Around the fire the constant chatter of friends catching up on the year’s battles — some won and some lost — filled the air. In the background, the sounds of energetic children warmed the heart — screaming and laughing on the way down steep hills on colorful plastic sleds. The fresh snow continued to fall, building on the tender needles of ponderosa and lodgepole pines, cedars and Douglas firs in the Bighorn National Forest.
Parishioners at St. John’s Episcopal Church have been making an annual trek to the forest to harvest Christmas trees from the steep mountainside. At least that’s how they advertise the outing. Communion with nature in the freezing cold — even spelled out in a holiday inspired serif font — doesn’t make as sexy of a poster.
There’s something special about spending time in the great outdoors, said Meg Nickles, priest of the Powell church.
“To be together outside like this is magical,” she said. “It’s vital — absolutely necessary.”
The group began the tradition to get a tree for the church. Families would also get a tree for their own homes while on the mission. This year, the families had eight permits, but only four would be filled.
Permits for harvesting trees, both in the Bighorns and in the Shoshone National Forest, are $8 for a nice tree. Trees cut with these permits must be less than 10 feet tall per permit. To cut a larger one, two permits can be used on a single tree. The smell of a fresh cut tree alone is worth the price.
“The smell is cool and clean. Aromas have greater power to transport us to another time and place than any of our senses, and that one, a fresh-cut tree, puts me in the mountains, in the snow, even in the heat of summer,” parishioner and Powell resident Scott Larsen said.
Earlier in the day, Charlie Larsen protested his attendance at the festival in the woods. After his first run down the hill in the fresh snow, the apprehension disappeared. The Larsen family has been coming to the Bighorns for a dozen years and refuses to miss their chance to attend unless it conflicts with work.
One year, the temperature dropped well below zero and the winding, narrow road to the campground was impassable. The group still made the trek and held their fireside tradition at the base of the hill. Above all, safety is important. The group takes precautions.
Before heading in the woods to harvest trees, a head count is taken. The vehicles caravan to and from the camp, to ensure all arrive without incident. If a vehicle isn’t able to make the trip up, families carpool.
Kristie Salzmann, public affairs officer for the Shoshone National Forest, stresses safety to all who plan harvests.
“Our winter weather can be 50 degrees one day and 20 the next. It’s important to wear layers, bring extra food and water and chains for the car,” she said.
It’s also important to be careful while hiking the steep terrain, and while using saws. Steve Nickles came back from the hike through the woods with a slice on his leg. Although the cut was more of a novelty — a small battle scar garnering bragging rights at the campfire — a serious cut can ruin a trip and end in the emergency room.
The trip home Saturday was probably the most dangerous part of this year’s journey. Fresh snow combined with a stiff breeze made for icy conditions and slowed travel.
“It’s an adventure to get up here to get a tree,” Steve Nickles said.
Adventure in previous years makes for some of the best conversations. Snowball fights, stuck vehicles and exhilarating runs down sledding hills brought laughter and broad smiles. Meg Nickles laughed her way through a story that made Rob Rumbolz’s aim in snowball fights legendary and Shane Tillotson recalled a sledding area known as “suicide hill.”
“It was so much fun, but the next day we could hardly move you were so battered from crashes,” Tillotson said.
Campfires add to the ambiance and are fine at the Bighorn National Forest campgrounds, but not allowed on the North Fork in the Shoshone. The exception is at Elk Fork Campground — the only campground open through the winter months.
Christmas trees aren’t the only harvests that happen in the national forests. Trees can be cut for firewood and plants can also be removed and transplanted at home for landscaping. Both local forests have rules and regulations that can be read online or discussed at the offices when buying a permit. Christmas trees can be harvested from Nov. 1 through the end of the year.