Growing Up Montanan

The Great Christmas Tree Hunt

Angie Ripple

Growing up in Montana meant searching for, and cutting down a Christmas each year with my family, specifically my dad who led the charge to the forest and did the majority of the searching, all of the cutting and hauling, and my brother and I were along for the ride. I grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation where we were close to plenty of pine trees that were available for us to cut down and bring home with us. There were no tags to pay for and pick up, there really were no rules for this search at all. And, growing up in my small town, 40+ miles from the nearest big box store, I didn’t even know that fake Christmas trees existed. I know there was at least one year that my family had two Christmas trees, one upstairs and one downstairs, both from the woods outside of town. So this year when my husband found a great deal on a previously owned fake Christmas and asked if we should begin down that route I had a decision to make.

Three years ago our family headed up Hyalite in our 1995 Subaru with a saw, some twine, and a tree permit. The road was covered with ice, the ground with snow, but our spirits were high and we were ready to find a suitable tree for our holiday celebration. We went up the road and back down again to the Moser Creek parking area, also an ice rink. After carefully traversing the lot to the hillside we climbed our way up and weaved our way from tree to tree. As soon as we’d spy one that looked good we’d realize it was only half full and we’d keep looking and trekking. Eventually, we realized we’d need to go further up the road in the car to find our tree. We made it up this snow covered road, parked along side road and trekked through deeper snow toward the trees.

There the perfect little tree stood, just right for us, so we cut it down and brought it to the car, tied it to the ski racks and carefully headed back down to our house. The usual trimming commenced, and our holidays were merry and bright. And then it was time to take the tree down. Once all of the ornaments and lights were taken down something caught my eye, something tucked into the branches, something very unexpected after all the tree hunting and hauling and trimming. A birds nest. We had cut down a tree with a birds nest in it, what in the world?

After the shock and wonderment we had a good laugh, hoping the birds had long abandoned this nest and we hadn’t forced them into hopelessness for the holidays. We still tell the story to friends who haven’t heard it yet, the Rockefeller Center 2020 tree and owl reminded us of our nest tree.

My decision to continue hunting for real Christmas trees didn’t take long, for me it’s an opportunity to make more memories with my family, and I just can’t pass that opportunity by. Funny, happy, celebratory memories that getting a fake tree out of a box just won’t match.

This year the forest service has waived the $5 fee for tree cutting in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. You can download a tag (which you will still need to cut down a tree) online, or by visiting the FS office at 3710 Fallon St (406-522-2520).

Grab your tag, your boots and gloves, a saw, a 4x4 vehicle, and the family and get out to the woods for a tree hunt, and a holiday season to remember, or go to the closest tree lot, or grab your tree out of the box, I won’t judge. Be careful out there! Happy Holidays.

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