Web-footed tour of the wilderness
The morning is warm, for mid-March. The sky is overcast with a layer of high clouds. A little pallid blue sky is visible on the western horizon.
Three Aspen visitors have arrived at the top of Aspen Mountain for a nature tour on snowshoes. The trip will be guided by a naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The visitors are from Houston, New York City and Newton, Mass.
The tour today is conducted by Rebecca Weiss. Weiss is one of several ACES naturalists who share the duties leading snowshoe tours at Aspen Mountain, Ashcroft and the Two Creeks area of Snowmass. This winter is the first time the environmental center has offered the tours. The guides share their knowledge of the forest, its animal residents and its history with their guests.
The first item on the agenda is to teach the visitors how to strap on their snowshoes and how to walk in them. That lesson takes place behind the Silver Queen Gondola building.
“There’s not a lot of technique to walking on snowshoes,” Weiss tells the group. “It’s just like walking with extra-big feet.” She cautions her students not to hope for grace or elegance.
“If you feel awkward,” she says, “you’re doing everything right.”
Quickly, the group is on its feet and headed into the sparse evergreen forest of Richmond Ridge.
It’s been a couple of days since the last snow. The guests follow Weiss along a snowshoe trail which winds among clumps of evergreens. They cross from one side of the rounded ridge to the other, stopping to look at animal tracks and listen to Weiss’ explanation of how to identify them.
As they walk, the breezes aren’t strong enough to chase the remaining snow off the trees. The disk of the sun is visible behind the cloud cover, and the web-shod hikers can sometimes see their own indistinct shadows.
After only about 50 yards, Weiss stops the group to show them the tracks of a squirrel and a red fox. After explaining the prey-predator relationship, she points out timberline on Highlands Ridge, visible to the west.
She brings their attention to the fact that trees don’t grow to the top of the ridge. The factor that limits the growth of the forest at about 12,000 feet above sea level is the cold, she tells the group. Above that elevation, little grows except low tundra plants.
Producing a color picture of an avalanche flowing out of Highlands Bowl, Weiss notes that, though avalanches can be catastrophic events, they are beneficial to the forest ecosystem. Avalanche chutes break up the forest, creating summer grazing areas for wildlife.
The spruce-fir forest they are walking through, just below timberline in the Southern Rockies, is two million years old, Weiss tells her charges. The forest has been the same since the beginning of the Pleistocene era, a period marked by great ice ages. Man, by contrast, entered the Pleistocene as a primitive creature.
The ACES guides have each developed a theme for the Aspen Mountain tour. Weiss, in her interpretation of the subalpine ecosystem, contrasts the stability of the spruce-fir forest with the short-term presence of the newcomer on the scene – man.
Passing a spruce loaded with cones, Weiss explains their importance as a food source to squirrels and birds.
“This is what I would call a restaurant tree,” she says. Squirrels cache cones at the base of trees, guarding the cache by scolding animals and humans that come near. One squirrel can eat the seeds out of 12,000 to 16,000 cones in a single winter, Weiss says.
Weiss stops the group beside a large spruce tree. It’s circled at about chest height with several rings of tiny holes. Some of the holes have oozed a quantity of sap, now dried against the bark.
The holes are the work of a red-naped sapsucker, a type of woodpecker, she says. The bird, which is only present in the warm months, drills the tree, then returns repeatedly at its leisure to lap up the sugary sap that flows out.
The sapsucker also catches insects and brings them by the sap tree to “candy coat” them before feeding them to its young, Weiss says.
Further up, Weiss brings the group’s attention to a dead spruce. A great swath of bark has been peeled, accounting for its death. The villain is a porcupine, Weiss says. But porcupine damage to the forest is limited, she says, by the fact that the animal tends to stay in one tree for as long as four weeks.
Passing the tracks of a snowshoe hare, Weiss tells her pupils that when a hare attempts to escape across the snow is actually its second line of defense. The white hare depends primarily on blending in with the snow, she says.
“They’re a prey species, so they have to be very good at camouflage and sensory awareness,” she says. Mimicking a crouching hare, she says, “Their strategy is, `You can’t see me because I’m white.'”
The tour tops out at a clearing on the ridge, and Weiss takes an opportunity to explain the glaciated geology of the upper Roaring Fork Valley, the effects of climate on an ecosystem at 11,300 feet, and the effect of the sun’s angle on the seasons.
The group loops back toward the gondola on the west side of Richmond Ridge. The trip is completed in about two hours. The visitors have participated through their attentiveness and questions, and now thank Weiss heartily for the experience as they remove their snowshoes.
ACES offers the tours in partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co., the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The trips start at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. every day of the ski season.
Similar trips are offered at the Two Creeks area of Snowmass, and more extensive four-hour tours are available at Ashcroft, starting at 11 a.m. The Ashcroft trips include discussions of the history of the ghost town and the Castle Creek Valley, as well as the natural history of the aspen forest, the creek and the surrounding peaks. It includes a hot lunch, sometimes featuring venison chili, at Toklat Chalet.
ACES doesn’t take reservations for the tours, and the number of participants varies. Weiss said the most people that ever showed up was about 25 or 30 visitors. That crowd is a little difficult to manage, she said, and fortunately, groups average around six or seven, usually ranging from two to 15.
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In 1895, the fad sweeping Aspen for women was to dye their hair red.