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I’ve lived in Washington state my entire life, yet until recently I’ve always purchased my Christmas tree from a parking lot.

I live in the place where Christmas trees come from, so when I fork over $50 for the convenience of a cut tree, I feel like I’m cheating — kind of like fishing from the trout-stocked pond at summer camp.

When you buy your tree from a lot, you’re guaranteed to find one. And you’re almost guaranteed to find the perfectly manicured variety. But where’s the sport in that?

It strikes me that our search for the perfect Christmas tree is a lot like how we try to force Christmas into being the perfect occasion. Trees in the wild are hardly ever perfect. They can be scraggly, crooked, odd and rarely symmetrical. Kind of like the people in our families.

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Nobody’s perfect, and your tree won’t be either. But I guarantee it will feel more genuine, and the memory of hiking through the snow to find your imperfect tree will probably mean a lot more than simply picking one up at the supermarket.

Here’s how you can harvest your tree in Washington, plus a few lessons my wife and I learned when we found our first tree.

Lesson 1

Ask a forest ranger about conditions before you set out, or you could get stuck.

We started our tree safari at the downtown Seattle REI, where we picked up a $10 permit from the Outdoor Recreation Information Center. The permit was good for cutting a tree in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the closest national forest to Seattle. We have a small house, so the 12-foot height limit was more than enough (although we could have gone for a larger tree for only $10 more).

The ranger gave us a National Forest map and outlined what areas were open to harvest and those that were off-limits for cutting (campgrounds, watersheds and private property). He also detailed what roads were snowbound and likely to require high clearance or four-wheel drive.

This turned out to be valuable information, as we later saw several people stuck in the snow.

Lesson 2

Scout the edges of clearings, roads and around power lines for small trees.

Step 2 was to find the right area for the right size of tree. This was the hardest part. We thought we would just walk through the woods until we found the perfect 6 footer. But it wasn’t that simple.

Have you ever noticed how small trees don’t really grow in a mature forest? There’s typically not enough light, so the seedlings get choked out. The baby trees that thrive are usually scrawny and sad.

We would take a Charlie Brown tree if we had to, but were hoping we could do better.

Lesson 3

The cone doesn’t fall far from the tree: Small trees are found under big trees.

Once we figured out that we needed to stick to more open areas, we trudged through 3 inches of new snow along a Forest Service road near Snoqualmie Pass, finding mostly common Douglas fir evergreens (same as the cheap trees at the lots). Then my wife spotted a huge noble fir (the expensive trees) in the distance. Sure enough, below it was a nice 8-foot tree.

Finding the right tree became a lot easier once we learned to scan the tops of the big trees until we found the right shape, then we searched below for a tree that would fit in our house.

Lesson 5

Cut the tree low.

OK, I have to admit I felt a little guilty when it came time to cutting our tree.

We selected one that was growing alongside a second small tree. Our logic went like this: Two trees growing near one another will compete until one of them eventually wins. By thinning one of them, we were only making it easier for the second to thrive.

We used a bow saw and cut the tree as low as possible, knowing we could trim it to the right size once we got it home. After all, it’s easier to make a tree shorter than it is to add length back.

And finally, we vowed to do the following:

For every year that we cut our Christmas tree, we would return to plant a sapling. That way, we would start a new tradition, and give back what we had taken.

Jeff Layton is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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