Eugene Buchanan: Hunting for a Christmas tree the Steamboat way |

Eugene Buchanan: Hunting for a Christmas tree the Steamboat way

Halea Nudy and her husband, DJ Nudy, load up a pair of freshly harvested Christmas trees they snagged on Rabbit Ears Pass. (Photo by Ben Ingersoll)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — “Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how beautiful your branches …”

Well, not all the time. While that song might hold true for those perfect store-bought cones with nary a needle out of place, it doesn’t for those of us playing George Washington and chopping them down for ourselves.

I found this out this past weekend when I ventured out with my daughter Casey to get our seasonal bounty from the woods, joining more and more Steamboaters who do so every year.

According to Mary Beth Galer from the U.S. Forest Service, last year the Steamboat office sold 1,361 $10 permits to those with the same do-it-yourself idea. And they all employ different techniques for the ritual, honed through years of trial and error. Some people use those pink, plastic tub-sleds to haul their star-topped prizes, others employ an old tarp from the garage, and still others drag it behind just like it is, leaving telltale needle striations in the snow.

Footwear options are just as varied. Some people post-hole (what are they thinking?), some don snowshoes and others cork Extra Blue kick wax onto spindly cross-country skis. This year, we saw all this and more, including one happy family hauling theirs out atop an inner-tube, with Cindy Lou Who following behind on snowshoes. Another skied theirs out atop a sheet of Visqueen, leaving no Hansel and Gretel trail of needles.

I convert our old Wilderness Engineering Kindershuttle ski sled into an arbor-moving apparatus, swapping a tree for the toddlers we once carried. I place saw and straps in the tub for the search and then strap the tree onto the sled come hauling time.

Granted, the whole process is more work than swinging by Safeway. Which brings up a couple of hernia-helping hints for all you tree hunters.

  • Go uphill first, so you haul your tree down.
  • Don’t carry out more tree than your ceiling can accommodate. Saw it at the base like you’re supposed to, but then lop off that extra five feet of bare trunk.
  • Check your saw; a dull blade will have you wishing for a sharpener in your stocking. Also, double check that you remembered your saw in the first place (yes, I forgot it once).
  • And bring a thermos of hot chocolate for the kids; they’ll remember that far more than any sequestered sapling.
  • A final hint involves numbers. For the most part, the more the merrier, so bring the whole family. Just beware of too many cooks, hindering an ultimate decision. “A little bare on top,” the comments will come, echoing my barber. “Not tall enough. Not full enough.” And the inevitable, “Too Charlie Brownish.”

This, of course, brings up the basic “location” tenet of real estate. Some places are simply better than others, and countless locals have their secret lairs, like a powder stash, that they’re loath to reveal. Buff Pass, North Routt and Rabbit Ears are hot spots, though you didn’t hear that here.

The latter is where my daughter and I ventured, largely because it coincided with my ulterior motive: the chance to show her how to use AT gear and make some powder turns while we were at it. I knew the perfect place, a sweet powder field where I could impart a touring lesson while tree hunting. While we always ski for our tree — it’s fun, you stay on top of the snow, and you can tally it as a ski day — this was the first time we donned backcountry gear instead of cross-country skis. So we strapped on our skins, focused on powder as much as pines.

It’s a great combination, cutting fresh turns and fresh trees. I preached its virtues as we trudged upward, stashing the sled at a junction before schussing through an untracked aspen grove. Then we began searching for our gymnosperm.

The plan worked perfectly as far as our powder skiing went. But it proved problematic when it came to the real reason we were here. Prioritizing powder over tree picking meant we weren’t exactly shopping at Christmas Trees R Us. It was a less than ideal spot, with old-growth forest crowding out the next generation. There was no teen center harboring adolescents.

After shaking snow from their limbs, we passed on a few candidates (“A little bare on both sides.”) before splitting up to divide and conquer. This, of course, resulted in us getting lost from each other, with me scrambling to explain losing our daughter to my wife back home. After yelling “Casey! Casey!” through the woods to no avail, just when I thought of returning to the car to see if she was there, joy of joyous joys my phone rang (aren’t youngsters smart these days?). “Hi, dad,” she deadpanned. “I think I found one.”

Sure enough, after directing me to where she was, I found her standing next to what would become our living room’s crowning centerpiece. It wasn’t perfect, but apparently, neither am I. Post-holing up to my privates, I cut it down while she sipped hot chocolate on the sidelines. Then we dashed through the snow with sled and tree in tow back to the car, like the Grinch returning to Whoville.

At the parking lot, we coveted the trees topping cars across the road. They were bigger, fuller and better shaped. But we also realized that, like getting our dog from the pound, our blemished emblem was filled with love.

On the way back into town, we saw a flawless tree in the middle of the road that had flown off of someone’s car en route from City Market. “That’s a good one, Dad,” Casey said, “but we had more fun.”

We certainly did. And the funny thing is that, when we finally got it set up at home, our Christmas tree’s branches were as beautiful as any.

To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email

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