Trees growing on the side of Bear Mountain grow fast.
There are some old pictures of the townsite of Seward from as far back as the 1940s that show a treeless hillside that residents clear cut for building lumber and fuel. Today it’s covered in trees 20 to 30 feet high. This fast growth made keeping lights attached to a single Spruce, situated on the edge of a rock outcrop and a 30-meter cliff drop, a bit precarious to say the least. A step too far could send a fella tumbling to his demise.
There is little information on the Holiday Tree of Lights (HTL) other than Doug Capra’s book “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” In the chapter Christmas Tree on the Mountain, on page 223, Capra tells a story of a fella by the name of Casey Cobban, who picked out a tree on the side of Bear Mountain to create The Christmas Tree of Lights. The city and chamber gave Cobban the go ahead and on December 11, 1961, 60 years ago, “Sewardite first looked up to the Tree of Lights”. Capra’s states that local volunteers maintain the lights on the tree, although the passage is vague and leaves us questioning; Who?
Fast forward 52 years.
While out scrambling around the mountain side, I often take the Lowell’s Leg trail to the Bear Mountain Peak (BMP) trail. This 300 plus meter trail starts to the right of the Lowell Creek outflow, tracing directly up the mountainside and intersects with the main BMP trail. There is a portion in the middle that levels out and allows the traveler to move through the forest with more ease than the incline. Here is the access to the HTL.
Stepping to the east of the trail and dropping another 15 meters down the slope, a tree is perched on a band of rock jutting out of the mountain. I would occasionally venture off the main trail to check out the tree because, from its perch, the townsite of Seward is displayed in a most glorious way. Stopping to take in the view, I would notice that certain bulbs were broken, and the main electrical connections were getting chewed up by critters. Because I live very close to the base of Bear Mountain and visited the area throughout the year, I thought maintaining this tree was the least I could do.
The city provides the power supply only during the holiday season, so I thought I better talk to the folks at the city before doing anything. Jeff Estes, who I was familiar with while working at AVTEC, informed me to “have at it,” and they would provide the bulbs. And so, the first couple of years passed with no major repairs until around 2016 when the support cable for the power supply that was attached to the tree itself began to cut into the trunk it was wrapped around.
Over time, this will kill the tree. With the help of Harold Faust, we planned to transfer the cable from the tree to a concrete anchor attached to the rock base. When we got to the tree someone had already moved the cable, saving us some work. Wasting no time, we set the anchor and cut an eight-inch PVC pipe, lengthwise 16 inches and placed it over the tree root so the cable, loaded with the tension of the supply line, could not cut into the root.
Today the actual HTL is not a tree at all, but a series of small link chains that start at the same point at the top then fan out to a two-meter-wide bottom. From town, this arrangement appears in the shape of a Christmas tree.
Each strand of chains has a spring attached in-line giving the structure the ability to flex with the wind. The system has lasted for many years, with 90 percent of the maintenance dedicated to bulb replacement. The basic design of light bulbs attached to a chain system is, in my mind, basic genius. Decades of withstanding Seward’s wicked weather, displaying a Tree of Lights high on the mountain side, visible for miles, and without harm to another tree, is an example of the great work of the tree’s forefathers.
Though the upkeep of this tree has largely been bulb replacement, this simple task proved to be cumbersome because the city provided the bulbs in unlabeled, cardboard boxes. The color coated, residential, incandescent light bulbs came unidentifiable, save for a series of case lot numbers and the print “MADE IN CHINA.” The colors, blue, green, red, yellow, and orange made up the spectrum.
When I first asked Jeff Estes, the city’s electric department spokesperson, if he had any spare bulbs, he happily pawned the job off, and for good reason! Packing the new bulbs up the steep slope, and bringing broken bulbs and trash back down, often in cold weather, could only be enjoyed by someone with a twisted sense of fun.
Neighbor John Uriate and I went up in the Spring of 2017 and found the remnants of a passing visitor to the community tree. Our clues began with a hammock, an old tent, tarp, and rope laid on the ground. It appears as if whoever this person was, while lying in their hammock, shot out the entire set of light bulbs on our beloved tree.
This was the last straw!
After cleaning the mess, I decided to make this easier for us and harder for them. Additionally, it was time to update the entire light system, as it was becoming unsafe.
In 2019, I replaced the entire system, the lights, wires, and chain support system. The link chain set-up has worked so well over the years, so I duplicated it with an upgraded design, installing three new strings of LED light strands. The new system has improved not only the appearance of the tree, but the upkeep, as well. Gone are the cumbersome days of clambering up the mountain with questionable bulbs. Today, a small, ultra-light weight box of LED bulbs fits snugly in my pack. This year, the maintenance crew went up and replaced a few light bulbs that were out or were starting to discolor.
Over the years, family health issues causing constant travel to Anchorage diminished any enthusiasm for decorating in our home. But, still longing for holiday lights in our life, I made a promise to my wife Joy that I would do what I could to provide her with a Tree of Light for her to view during the holidays. And since this tree is one of the first things we see out our front door; I think it should do. The lights are usually turned on by the city on Thanksgiving and turned off after the New Year. However, with early snow, folks encouraged them to be turned on earlier over the last few years.
So, I have shared the history from 2012 through today, but what happened prior to then, remains a mystery to me. I’ll continue my tree lighting duties with the help of folks like Harold Faust, John Uriarte, Cliff Reid, Sammy Allen, and my brother Alan Michaud, until I can’t, and then someone will.
Thank you, Seward.
Editor's Note: For more about the tree see Doug Capra's article from 2020 here.