It's a good year for cutting your own Christmas tree in the Idaho mountains

Mike Germain, Jay Grunenwald and Chris Major have been friends since their days at Centennial High School almost 20 years ago. Their wives, young children and dogs are all now friends, too.

One way this growing clan stays close is with outings: boating, camping, grilling, trick-or-treating. Five years ago, before kids, the three couples spent two weeks in Nicaragua.

The families have added a new yearly outing: Hunting for Christmas trees in the Idaho mountains.

“This is our annual tradition,” said April Grunenwald. “Second year.”

“We try to be outside as much as we can,” said Mike Germain. “We’re trying not to let (young kids) slow us down.”

This is a good year — not much early snow in the hills — for other Idahoans to consider starting their own tradition for family or friends. Pack goodies and hot drinks, or bring the elements for a bonfire. If you’re not sure how to get started, ask a friend how they do it — or to go with you. Chances are you have a friend who knows the ropes — the Boise National Forest sells as many as 5,000 permits a year, with about 1,000 of those in Idaho City.

Mike and Chris work together as real estate agents; Jay is a bartender; April is a barber. They had common days off, allowing an uncrowded mid-week trip. And this year, the friends capped their outing with a soothing soak at The Springs hot springs outside Idaho City. “Making a day out of it,” said Mike Germain.

Thursday’s outing started with a rendezvous in Idaho City. The families caravaned east of town on Idaho 21, turning up Granite Creek Road, coated with just enough snow to be slick. A few miles up the road, Mike spotted a walkable ravine and called the train of pickups to a halt.

After loosing the dogs, bundling up (and nursing) the babies, the group gathered up saws and baby backpacks. The hunt was on.

“We got it all,” Katie Germain said as the party crunched into the woods through a skiff of crusty snow. “Dogs, kids and pregnant women.” Christina Majors is expecting her second baby in a couple of weeks.

The sun broke out and the day turned crisp and clear. The forest quickly rang with the cheery sound of dogs, kids and encouraging spouses.

“This one’s good right here.”

“Looks good, babe.”

“This guy’s ready to go swimming!”

Sharp saws made quick work of thin trunks. Mission accomplished — and before the kids (four, all 2 or younger) could get cold or cranky.

Then the group reversed course, hauling trees, dogs and kids back to the road and the trucks. Christina pulled 2-year-old Lou on a plastic sled.

The review: Three trees with … personality.

“They all have a lot of character this year,” pronounced April Grunenwald. “Every tree tells a story.”

Bill Manny is the Statesman’s community engagement editor: 208-377-6406; bmanny@idahostatesman.com; Twitter/Instagram: @whmanny

Start your own tree tradition

This is a good year to try getting your own tree, with little snow and easy travel in the woods right now. It’s not always easy to get into Idaho hills without high clearance and four-wheel drive.

Permits: $10, at Forest Service offices and some businesses in Idaho City, Garden Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Emmett and Placerville. In Idaho City, permits are sold at Idaho City Grocery, Tom’s Service/Sinclair and Donna’s Place.

Dress warm, stay dry, be safe: Pack food, water and cold-weather supplies in case the unexpected happens. It was cold on our trip last week — 27 degrees at noon. Make sure someone knows where you’re going; cell reception is not reliable in the Idaho mountains if you need help.

What to bring: You don’t need a chainsaw. A simple pruning saw works on trunks 3 or 4 inches in diameter. That way there’s no messing with gas or balky engines.

Rules: Take a small tree (no taller than 12 feet), at least 300 feet from the road and 150 feet from streams. Look for a tree that is crowded, or crowding another; that way, you’re helping the forest while helping yourself.

Where to go: The hills around Idaho City are easy to get to and mostly easy to walk in, as are other parts of South Idaho. A map of legal tree-hunting country comes with your permit. (It’s not on the website because you have to pay to get it.)

How to get started: It’s hard to go too wrong. Pick a spot, then drive and park. Half the fun is hunting through the woods for the tree you want. If you’re not sure where to go, ask a friend or at the ranger station.

Be realistic: Don’t expect a grand fir like the trees on TV, or at the paid lots. The high, dry hills of South Idaho grow thinner trees. What they lack in thick boughs, however, they make up for in memories.

More details at IdahoStatesman.com.