O Christmas Tree! Stalking the White Fir in Woodfords Canyon

Editor’s Note: We had a reader ask several weeks ago how exactly it works when you buy a Christmas tree cutting permit. Knowing that our roving freelancer Scott Neuffer cuts one down with his family every year, we asked him to do what he does best – tell an entertaining story with informative  and interesting roots. Here’s what he came up with:

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer

by Scott Neuffer, Special to the Carson Valley Times

Passing down the Valley streets on a cold December night, we’ve all seen that Christmas tree glowing through the living room window .

The rest of the house could be dark, but the tree radiates warmth like a gentle torch, casting its light onto the world, softening the grip of winter.

We know that in this day and age the lights on the tree are electric. There’s probably tinsel wrapped around the boughs, glittering streams of gold and silver, red and green. The ornaments are hung with the utmost care. Each delicate shape means something to the person who hung it.

A story. A season. And now we can imagine the presents piled at the base of the tree. Those beribboned boxes we offer to each other. They complete the shrine. They anchor this strange vigil we make every year. The mere sight of it invokes a sense of holiness. We pass into the night with a touch of incandescence. For the Christmas tree, in both religious and secular celebrations, has come to symbolize the greatest gift of all, the gift of light….

We imbue the tree with significance. I can’t say that a tree picked up at a corner lot or at the neighborhood drugstore is any less special than a tree cut down in the forest. But for those who want the latter experience, who want to search for a tree, saw it, strap it to the car and bring it home, now is the time.

The U.S. Forest Service offers a limited number of tree-cutting permits on a first-come, first-served basis, and they disappear quickly as the holiday approaches.

Few areas of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest are opened each year for cutting. The designated areas are outlined on paper maps provided with each permit. The $10 permit must be purchased in person with cash or check. For Carson Valley residents, the closest locations are the Carson Ranger District Office in Carson City, Hope Valley Café and Market off Highway 88, or the Markleeville General Store. You’ll need a saw, of course, and tie-downs for your vehicle. The Forest Service also recommends tree-cutters have warm clothing, a first-aid kit, extra food and water, and a shovel and tow chain in case of bad weather. Vehicles should be ready for snow.

On Sunday, we piled in the family Subaru and headed for Hope Valley Café. The small store sits perched at the top of Woodfords Canyon just after a bridge that spans the West Fork of the Carson River. If you pass Sorensen’s Resort, you’ve gone too far.

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer Hope Valley Café and Market nestled at the head of Woodfords Canyon.
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
Hope Valley Café and Market nestled at the head of Woodfords Canyon.

Though up until this week snowfall had been minimal this year, the café still evoked a wintry scene. Woodsmoke issued from its chimney and scaled the cliffs behind. The river wound through boulders in threads of white and gray. Inside, we purchased our permit and surveyed the accompanying map. Shaded swaths on both sides of Hope Valley reminded us of trees harvested in past years.

But this year, we had a different notion. We turned to the designated area along the north-facing slope of Woodfords Canyon, which we had just driven up. We knew what grew in the shadowy, stream-lined recesses of the canyon wall: the majestic white fir.

To some extent, the tree you seek determines where you go with your saw. The Forest Service permits can be used for Jeffrey pines, lodgepole pines, incense cedars, or white firs.

Tall and hardy, Jeffrey pines dominate the open benches of the valley. Their ubiquity means that small, Christmas tree-size specimens are easy to find. Their boughs are full-bodied, bushy and rakish against the wind. But, in fair warning, their needles are long and sharp. Hanging ornaments on Jeffrey pines requires finesse and tough skin.

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer A marker in Woodfords Canyon denoting the original California Trail.
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
A marker in Woodfords Canyon denoting the original California Trail.

Lodgepole pines can be found interspersed with Jeffery pines in cooler, less exposed areas. Straight and more slender than other pines, they get their name from the traditional use of their wood in construction.

I must admit that I have never harvested lodgepole pine and cannot definitively comment on their suitability as a Christmas tree. But stands of lodgepole are beautiful, and I’m sure the right selection would suffice.

Both incense cedars and fir trees thrive in shady, wet environments. The former is hard to miss when discovered. Its foliage is vast and feathery, hanging in the air like festive wreaths. Its bark resembles reddish brown parchment, peeling from the trunk in long, drying strips. Incense cedars are, as the name would suggest, extremely fragrant. Also having never harvested one as a Christmas tree, I would imagine they are a bit messy, and flaky, in the living room, but would fill the house with delicious smells.

 That brings us to the white fir. Mature white firs can be as tall as Jeffrey pines, with a weathered and cracked countenance. But the young firs are gorgeous. In the gloom of mountain canyons, they stand at once delicate and supple. In the right light, their white wood glows like ivory. Their dark green needles are short and neatly ranked like teeth in a comb. Consequently, there are large gaps between their branches, which some people don’t like. But to me, white firs bristle with the very scent and texture of Christmas.

Woodfords Canyon is a sizeable cleft in the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada. The steep walls are jumbled with outcrops of granite. Pines make their way up the rugged slopes until the rock becomes vertical and bare.

Rock climbers have been exploring these dramatic cliffs for years. But the canyon holds treasures of another sort. In the buckled earth of the north-facing wall, where snowmelt trickles through eternal shade, there spring secret groves of white fir trees.

Coordinating with our permit map, we found a discreet pullout at the bottom of this wall.  A short hike revealed an overgrown road running parallel to the current highway. Markers informed us we were hiking along the original California Trail.

Rather than continue on and imagine ourselves as pioneers, we looped back to a prominent hill, the base of which made a small gully against the greater slope. From the looks of it, it was a promising place to find a tree: the forest there was thick, hardly infiltrated by sunlight. And we weren’t the only ones who thought so.

As we neared a fringe of winter-bare aspen, we ran into another group of tree-hunters. The friendly man carrying the saw turned out to be Douglas High Principal Marty Swisher, along with his son, brother and two nephews. Lifting the saw in his hand, an antique saw faintly rusted at the handle, Swisher explained his long family tradition of cutting down a tree before Christmas. With equal cheer, we wished each other well and went our separate ways.

Twigs cracked under our feet as we crept into the thicket. The young firs slept in the cool dark, beneath the embowering branches of their taller kin. There were several to choose from. Each had its own personality. The gregarious one, busy with whorls. The lean, wistful one, looking for a friend. All of them seemed dazed by our presence.

We had disturbed their great quietude. We became even more intrusive honing in on a particular tree, which was stowed away in a group of craggy aspen. We agreed it was well-proportioned, with a nice, tapering shape, and that it stood at the right height, not too tall, not too short. My saw was soon zipping across its wood. I cut low to avoid an unsightly stump. Sawdust speckled the forest floor, and the sweetest aroma filled our heads….

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer A sapling white fir grows from the forest floor in Woodfords Canyon.
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
A sapling white fir grows from the forest floor in Woodfords Canyon.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the first recorded instance of this holiday tradition occurred in Latvia in the 16th Century. The practice spread throughout Europe. Early decorations included artificial roses, apples, gilded nuts, red paper strips and eventually candles. In the 19th Century, German settlers introduced the Christmas tree to the United States, where it quickly took root and grew into the towering emblem it is today.

With strings of electric lights, and pluggable stars, it’s easy to forget that the tradition of the Christmas tree started in those unlit centuries of wonder and worship. The evergreen itself embodied the light of creation, something green and vital in the drear months of winter. We carry this token of life into our home.

We spend the evening circling it with lights, dangling silly ornaments from its branches. Christmas carols play on the radio as we work. Sometimes we pause to evaluate our progress. The motions are so ingrained in us that the whole thing could be taken for granted. A dry, perfunctory ritual. But the act never fails.

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer Cutting down a choice white fir.
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
Cutting down a choice white fir.

We resume decorating the tree. And this act of decoration reminds us that we can make the world more beautiful. Maybe not every day, but this day we can. For the Christmas tree is a consecration of our own lives. It represents not only the richness of our past, our traditions and values, but also our highest hopes for the season.

Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer The Christmas tree finally decorated and displayed in the living room.
Photo courtesy of Mark Neuffer
The Christmas tree finally decorated and displayed in the living room.

The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Carson Ranger District, sells Christmas tree-cutting permits until Dec. 24 or until 4,000 permits are sold. Permits are nonrefundable, nontransferable and are available at the following locations:

 Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Headquarters, 1200 Franklin Way, Sparks, (775) 331-6444, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Carson Ranger District Office, 1536 S. Carson Street, Carson City, (775) 882-2766, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.  

Galena Creek Visitor Center, 16750 Mt. Rose Highway, Reno, (775) 849-4948, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Hope Valley Café and Market, 14655 Highway 88, Woodfords Canyon, (530) 694-2323, seven days a week, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Markleeville General Store, 14799 Highway 89, Markleeville, (530) 694-2448, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m.

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Supervisors office in South Lake Tahoe. 35 College Drive.


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