Careful crane operators gently plucked the nation's Christmas tree from a northern Minnesota forest Wednesday, coddling the perfect specimen bound for the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Mike Theune, project manager for the U.S. Forest Service, described the atmosphere around the tree-cutting celebration in the Chippewa National Forest near Cass Lake as "electric."

As soon as the towering 88-foot white spruce was cut, he said, "the crowd cheered, because now it's not just a tree, it's a national treasure."

The tree, trimmed to its final 70-foot height, was lowered onto raised wooden frames on the bed of a trailer. It won't actually leave the forest until Thursday morning, but it will be under 24-hour security until it reaches D.C.

On Sunday, after the tree is wrapped and boxed (with a viewing window so people can get a look), a truck delivering the giant conifer will hit the road. Another truck will follow with 10,000 handmade ornaments and 70 smaller trees to be placed around public buildings in Washington.

The public is invited to celebrate the tree motorcade as it makes several stops along the way. There will be parties. There will be parades.

The schedule is:

Sunday

– 1 p.m. Itasca State Park

–5 p.m. Bemidj

Monday

– 2 p.m. Walker

–3 p.m. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Office, Cass Lake

Tuesday

–10 a.m. Blackduck Public School

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Marcell Family Center

2-4 p.m. Deer River High School

Wednesday, Nov. 5

–10 a.m. Wille Transport, Cohasset

– 1 p.m. Grand Rapids

–7:30 p.m. Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth

Thursday, Nov. 6

–6 p.m. Lifetouch Photography, Eden Prairie

Friday, Nov. 7

– 7 p.m., with tree onsite from 11 a.m. 2:30 p.m. Mayo Clinic, Rochester

–8 p.m., with tree arrival at 5 p.m., St. James Hotel, Red Wing

Saturday, Nov. 8

– 12 p.m. Cabela's, Owatonna

–5:30 p.m. Northern Star Council Base Camp, Fort Snelling

Pam Louwagie 612-673-7102