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Tree hunt creates memories

HARDING COUNTY, S.D. - You would never suspect that just beyond the dusky, brown prairie lies a winter wonderland oasis. The way there isn't difficult. Driving down Highway 85, you cross the state border, turn onto another paved road, follow the ...

Gary Nagel

HARDING COUNTY, S.D. - You would never suspect that just beyond the dusky, brown prairie lies a winter wonderland oasis.

The way there isn't difficult. Driving down Highway 85, you cross the state border, turn onto another paved road, follow the signs onto a dirt road, and then you'll see it.

Just beyond the endless fields of gray and flocks of sheep is a valley of Christmas trees in the North Cave Hills Unit of Custer National Forest, just 20 miles south of Bowman, N.D.

At this time of year, it looks more like icebergs breaking between the placid grasslands, stretching their necks up toward a steely sky.

The valley of the Christmas trees is a familiar sight for Gary Nagel and his family, of Bowman, who travel there to pick out their Christmas trees each year.

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"It's like another world, only a half-hour away," Pam Nagel said. "I enjoy the combination of the outdoor beauty and quality family time."

Pam and Gary have been coming to get trees for nearly 30 years, since before their eldest child was born. Pam is a retired English teacher who continues to work half time at the Bowman Public School District. Gary retired from teaching math there last spring, but is teaching half time at the Scranton Public School District this year.

The couple started a family tradition of bringing back their own Christmas trees.

"We realized it was cheaper than buying one from a lot or getting a fake one, and we get to choose from so many," Gary said. "It is challenging to get everyone to agree on a tree."

In fact, the Nagels now get four trees when they venture out. The four trees are a family, themselves.

First there is the big, traditional tree to be filled with a wide assortment of ornaments and put on display.

"We are limited by height," Gary said. "The big tree can be no more than 11 feet."

The next tree is the Santa Claus tree, adorned only with the many Father Christmas ornaments. The tree is usually about 6 feet tall and can't be too wide for the space it will take up.

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The two smaller trees include a miniature ornament tree, around 2½ feet tall, and a tree about 4 feet tall for all the antique ornaments the family has acquired.

The family purchased four tree permits at $5 each. For each tree they want to cut down, they get the permits from the Bowman-Slope County Soil Conservation District office in Bowman.

It is one of many locations where people can get a permit to cut down their own tree.

"We've all developed an eye for it," Gary said of choosing the right tree. "They all have their own strong opinions on what they want."

This year, it took them only a couple of hours to pick out the trees they wanted. They look at the fullness, the freshness, the shape and ability to hold their ornaments.

In other years, the Nagels would drive and walk up the tall mesas for the view, and sometimes have a picnic. They have photos of their children sledding down the snowy hillsides from years gone by.

This year, they huddled together in a van to eat leftover turkey sandwiches and drink hot chocolate at the Picnic Springs Campground. The only other people along the dirt roads to pass the family were deer hunters in the area.

"The tradition has become meaningful for the kids," Gary said. "We hope to continue doing this for a long time, and don't plan on quitting."

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There have been plenty of memories.

"Each year, you always come away with a new, fun memory," daughter Veronica said. "This year we brought (our dog) Chase for the first time, and Dad kept slipping on the ice."

Pam said fewer people seem to be coming to the valley of the Christmas trees.

"I think people want less hassle and more people are into artificial trees, but doing this makes the tree even more special to you because you picked it out, cut it down and brought it home yourself," she said.

The Dickinson Press and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co. Tree hunt creates memories 20071216

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