Making Nature Part of the Holiday Season

This feature was first published in the 2008 Wilderness Magazine. To receive the annual magazine and quarterly newsletters from The Wilderness Society, become a member today!

Darrell Knuffke, who writes from Mancos, Colorado, is a former Colorado journalist, U.S. Senate aide, and Wilderness Society vice president.

By Darrell Knuffke

During the hectic holiday season, the outdoors is often little more than what we scurry through between stores and festivities. But some people refuse to let the mad rush deprive them of the chance to linger in the natural world.

“The bird counts have taught me more about the world I live in than I could ever have imagined."

Tom Rusert

Tom Rusert’s mainstay is the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count or CBC. Between December 14 and January 5, the CBC — the 109th this year — involves some 30,000 birders across North America and beyond.

“The bird counts have taught me more about the world I live in than I could ever have imagined,” said Rusert, of Sonoma, California. Last year he launched the first CBC for Kids, which sent 34 young people and 20 parents into the field after training in habitat, “how to walk in nature,” and how to see — not just look. The training is important because, while the CBC is citizen science, organizers go to great lengths to make it as reliable as possible.

Rusert, a cousin of the late Tim Russert (despite the different spelling), also works with International Bird Rescue. At holiday time in 2007 he was part of a team that cleaned and released 150 sea birds at Point Reyes National Seashore after an oil spill. His Christmas tree languished, undecorated, in a bucket. “But I think of those birds as the ornaments on my tree,” Rusert said, “a gift from me to me.”

St. Paul, Minnesota, photographer-film maker Will Hommeyer and his wife Jill Van Koolwijk, a teacher, have crafted a 12-year holiday-season tradition of taking their three children to rustic Camp du Nord on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Cross-country skiing fills the days, board games and family time the evenings.

“Nature is important to us in all seasons, even more during the holidays, when we’re all swept up in the rush and commercialism,” Hommeyer said. “They’ve become for us a time to step back, reflect on the beauty of this world, what matters in our lives, what we’re thankful for.”

John Bueg’s Thanksgiving feast involves consuming the Appalachian Trail. “I always wanted to hike the whole AT but have never been able to put together that big a block of time, so I do it piece by piece over the long Thanksgiving weekend,” said the ten-year National Park Service veteran.

From his family’s home in Howard County, Maryland, Bueg started his assault on the AT in 1995 in the Catoctin Mountains and has worked north and south from there. “In my family, the holidays are seasons, not dates,” he said, “We might have Thanksgiving dinner the night before so I can head for the trail first thing in the morning.” Bueg, a major in the Army Reserves, will not take another bite out of the AT this Thanksgiving; he left his ranger post at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in July for a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq, his second.

Practicalities also drive Fred Lavigne’s and Evelyn MacKinnon’s 15-year outdoor holiday tradition. He made his living as a logger and still logs some; she’s a retired teacher. The two raise a big garden and are almost-legendary volunteers on national forest issues and in the Wonalanset Trail Club.

Because of their gardening and volunteer work, the first chance to get away comes in early winter. They venture out on trips ranging from four to ten days into the White Mountain National Forest and the Sandwich Range Wilderness Area near their New Hampshire home. Traveling on snowshoes, they tow their gear, including a small, heated wall tent, on toboggans. Wildlife tracking is a shared hobby and the winter snow tells stories unspoken in other seasons. “It’s wonderful to be away during that hectic time of year,” said Levigne, noting that it takes them a couple of days to unwind and settle into the winter landscape.

The winter woods also beckon Gregg and Gretchen Dubit, of Hesperus, Colorado. Gregg is a homebuilder and runs commercial sled dog trips in the Rockies; Gretchen teaches writing. He grew up in a Jewish home outside Washington, D.C., she in a Catholic home in New York State. Their holiday season’s not for buying; it is for bonding with their children, Lydia and Hayden, in the snowy beauty of high mountains.

Their Christmas Day tradition is a dog-sledding trip high into the San Juan National Forest. “We sort of reject the whole Hanukah-Christmas gift-giving frenzy,” said Gregg Dubit. “It’s just too much. There’s a higher priority for us than opening presents.”

Hunting is another activity that draws Americans into nature at holiday time. Fall’s turning leaves and sharpening breezes are synonymous with hunting seasons that take millions afield. “Montana big-game seasons end on the Sunday following Thanksgiving,” said Bozeman’s Ken Barrett, host of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s “Life in the Open” television series. “Some families take the entire week of Thanksgiving off to hunt, and I’ve been out there until sundown on Sunday. I’m a passionate hunter and just as passionate about our great public lands, a gift unique in the world. I celebrate those lands whenever I can.”

A very old outdoor holiday tradition is maintained by residents of tiny Tortugas Pueblo near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Every December 11 they trek up nearby Tortugas Mountain as part of a three-day celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, believed to have appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, a poor Indian, on a mountain near present-day Mexico City. The Tortugas Pueblo’s four-mile pilgrimage up its own mountain honors that event.

“We have celebrated this fiesta for probably two centuries, officially since the early 1900s,” said Lupe Dominguez-Flores, who, like her father, has been a leader of the pueblo, which includes people of both Mexican and Native American ancestry.

Pilgrims leave the village early in the morning and reach the summit by around 10:30. Mass is celebrated at noon. People linger to share lunch and then walk four miles back to the village.

“Hundreds of people make the pilgrimage, some of them barefooted,” Dominguez-Flores said. Though distinct from Christmas, the fiesta is a strong signal to the pueblo’s children, she said. “As a child, I always knew that when the fiesta arrived, Christmas was right behind.”