the saw this year rather than an axe. Melanie decided where to take the family tree gathering photo and found the living room tree. Each of them takes turns carrying their nieces through the deep snow. Linnaea captures the story on film. They happily take charge of the decorations.
We live and love through these traditions and it is pure pleasure to see them passing on. Caryl and I get to see them expand in beauty of them as our family grows. And because of these gifts, each Christmas gets better than the year previous.
It certainly is the most wonderful time of year. We celebrate it first to remember the birth of Jesus, who came to offer hope to a hopeless world. Secondly, we take this season to reflect on the blessings of this year and the beauty that we get to experience in our life and living.
I hope you can do the same. May you all have a very Merry Christmas and a lovely 2021.