Alaska, Announcements, History, KPB, Outdoors, Seward History

The People’s Tree-a gift from Seward and Chugach NF

Crowd gathers to view cutting of the Capital Christmas Tree from Chugach NF. Heidi Zemach photo.
A crowd gathers to view cutting of the Capital Christmas Tree from Chugach NF. Heidi Zemach photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

A wolf with an ermine in its mouth stood at a clearing at the edge of Seward Highway, about a mile and a half from the spot where the 74-foot Lutz spruce tree stood, waiting. It stared toward the coach carrying Alaska reporters, sponsors, and dignitaries to the Capitol Christmas “People’s Tree” cutting. Later, as the tree stood awaiting Chugach National Forest certified C-Faller Dan Osbornes’ chainsaw, which he had begun revving up, a strong wind kicked up and ruffled through  its branches, knocking off hats and tumbling camera stands. A single bald eagle circled briefly overhead.

“It was meant to be,” said Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren, a culture bearer of the Kanaitze Tribe, who sat watching from the road above along with a dozen reporters and several dozen more spectators.

Felled tree is kept upright via tall cranes before being turned on its side. Heidi Zemach photo.
Felled tree is kept upright via tall cranes before being turned on its side. Heidi Zemach photo.

First came speeches and a blessing by John Ross, also of the Kanaitze Indian Tribe.

“Part of what I did earlier was I went over to the tree and I did some smudging with some sage and talked to the tree. In our way we believe that everything has life, and everything has a spirit, and so I asked permission for the tree…” For a long moment, Ross was at a loss for words. Then, he went on to give a short prayer  in the Dena’ina language. and translated: Thank you for this day, it’s a good day,’’ he said. “Thank you for the opportunity to have this ceremony today with all these people, and we ask special blessings for this event and for this tree. We thank this tree for giving its life to be on display for our whole nation and for the world, and pray that it would have safe travels to Washington and that everybody involved would be safe.”

“It is my honor to be here for this celebration. Seward found itself in the national spotlight with the presidential visit, and now has the opportunity to share our beautiful national forest with the nation,” said Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson.   “For 40 years it has been my family tradition to seek a Christmas tree from the Chugach National Forest. Although we have always found the right tree, my husband is no stranger to standing under a tree, you shake the snow off, only to have him say it wasn’t the perfect tree. We would spend hours looking for that tree.”

Her family’s Christmas tradition has given testimony to the size and quality of the Chugach National Forest,” Bardarson said. “As anyone who comes across this tree can see, it’s perfect and we’re so happy to be able to share it with the nation. When this tree was a sapling, President Coolidge was lighting the first National Christmas Tree at the White House. No one in attendance could have conceived of a tree being transported 4,000 miles, or that Alaska would join the union as its 49th state. It was a sapling during the Roaring ‘20s, the construction of the Alaska Railroad, and Ted Stevens was a toddler. It went through the Depression, World War II, walking on the moon, construction of the Alaska Pipeline, the invention of the internet, and now it will be Alaska’s ambassador to the nation.”

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It was totally silent but for the roar of chainsaw, the wind, and occasional passing traffic. Then people gasped and burst into applause as the sawing stopped, and the tree seemed to lift slightly into the air, swaying ever so gently, held in place by a giant white crane.  Rapt, they watched and took pictures as it was slowly tipped onto its side by ropes and two opposite cranes, until it was all the way on its side. Carefully and slowly, they maneuvered it into place on the cradles of a specially designed flatbed trailer with cribbing designed to support the trunk and branches. Some of the lower branches had to be trimmed, and a few additional trees were cut, and had their larger branches removed earlier—just in case they were needed to cosmetically fill out the Capitol tree.

The waiting truck and trailer is over 80-feet long. The tree and trailer will travel from Alaska to Tacoma, Washington, and then start its cross country journey to Washington D.C. During the journey, a 60-gallon hydration bag will keep it supplied with water. It will be cared for by Chugach National Forest Service forester and planner Mandy Villwock, the person who first located the tree. Seward schools, and numerous other communities across the state have contributed more than 1,000 home- made Alaska-themed ornaments and skirts for the tree.

A tree- lighting ceremony will be held during the first week of December, and an Alaska child who wins an essay contest by Senator Lisa Murkowski, will be brought there to help light it.

The tree is carefully positioned above John Schank's truck, before being lowered onto its cradle. Heidi Zemach photo.
The tree is carefully positioned above John Schank’s truck, before being lowered onto its cradle. Heidi Zemach photo.

John Schank, the truck owner, from Fairbanks, has been driving trucks for 40 years, and has an impressive no-accident record. He won the Alaska Driver of the Year Award for 2014. After four decades driving trucks from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay on the haul road, Schank has no qualms that he can make it across the country without incident.

“We were seeing the road last night and it’s a done deal. We can do it. We can get ‘er done,” he said. In addition to traffic control  all along the way, and having adjacent lanes cleared, his wife, who runs a pilot car service out of Fairbanks, came down to help with the move from Anchorage. She’ll be driving the pilot vehicle behind the truck, piloting it, and letting him know where the trailer is at all times, Schank said. It’s a family affair, and they’re honored to be asked to do it. The main challenge for him, being more used to travelling along a very straight road, will be driving into cities, and through different kinds of streets, he said. As for the possibility of encountering adverse weather conditions, he said only: “Whatever Mother Nature throws at us we’ll have to deal with it.”

Residents came out in droves Tuesday evening to a send-off celebration at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Truck driver John Schank will drive the tree across the country to the Capitol lawn in Washington D.C. Heidi Zemach photo.
Truck driver John Schank will drive the tree across the country to the Capitol lawn in Washington D.C. Heidi Zemach photo.

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