By Brian Payne
Clear skies and crisp temperatures greeted the Scouts of Troop 8 as they arrived at the downtown departure point for their weekend camp-out.
Dressed in a colorful mix of coveralls, stocking caps, and down jackets, the Scouts loaded their gear into four-wheel drive vehicles, pausing frequently for a hot chocolate break.
Estes Park lies at the eastern entrance to the 265,727-acre Rocky Mountain National Park. Its famous highway, the nation's highest continuous road, had been closed for weeks due to snow, but the Scouts were determined to depart on schedule.
This wasn't just any winter camp-out. For nearly four decades, this weekend has been set aside for the Troop 8 Christmas tree money-earning project.
"This is our annual opportunity to make money," said Scoutmaster Ray Parker. And he should know. Parker has been on 29 of the outings.
"Every Scout is required to attend this camp-out. We earn enough money from the sale of trees to put every Scout in summer camp and pay for the year's activities," he said.
"Let's load up!" the Scoutmaster yelled. Soon a caravan of trucks and sport/utility vehicles was winding its way out of town. As the convoy headed into the mountains, the Scouts waved at herds of elk eating by the side of the road.
Troop 8's project is a cooperative effort with the Red Feather District of the National Forest Service. For decades the district has allowed the Scouts to harvest trees in designated areas.
During the summer the troop's adult leaders locate the area for cutting and mark the trees with orange ribbons. Strict Forest Service timber management rules must be followed at all times. Trees can be cut to specific dimensions, but virtually all of every tree must be hauled out.
Trees to be cut must have at least an eight-foot spacing between them and they must be cut no more than six inches from the ground.
Slash piles of leftover limbs and branches cannot exceed two feet.
The troop often gets a request for a 12-foot tree from a business and a church. They can comply with this by cutting a 12-foot section off the top of a 40-foot tree. However, the entire tree must be cut down and hauled away. Fortunately, all parts of the tree can be sold. Mistletoe is cut off the branches and the boughs are cut for wreaths
The project is both a money-earning effort and a learning experience. The Scouts gain firsthand knowledge of proper mountain management and are impressed with the importance of becoming "stewards of the forest."
The 1997 outing took the Scouts into the Roosevelt National Forest. Their permit allowed them to harvest approximately 170-190 trees.
After an hour's drive, the vehicles were into heavy snow country, about to leave the county road.
"Everyone should be locked into four-wheel drive," Ray Parker told the drivers. The vehicles then squirmed their way along a rutted, snow-packed path to the campsite, where the Scouts quickly set about pitching their tents in the snow.
"Over here!" yelled 12-year-old Second Class Scout Ron Cole to his tentmate Jeff Johnsey. "Let's put our tent up near these trees."
The rising sun began to warm the early morning chill. The forest quiet was soon interrupted by the buzz of chain saws and the whizzing and whacking of bucksaws and axes.
"We used axes and saws the first 30 years," said troop committee chairman Gary Reeves, who has seen his three sons become Eagle Scouts in Troop 8. "But now the adults use chain saws, which is good, because we have to carry out every piece of tree and the power tools make the job a lot more efficient."
Jonathan Ingram, Eagle Scout and assistant Scoutmaster, worked his chain saw through the trunk of a thick, 40-foot lodgepole pine.
"We had a request from the Community Church for a 15-footer," he said. "But I have to cut down a 40-footer to get the top out of it."
When the tree was felled, Scouts quickly put their handsaws to work, trimming the branches for boughs and cutting the tree stump into manageable pieces. Denali Lawson and Jason Lee, both 13, began carrying the timber to the loading zone.
"Give me a hand," begged 12-year-old Nick Hays. Then fellow Star Scout Charles Grigg came to his rescue as they each grabbed the limbs of a huge lodgepole pine and dragged it to the loading area. Jason Lee was already there with a pair of pruning shears, trimming branches from the bottom of a tree so it would fit perfectly into a tree stand.
"Over here," yelled committeeman Reeves. He could barely be heard over the roar of the saws. "Make another pile here." The Scouts carefully organized another mound of green limbs.
Scouts continued to cut and haul trees to the drop zone, where the scene resembled organized chaos. Trees were dragged in, tagged, cut, and organized by size, configuration, and beauty.
Mark Lorenz was busy putting Forest Service permit tags on each tree.
"We pay a $7 permit fee for each tree we cut," he said. "And we are able to sell them for $3 per foot on the lot. So, every tree counts, even the smaller ones. We are very careful not to ruin any of them."
The troop also purchases about $1,000 worth of commercial trees from a local tree farm to supplant what they cut each year.
"The profit from the trees allows the troop to pay for all expenses during the year," Lorenz continued. "We pay for summer camp fees, groceries for camp-outs, gas for the vehicles, and advancement awards."
The Scouts headed back to camp for lunch. Over hot chili and crackers, they recalled past projects.
"One year we had to have a big Caterpillar front-end loader get us into the area," remembered Parker. "There was over four feet of new snow. We climbed into our sleeping bags that night after a beautiful day and awoke to a temperature of minus 22. Breakfast was a little tough. That was the year I learned how to hard-boil frozen eggs."
With their bellies full, the Scouts returned to the woods. Everything that was cut had to be put in specific areas before nightfall. Once that was accomplished, the Scouts had some free time before dinner and lights-out. Morning would come early.
Sunday brought overcast skies and the threat of snow, although the temperatures remained above normal. Additional pickup trucks arrived from town to haul the trees to the lot. A much larger truck from the Estes Park Lumber Company also appeared.
"We've been involved with the Scouts for 18 years," said Stacy Betts of the lumber company. "We're glad to give them space for their lot and help out any other way we can."
In town, customers were waiting as the first tree-laden truck arrived. "We came right after church," said Darrell Poe, as he and his wife, Tanya, and daughter, Abigail, pulled their chosen tree off the flatbed truck.
About an hour later the adults recognized a regular customer--former Estes Park police chief Bob Ault.
"Hold that tree up a little straighter," Ault remarked with mock seriousness to 11-year-old Scout Justin Hess.
"Yes, sir," said Justin.
"Well, how much?" Ault asked.
As Ault dispensed the cash from his wallet, he continued joking with his Scouter friends. The tree lot, in fact, assumed the characteristics of a Scout campfire on a cold weekend retreat. Townspeople were able to see each other, exchange stories, enjoy the holidays together. The rest of the first day and the week that followed were full of laughter and good times--and a burgeoning cashbox for the troop.
"I've been helping since 1979," said Scouter Dennis Cole. "A lot of people like store-bought artificial trees; but we still have a large following, and this is still a great opportunity for the boys and the troop to basically have fun together, learn about the importance of good forest management, and have a super money-earner over a weekend."
Denver-based photojournalist Brian Payne is a field editor for Boys' Life.
We Don't Shut Down In Winter
Troop 8 has a long history of enjoying the colder temperatures and shorter days that winter brings to their area of north-central Colorado.
"We don't let the weather shut us down in the winter," says Scoutmaster Ray Parker. "We get out and enjoy it."
And the weather can change suddenly, Parker notes, from a blustery 22 below one day to a balmy 30 degrees the next. "If you don't like cold weather, just stick around awhile."
Parker has seen many changes in his 39 years of association with Scouting, including an evolution in the quality and effectiveness of high-tech backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, camping gear, and even food.
What hasn't changed, he points out, is the key to running a first-class, year-round troop camping program: maintaining a high level of enthusiasm and dedication among Scouts and leaders.
Eat right, stay warm
The early years of cold-weather camping taught the troop that eating well is as important in winter as staying warm and dry. A menu high in fats and carbohydrates is needed, as colder temperatures and higher altitudes call for a greater intake of food.
"The strenuous exercise in our winter outings also helps create big appetites in Scouts and Scouters," Parker said. The troop menu is simple and basic, usually including chili lunches, hearty dinners, and pancakes for breakfast.
Heavy wool coats have given way to fleece, breathable waterproof materials, and synthetics. Cotton items such as denim pants are not advisable in the snow (although many adult Scouters seem reluctant to abandon them as their fabric of choice, regardless of weather conditions)--they soak up moisture like a sponge and never get dry. Inexpensive surplus wool pants work best for warmth and shedding snow.
Work gloves are a must on the Christmas tree outing, Parker points out. Tree limbs and cutting tools can cause one's hand to blister quickly.
An evening's plunging temperature and wind chill often rule out an evening campfire, Parker notes. "Winter camping puts the kids in their sleeping bags a lot earlier than summer camping. When the sun goes down, it gets cold fast."
A not-so-quiet forest
Along with camping equipment, cutting trees has changed over the years. Powerful chain saws have replaced two-man, lumberjack-style band saws. Because the Forest Service requires that all of a felled tree be carried out, smaller hand bucksaws are needed to cut limbs into smaller sections.
"It isn't as quiet in the forest as it used to be," Parker notes. "The chain saws make quite a ruckus, but they also speed up the process immensely."
The tree-cutting weekend relies on four-wheel drive vehicles to carry equipment to the backcountry and resembles a car camping experience rather than a backpack trek.
Ice fishing and Klondike derby
A month after the last Christmas tree dollar is collected, the troop heads for its annual ice fishing camp. Colorado's North Park area is the usual location, a beautiful frozen winter wonderland that is a popular destination for ice fishermen.
Next comes the council Klondike derby, an opportunity to camp with and compete against other troops.
The snow sled races are the highlight of the weekend. The Scouts work on their sleds prior to the weekend and transport them to the derby site, Cameron Pass near Gould, Colo.
The final winter outing is a spring retreat into Rocky Mountain National Park. Plenty of snow remains, and the main highway does not open to traffic until mid-to-late June. On this camp-out, the troop plans for the coming summer season.
"I've had 39 years to participate in winter camping," said Parker. "With the extremes Mother Nature has thrown at us, we've learned the most important lesson is to be prepared. Very prepared."
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