As I postholed through 3-foot deep snow in my Diamond Ridge driveway this Sunday, I thought back to 1979 and the first time I went searching for a Christmas tree in Alaska. Dec. 1 — 12/1/21, a palindrome date — marked my 42nd year in Alaska. When you’re new to Alaska, especially in winter, you sometimes dive straight in to the full northern experience.
December 1979 provided me that. Within one month of arriving in Anchorage from Sarasota, Florida, I:
• Found part-time work helping my Florida friend Mark Heffernan deliver the Anchorage Times in the wilds of Spenard and Turnagain. Bonus: I saw my first log cabin. Double bonus: I also saw my first poorly insulated Spenard trailer with icicles hanging from the eaves.
• Became an unwilling bystander to an attempted bank robbery on Fourth Avenue when Mark and I went to pick up his fiancee, Mo Duffy, from her teller job. Triple bonus: A surly cop interviewing me said “Hey, punk, hadn’t we met before?” to which I said, “Well, probably not, since I’d only moved to Alaska two weeks before.”
• Went hunting for a Christmas tree in the Chugach National Forest because, a) I could and b) how better to build up your Alaska bush cred by cutting your own tree?
• On said expedition we found a nice tree, but on the way back, Mark suggested we take a side trip down the Portage Glacier Road because we’d never seen a glacier before and wouldn’t that be cool? Quadruple bonus: Mark’s Toyota Land Cruiser slid off the road and we got stuck. Quintuple bonus: Because my sister Helen advised me to never go on an Alaska road trip without sleeping bags, Mark and I didn’t freeze to death.
The next day as we tromped through waist-deep snow, some Young Adult Conservation Corps workers with the U.S. Forest Service rescued us. We had to put up the sleeping bags as collateral to get the Land Cruiser towed out.
Ever since, I have tried to cut a tree for Christmas. There were a few years where I, gasp, bought a tree, and another few years where I put up an artificial tree because our cabin didn’t have room for anything big, not even a Charlie Brown sprig. As part of my ongoing struggle to push myself into the jolly holly Christmas spirit, high on the list along with baking stollen — German Christmas bread — is hunting for a tree. Some years this has been remarkably easy.
One year when we lived in Rabbit Creek on the outskirts of Anchorage, a windstorm blew down a big spruce and all we had to do was saw off the top of the tree. For several years my wife Jenny and I slogged into the Chugach National Forest and cut a tree, but without sliding off the road. We took the advice of rangers, who suggested cutting trees under powerlines.
Since moving to our land on Diamond Ridge in Homer in 1994, (“where all the snow gets dumped”), we’ve been cutting trees from our 2.5-acre lot. Up at 1,200 feet, we’re in a zone of forest mixed with open fields. After the big spruce bark beetle die-off in 1995, all the big trees turned to rust and slowly died. Before going, the trees shed thousands of cones. In the decades since, we’ve had our own little Christmas tree farm from all those seedlings.
For a few glorious years, we had easy pickings on the powerline easement that runs on the road side of our property. Periodically Homer Electric Association comes in and clears the line. One time they got behind, and a small forest of 6-foot spruce trees grew up. Knowing that the easement would someday get cleared, I invited friends up to harvest their own trees.In harvesting trees, I have a few rules:
• Leave the solitary trees alone. Yes, those are the finest shaped trees, but they also will grow to be big and beautiful.
• Harvest a tree that’s crowded by other trees. If you’re going to get a tree, practice silviculture. Pick a tree close to another, perhaps even a slightly unsightly tree. If one side is bare, put that against a wall.
• When Christmas is over, save the tree. I’ve been trimming branches from old Christmas trees and stacking them behind my woodshed for some future project. As it turns out, I need to put a stair railing in, and those trees will make rustic posts.
I should admit that along with the old fashioned Christmas tree, we also have an artificial one, a white tree some friends gave us as part of my obsession with pink flamingo tsotchkes. I have a vast and glorious collection of pink flamingo ornaments, and upon this tree they find their yearly home. There might be pink lights involved.
Last year during the pandemic depression many of us experienced, we had a low-key Christmas and just couldn’t muster the energy to go out hunting for a tree. I’m trying to be more optimistic this holiday season, and in the spirit of hope — because that’s kind of the reason for the season, eh? — once more I’ll head out, saw in hand, tromp through the snow and responsibly, respectfully, bring in a tree.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.