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From Idaho, Merry Christmas

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Like many people who grew up in southern Idaho, Ed Hayes learned to ski at the aptly named "Little Ski Hill" three miles north of McCall. Hayes, 75, remembers spending most of his winter evenings on the one-lift hill as far back as second grade. On weekdays, the ski bus would take Hayes and his friends to the hill after school. On Saturdays, he would hop a bus on Idaho Highway 55, also destined for the Little Ski Hill.

"I lived there," Hayes said. "Or at least, I might as well have."

Generations of boys and girls have learned to downhill ski on the Little Ski Hill—including some of McCall's seven Winter Olympians, like biathlete Lyle Nelson and slalom specialist Patty Boydston-Hovdey.

This Christmas, the Little Ski Hill is in the spotlight for producing another star: an 80-foot Engelmann spruce, chosen as the 2016 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. The tree arrived in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, and will be lit on the west lawn of the Capitol on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

"I can't tell you how many times I skied past that tree," said Hayes, adding he only stopped skiing three years ago. "For us here, it's a feather in our cap. We're proud of the fact that our tree will be in Washington D.C."

The Little Ski Hill was built in 1937, originally as a pastime for local foresters who worked in Valley and Adams counties. Before long, McCall locals and skiers throughout the region had adopted it as their own. The after-school ski program Hayes remembers from the '50s is still training local kids.

"That place is kind of the roots of skiing in McCall," said McCall City Councilwoman Laura Scott, whose kids spend three days a week at the hill after school, carrying on the McCall tradition. "It's part of the city's heritage."

That the Capitol Christmas Tree was chosen from a beloved local monument is somewhat serendipitous.

Every year, a different national forest is selected to provide the Capitol with an impressive evergreen. The Payette National Forest was chosen for 2016, and Payette smokejumpers have spent more than a year scouring the forest for potential trees. They sent their top picks to higher up's in Washington, and the Little Ski Hill spruce was chosen purely on aesthetic value.

"We didn't have anything to do with picking it," said Kim Pierson, a Payette National Forest ranger on the Capitol Christmas Tree team.

The tree was harvested in early November and loaded onto the back of an 18-wheeler for a month-long tour to D.C. Payette forest rangers accompanied the tree as it traveled first through Idaho, then across the U.S.—stopping in places like Nashville and St. Louis on the way to the capital.

Community members filled the streets when the tree passed through McCall, led by local kids in a parade. Parents walked hand-in-hand with their kids or lined up to watch from the sidewalks.

"It's just really exciting that a tree from our neighborhood is going to the Capitol," said Emily Simpson, who walked in the parade with her 3-year-old daughter, Abigail. Earlier in the year, Abigail made some of the 18,000 ornaments from Idaho that will decorate the Capitol Christmas Tree and 70 smaller trees in government offices across D.C. Another Idaho kid, fifth-grader Isabella Gerard, will also play a crucial part in the 2016 Capitol Christmas celebration when she helps light the giant spruce.

Isabella, 10, was one of 200 Idaho students who answered a call from Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch for artwork representing the theme of this year's Capitol Christmas Tree: "An Idaho Mountain Gem." Her poem about being in nature, called "Pristine Idaho Mountains," was chosen at random as the winner of the contest. As it happens, the words themselves were inspired by the same forest that provided the Capitol tree.

The Gerards, who moved to Idaho because of its natural beauty, bought a house in McCall a year and a half ago.

Though Boise is home, the McCall house is a perfect getaway for the family to spend a bit of time in the outdoors, said Annalyn Gerard, Isabella's mother. The family hikes in the Payette National Forest, rafts in the lake and, in the winter, Isabella and her 5-year-old sister, Madison, ski with their father, Josh.

Being outdoors together is particularly valuable for the Gerard family. Josh works on hydroelectric projects overseas and his schedule often takes him out of the country for months at a time.

"It's definitely something that our family needs, away from the computer, away from the internet, basically to have quality time," Annalyn said. "It's just peaceful being out there with your family, able to connect and communicate without having any other distractions."

Isabella said she likes the outdoors for the challenge.

"Sometimes [being outdoors] is hard, and I like hard things," she said.

She thinks back to skiing with her dad, and pushing herself to go on the hardest runs she can.

"When I'm on it and I get scared because I see how steep it is. I just close my eyes and I start going down," she said. "[When I get to the bottom] I feel proud of myself."

It's no surprise, then, that Isabella isn't afraid of the national attention she'll get on Dec. 6, when she lights the tree alongside Crapo and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. She's looking forward to touring the White House and seeing her dad, grandparents and cousins, who are all flying to the Capitol to watch the ceremony.

Isabella counts herself lucky to represent her state in front of the nation.

"I feel very proud," she said.

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