Grand County / Outdoors: The hush of winter
February 6, 2008
Maybe it’s the cozy sweaters or the fact that the introvert in me has an excuse to stay in and bundle up in blankets, but I love winter.
Winter is a chance to rest and be introspective.
And there is no better place to spend a winter day than in the quiet of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Since Trail Ridge Road is closed, cut off from summer’s international travelers, it’s a time when the Park feels dormant and reserved only for those who seek its solace.
To get a true sense of winter in the Park, I joined experts Park Ranger Barb King and her husband Steve King, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, on a Park-hosted snowshoe tour. Park volunteers Paul Ries and Linda Austin assisted.
Steve is an expert of animal tracks and Barb is an expert of animal scat. The two together provide a wealth of knowledge about the current state of winterbound Rocky Mountain National Park.
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As we walk, they explain how forest creatures and vegetation tolerate below-zero temperatures. Some animals migrate, others hibernate, others tolerate, determined by their abilities to adapt when cold sets in.
Biologists call it the “SCREWed factor.” If animals cannot adapt by way of five vectors: Snow, Cold, Radiation, Energy and Wind, they either hibernate or migrate.
Some active winter animals adjust by camouflaging to white ” such as ptarmigan, ermine and hares ” and some tunnel under snow in fields or below the frostline ” such as voles and mice.
Lynx, hare, ptarmigan and grouse grow extra hair or feathers on their feet to create natural snowshoes that help spread the animal’s weight over a larger area to keep on top of the snow.
We strapped on aluminum frames with buckle-releases to do the same.
During our walk, we were privileged to see snowshoe hare tracks, as well as weasel and moose tracks.
Winter provides the best evidence to those who walked the landscape before us,
much better than summer, Steve said.
And snowshoers and cross-country skiers must especially be cognizant of such creatures, since the quietness of the sport can startle animals and cause them to expend unnecessary energy vital to keeping warm. When one sees a trail of tracks, it is best to not follow it but go a different direction.
After all, we are visiting their home, Barb said.
Animals such as the golden mantled ground squirrel drop their body temperatures to 32 degrees in winter to withstand the cold; the marmot’s body temperature also drops, but not quite as low. According to King, marmots are interesting because they are the only animals to wake up at the same time every spring ” no matter the weather conditions ” thus gambling with their diets.
Bears, which have a normal body temperature similar to humans at 98 degrees, drop their temps by about 8 degrees in winter and there is conflicting opinion about whether bears are actually true hibernators. They are deemed more likely to be deep sleepers.
There are other animals that simply limit body function as their body temperatures are slightly lowered, such as chipmunks and raccoons.
About 14 of us on snowshoes trained our way through willows, being sure to watch for air pockets in the snow that can render a step much deeper than anticipated and a struggle to regain balance.
Our strongest snowshoer, Steve, led the way by forging a path and we followed.
Barb said we were traveling the way elk do in winter conditions.
We crossed the Colorado River on a plateau of snow, thanks to Steve’s expert navigating.
Onward, Steve felt something with his ski pole. It was bobcat scat, Barb confirmed.
She’s never come across it during summer. Normally, she said, bobcats effectively bury their scat, and this one must have thought the snow was the same as burying.
Little did that bobcat know, his scat would be found and even kept by our guide for interpretive purposes.
It was the perfect segue to singing the “Scat Rap,” an amusement that can only be appreciated while standing in the middle of the woods on snowshoes after a unique find.
“It starts with an ‘S’, and ends with a ‘T,'” we chimed. “It comes out of you, and it comes out of me; I know what you’re thinking, but don’t call it that; be scientific, and call it scat.”
While most people carried a snack and maybe some water on their backs, Barb’s pack was filled with body parts from animals. When we stopped, Barb would pull out a tiny mummified mouse to illustrate, or a hare’s tail, or an elk leg to show how hooves tolerate the cold. She even pulled out dried moose droppings fashioned into “mooseletoe.”
We passed over the Colorado once again, a mere peekaboo creek at this time of the year, and before we knew it, we were back to our cars at the Beaver Creek picnic area.
My short study of nature and my connection to the outdoors brought peace to my day during a hectic time of my life. I’ve such an affinity for winter, my fiance and I chose the season for our wedding, now just two weeks away.
Gaining intimate knowledge of a true winter scene in a place preserved was just the prescription to calming my nerves, as I absorbed myself in an enduring and complex chilly world, much larger than us.
” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.