About 5,000 local folk will trek over the river and through the woods of the Pike National Forest this month in search of the "perfect" tree that will be more Charlie Brown than White House. But nothing beats the custom of cutting down a live tree for Christmas, they'll tell you.
"I have three little boys, and I wanted them to have this experience," said Therese Schumacher, who just moved to the area from Lafayette, La. "It's absolutely too cold to be doing this, but it's our first time and we didn't want to miss it."
The Siberian-like temperatures of the past few days didn't stop families young and old from loading up the ax, tarp, hot beverages, snacks, sleds and layers of clothing on Saturday and heading for the hills off Rampart Range Road near Woodland Park.
"This is what it's all about," said Dorien Rawlinson, gesturing to her friends gathered around a fire they built to keep warm.
Rawlinson and her husband, Mark, who live near Larkspur, have been cutting down a fresh tree for 31 years. Each December, they round up friends, caravan to the mountains, put on their Santa hats and holiday sweaters, share a big pot of chili and make a day of it.
"We've done it in the mud, when it's too hot to wear a coat and years like this, when it's pretty darn chilly," Rawlinson said. "But this is best. It's not quite the Christmas spirit when there's no snow."
Many tree cutters have participated in the ritual for decades, said Frank Landis, recreational specialist for the Pikes Peak Ranger District, which sells permits out of its Colorado Springs office for $10 apiece.
"It's an adventure for the family and part of their holiday tradition," he said.
The U.S. Forest Service's Christmas tree-cutting program does more than provide a special outing and photos for the scrapbook. Removing the smaller, less mature trees helps create a healthy forest, Landis said.
"It's kind of like weeding your garden."
The environmental benefit appeals to Stephanie Whisman, who was buying a tree-cutting permit at the Woodland Park Middle School on Saturday morning.
"The forest needs to be cleared out, and we thought we'd help," she said.
Although her family has lived in the area for 15 years, this is their first time for the adventure.
"We saw everybody else doing it and thought it would be fun," Whisman said.
Englemann spruce, Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine are the primary species waiting to be taken home and decorated.
"If you're lucky and you get into the lower-lying areas, you might score a blue spruce," Landis said.
He also has this advice: "Don't be too picky. People are used to the Scotch pines from commercial lots. These aren't going to be as full. But it's as fresh as you can get."
People don't seem to mind.
The Pikes Peak Ranger District will sell tree permits for $10 each through Dec. 18 at its office, 601 S. Weber St., in Colorado Springs. The hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Permits also will be sold 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday and next weekend, Dec. 14-15, at the Woodland Park Middle School parking lot, 600 E. Kelly Road.
There are several tree-cutting areas, but the main one is beyond the middle school, off Rampart Range Road. Maps are given out with permits.
Trees no larger than 6 inches in diameter may be cut through Dec. 18, and permit tags must be attached to the tree. The Forest Service recommends leaving the area before dark.
Families also should be prepared for snow, low temperatures and winter driving conditions. Handsaws or axes are permitted. Bring a rope and tarp for hauling the tree home. Hot beverages, a full tank of gas, food, water, a shovel and blanket also are a good idea.
For more information, call 636-1602.