Cut down your Christmas tree in a state forest
It took only about 10 minutes in the forest for our little family band to lose about half its members.
Honestly, with our track record, I considered that an accomplishment. With a dad who feigns he's hard of hearing and a mom whose 5-foot-2-inch stature makes losing her in public a given, I spend about 50% of any family outing trying to find one or both of them.
So when we set out on the Raven Trail in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forestnear Woodruff, I figured I would concentrate first on finding the perfect Christmas tree and second on herding my family.
Cutting down a real Christmas tree is one of those family traditions that signal the holidays for me more than anything.
For as long as I can remember, we would head to a local tree farm in search of the perfect tree: 8 to 10 feet, balsam or Canaan fir, full but not too fat.
As my parents have gotten older and officially entered grandparent status, however, the tradition has begun to show its first cracks: murmurings of "we're getting too old," "real trees are a lot of work" and "your sister-in-law is eight months pregnant."
Like any good outdoors person, I not only ignored their excuses, but also channeled my inner Clark Griswold and suggested we cut down a real, natural tree from the forest. We were going to be near prime Northwoods state forest land the weekend we usually get our tree anyway, and the price ($5) was a bargain compared with what real trees from a farm or lot are costing these days.
My mother's permission was really the only one that mattered, and I was surprised at how excited she was at the prospect.
"That's what we used to do when I was a kid, you know," she said, spinning tales of 20-foot trees her family cut down for their high-ceilinged house.
"It's pretty common — particularly for folks that are in close proximity - to go out and cut a tree," said Teague Prichard, a state lands specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He said the DNR issues about 300 to 400 permits to cut down Christmas trees every year.
"The traditional Christmas tree is the Balsam fir. ... So most of it is in the north," Prichard said, noting the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest around Minocqua as one of the best areas for finding a tree.
So we piled into my parents' SUV and rumbled north along Highway 51 from their cabin in Hazelhurst toward Woodruff and (what we thought was) the Clear Lake ranger station.
A major Google Maps fail took us to the Trout Lake station instead, which was closed. Directions on an information board outside pointed us to Clear Lake, about 20 minutes back in the direction we just came from.
Back we went, choosing to enjoy the frosted forest scenery on our impromptu scenic drive.
Permit finally secured at Clear Lake, we faced the dilemma of where specifically to look.
"Everybody asks me that — after I cut mine, I'll let you know!" joked Jeff Olsen, a forestry supervisor for the NHAL, when I asked him over the phone where he would recommend.
I guess that's part of the adventure. And fortunately firs are abundant in Wisconsin's Northwoods.
The Raven Trail system — a collection of four short looped trails — less than a mile up the road seemed as good an option as any.
A recent snowfall had left the forest blasted in white — snow clung to branches, needles and tree trunks, like someone had dumped powdered sugar on everything from above.
We made our way down the red trail through groves of hemlock and towering white pines. My sister and I began climbing a small hill where it looked like there were some worthy specimens.
My mom followed, but within a few minutes came the shouts of "Jeff! Jeff! JEFF!"
"CHELSEY! Find your father."
I sighed and joined in the shouting, circling back to the trail and the direction I thought he had wandered off.
It didn't take long for the classic "WHAT?!" shout in reply, and we regrouped on the top of the hill where a nice 12-footer met my parents' standards and was promptly cut down.
My sister and I found our smaller 8-footer on the way back to the trail, and we hauled our spoils back to the parking lot, together.
More information: Christmas tree permits are $5 and available at state forest ranger stations. Regulations vary by location, but typically you cannot harvest trees larger than 30 feet and not within 100 feet of a road, trail or body of water. Be sure you have an accurate state forest map and you do not wander onto private property — the forest is interspersed among private land in many places.
The Clear Lake Ranger Station is your best option for being open on winter weekends in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest.
There are also stations at Trout Lake off Highway M south of Boulder Junction (715-542-3923) and Crystal Lake off Highway N north of Arbor Vitae (715-542-3923). Call ahead to verify a station is open.
The Raven Trail features four loops ranging from 1.5 to 5 miles. Dogs aren't allowed on the trail when it's snow-covered and groomed for skiing.
You can also cut down a Christmas tree in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin. Restrictions are similar to state forest permits and also cost $5. You cannot cut northern white cedar or hemlock on national forest land. Permits are available at most ranger stations, except the forest headquarters in Rhinelander and the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center outside Ashland.
Getting there: The Northern Highland American Legion State Forest covers more than 230,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. The Clear Lake ranger station is on Woodruff Road off Highway 47 between Woodruff and Lake Tomahawk.