Guided hikes highlight town wildlife — past and present
On a recent summer morning, Jeb Hines made his way up the Discovery Trail with his Ray Bans on, backpack full of historical artifacts and one goal in mind: Find connections between the present Snowmass environment and its past.
As Hines, a summer naturalist with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, hiked up the trail’s dirt switchbacks, he made these connections by stopping to point out things like service berry bushes, which bloom at the start of spring and were used by early Roaring Fork Valley settlers to signify when the ground was soft enough to bury the dead; and choke cherry bushes, which the Ute Native Americans used to make bow and arrows out of and ate the berries to treat gastrointestinal problems.
Hines even had a choke cherry-wood bow crafted by his uncle, who lives in Aspen, to show as an example.
Since mid-June, Hines and 14 other summer naturalists with ACES have been leading Snowmass locals and tourists up the Discovery Trial two times a day to both view the seasonal flora and fauna and to talk about the multitude of Ice Age fossils discovered beneath the Zeigler Reservoir in 2010.
According to Jim Kravitz, director of the ACES naturalist program, these guided hikes aren’t new to ACES, but the nonprofit had to make some changes this year. Usually, Kravitz said naturalists lead a morning wildflower hike on the Nature Trail and an afternoon Ice Age hike on the Discovery Trail. This year, both guided hikes have been held on the Discovery Trail due to the closure of the Nature Trail after a section of it gave out last spring.
“This is the first year we’ve had to switch the wildflower hike to the Discovery Trail, which is too bad,” Kravitz said, noting that the Nature Trail guided hikes are longer, offer greater visibility of more wildflower species and have been held for over 30 years. “We definitely hope to be back on the Nature Trail next year.”
ACES naturalists lead a variety of programmed hikes and guided nature walks over the summer in Aspen and Snowmass, but get their start on the Snowmass trails.
Kravitz explained that because the Snowmass area gets wildflowers in bloom in early June, it’s where he holds the naturalist program’s wildflower and botany crash course every year.
Although Hines seemed to enjoy stopping to talk about flowers and plants he’s learned about along the Discovery Trail on the recent morning hike, he said he’s always most excited to talk about the Zeigler Reservoir Ice Age fossil discoveries, which included American mastodons, giant sloths, Columbian mammoths and more.
Ever since Hines watched the “Walking with Prehistoric Beasts” documentary as a kid, he said he’s loved learning about paleontology and how it relates to what’s happening with today’s ecosystems.
“This is one of the highest paleontological sites in the world. You don’t usually find fossils up this high,” Hines said, looking out at the Zeigler Reservoir. “To conserve and protect our existing species, we need to understand what happened to the species like these that went extinct.”
Hines said he’s loved learning about the Snowmass-area wildlife and history and interacting with people on the guided hikes. A South Carolina native with a wildlife and fisheries biology degree, Hines said he came west to work for ACES this summer specifically for the opportunity to guide visitors and in hopes he’d become enlightened about what career path would be best for him — which is exactly what Kravitz says the naturalist program is all about.
“When (the ACES naturalists) lead these tours and interact with visitors, they find their voice, they find what interests them and what interests the public,” Kravitz said. “They get good at communicating conservation, sustainability and environmental justice and start to realize the direction they want to go.”
But while Kravitz said the guided summer tours and nature programs are important in helping the ACES naturalists find their potential career paths, he also said they’re important in helping visitors feel connected to the Aspen-Snowmass area.
“We realize visitors want to belong and knowing the local environment is the best way,” Kravitz said. “When people get out and start to understand the wildflowers, water, birds and trees, they feel a sense of belonging and investment in a place.”
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