Over the river and through the woods they came — not heading for Grandma’s house, but the Arbuckle Tract of the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest. By the car and truckload they came to hike into the woods, hatchet or saw in hand to get their prize — a fresh pine Christmas tree.
For the fourth year, the state forest tract was open to one and all to cut their own sand pine tree for the minimal cost of $10 per tree.
Some bought one, some bought two and one family bought three.
The trees weren’t the picture-perfect balsams or firs found at the local supermarket or tree lot, but those who trekked into the back woods south of Lake Wales and just north of Frostproof left with trees safely tied down and smiles for miles.
In the first three hours of Saturday’s sale, some 35 trees already had been sold, according to Forester Corey Walk.
“It’s been busy so far,” Walk said, “And we expect it to be the rest of the day too.”
The tree sale, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, continues this week until Friday and then resumes Dec. 16-20, he added.
“We wanted to do something different this year,” said Marie Pridgen, who was camping at River Ranch with her companion Donnie Dowdle. “This was part of the plan when we decided to come camping.”
Jim Berrgran of Lakeland, who was accompanied by his children, his parents and some friends, said he had seen a notice in a local paper and they decided “to make a day of it.”
They planned to get three trees, one for each household.
“This is the first time we’ve done this,” he said. “And we all got up singing ‘a hunting we shall go.’”
Five-year-old Ian Berrgran was non-plussed when asked if he was excited about cutting down a tree, but his big brother, 10-year-old Ryan chimed, “I want to help Dad cut it down.”
Eight-year-old Colby took a more global stance on the adventure:
“I just want to have fun, cut down a tree and spend time with the family,” he said.
Forestry Service administrative assistant Jeane Ferrara acted as cashier for the day at the McLean Cabin hunting station and picnic area, along with Walk and fellow forester Dave Butcher.
“We’ve had people come from as far away as Sarasota,” Ferrara said. “And all over Polk County.”
In less than 30 minutes, Ferrara had collected fees for more than a dozen trees. The money collected for the tree sales goes into the state’s general fund, she said.
There were also forestry agents stationed all along the circuitous route into the forest to provide directions and monitor the sales.
Was it worth the drive?
“It took us an hour to get here, but these are memories the boys will keep all their lives,” Berrgran said. “I think we might make this an annual thing.”
It’s already an annual event for Bartow residents John and Justin Prince.
“We’ve done this for the past three years. It’s a lot of fun and we usually wind up with a pretty good tree,” said John Prince. “It’s also great just to walk around the woods for a while. Getting the tree is a bonus.”
Geoff Stabler of Lakeland, who also made the drive with his wife, Abigail, and three children, said his wife spotted the notice on the Internet.
“She saw it on the Internet and we thought, hey, this might be fun,” he said. “It was a chance to get the kids out in the woods and have fun.”