PxPixel
The Nature of Skiing - Ski Mag

The Nature of Skiing

Features
Author:
Publish date:
Nature Boy 0302 Pic C

Arthur DeJong, Whistler/Blackcomb's environmental resource manager, is standing in the woods next to the Children's Adventure Park halfway up Blackcomb Mountain. He examines the bark around the hollow of a double hemlock, looking for hairs. Last winter a black bear denned here, he says, and probably gave birth to her cubs. At the same time, maybe a quarter million skiers flew past on the Easy Out trail just yards away, unaware how close they were to a snoozing mother bear.

DeJong says that "skiing is as close as most people get to nature." But most of us are too busy yakking with our friends on the lift or watching other skiers to notice that a ski mountain can also be a natural wonderland. When we do take the time to stop and look, we can discover nature's miracles, from bear and moose to snowflakes and snow fleas.

It is Sean Lawson's job to open our eyes. On a sunny Saturday in early March, Lawson, a tall man in wool pants and jacket, gathers the 16 people who have signed up for a two-hour snowshoe around Mad River Glen, Vt., and asks us to introduce ourselves. Participants range from a Philadelphia woman who says she's "winter phobic" to parents of a young racer who want to see "lions, tigers and bears." When it's his turn, Lawson says, "Hi, my name is Sean, I'm the naturalist program director here at Mad River. In my spare time I enjoy trading stocks on the Internet and..." he thinks for a minute, "belly dancing!" He gets the first of many laughs.

In all the times we've ridden up a ski lift, how often have we bothered to notice that the types of trees change? Lawson leads his group up a snowshoe trail and explains that the bottom two-thirds of the mountain are covered with a "mixed hardwood forest" typical to the northeast, made up of three primary trees: the rough-barked sugar maple, from which comes that luscious syrup; yellow birch, with golden, shiny, peeling bark and twigs that taste like wintergreen; and beech, with a smooth gray hide and spiky husks that provide "tons of food for rodents, turkeys, moose and bears." Above 2,500 feet, the trees change to a "transitional forest," with an overstory of paper birch and an understory of young spruce and fir. Then, at about 3,000 feet, a "boreal forest" of red spruce and balsam fir begins.

When Lawson asks the group, "Where do you think the moose are hanging out right now?" Someone answers, "Down in the swamps."

"Actually, they defy common sense and head upland," Lawson says. Deer "yard up" at lower elevations, but moose head for the peaks, probably because the dense boreal forest provides cover and food. While a blackcap chickadee twitters in the top of a beech tree, Lawson finds a striped maple sapling, its blackish bark faintly lined, with a yellow gash two inches wide and four feet long. A moose did that, he says, scraping up the bark with its lower teeth. That's why the common name for striped maple is moosewood.

Most of the animals that inhabit ski areas in winter¿from snowshoe hares to coyotes¿are nocturnal, so it's rare to see them, even on Lawson's full-moon night hikes. But a quarter mile up the trail, Lawson stops and points to what looks like stitches in the snow. He says the tracks are not from a vole¿the tail is too long¿so they must be mice. Then he finds another track with feet the size of nickels clearly printed in pairs. Whereas squirrels skitter along and leave drag marks, he explains, this animal's prints show that it is a bounder. So it must be an ermine.

The ermine is a short-tailed weasel, about the size of a hotdog. Its fur is pure white in winter, except for a black tip on its tail, which once made it a feature on the robes of kings. The ermine is the smallest member of the weasel family in New England, which Lawson says is known for its nasty behavior. The mink is the next largest weasel, then the marten, then the fisher, about the size of a house cat, then the otter, then, in Canada and the West, the badger a the dog-sized wolverine, which, "pound for pound, is the most ferocious predator there is." Even an ermine will take out a squirrel, a grouse or the contents of a chicken coop.

The mouse and ermine tracks disappear into tiny holes along saplings and logs. Lawson says that if we could see through the snowpack we'd be amazed by all the activity. When snow falls over grass and other plants, it creates air spaces between the snow and the ground called the "subnivean" layer. Since snow contains a lot of air, it's a good insulator, making the ground beneath a thick layer of snow much warmer than the outside air, and therefore a good place for squirrels, mice and voles to eat, sleep and procreate. If you're an ermine, it's also a good place to hunt.

We tend to think of snow as cold and pure, but it's actually full of life. Black or brown snow-worms, inch-long cousins of earthworms, share the snow with snow-spiders. Even algae live in snow, sometimes turning it green, blue or watermelon-pink. And if you look at the side of the trail some late winter day and it seems covered with tiny black specks, look again. Those specks are probably hopping around, because they're probably snow fleas.

What we call snow fleas aren't actually fleas at all; they're from a group of insects called springtails, so primitive they don't have wings. They move around by crawling and releasing a kind of spring in the rear of their bodies. They feed on algae, bacteria and fungi on the snow's surface. Snow fleas, Lawson says, are a nice sign of spring.

Lawson stops his group at the bottom of the Bunny trail. "Who was looking for lions and tigers?"

"George!"

"Well, George, look at this." He caresses a beech tree, its smooth gray bark mottled with groups of parallel yellow scratches that start at the bottom and run 20 feet high. A black bear was climbing this tree a few months ago, going after the beechnuts high above. "Remember in high school," Lawson says, "when they taught you it was impossible to be almost pregnant? Well the bear puts the lie to that. The female carries a fertilized egg from June until November. And most human mothers would like this: She sleeps through the birth, and she sleeps through the first weeks of her cub's childhood. But she'll only develop that egg and give birth to a cub if she's managed to gain enough weight to sustain them both through the winter.

"So," says Lawson, "it's like a Jane Fonda nightmare. Throughout the summer, a bear's only job is to eat. Those beechnuts are 50 percent fat and 30 percent protein. The bear sits in a tree with a bundle of branches, eating the nuts. It's like parking yourself on the couch with a five-pound bucket of pistachios: You're gonna get fat."

Around Mad River, Lawson says, black bears tend to den beneath overturned trees, burrowing into the ground. They want the tightest spot possible, because the only thing keeping them warm is their own bodies, burning the fat they stored in fall. "A bear den does not look like a Disney movie," he says. "There's no big cave with a candle and a jar of honey."

Black bears are not aggressive, and they're smaller than grizzlies, but some adult males can weigh more than 600 pounds. In summer and fall, they eat for as much as 20 hours each day. Where there isn't enough food, bears have fewer cubs, higher infant mortality, shorter lives, and are more likely to seek out landfills, garbage cans and backyard barbecues. Once bears develop a taste for these human food sources, they usually become a nuisance to humans, and end up being relocated or destroyed. But because bears hibernate during the snow season, as long as skiers don't leave litter behind, bears and skiers can co-exist quite well.

At Whistler, Arthur DeJong is actually managing the ski area in a deliberate effort to compensate for bear habitat that was lost when the village below was built. There are already about 65 bears who live on Whistler property, so "the majority of skiers here," he says, "will ski within 200 meters of a bear den."

DeJong and his bear expert, Mike Allen, are trying to help the bear population at Whistler by improving the food supply. In the early summer, bears eat the plants that grow on the open trails, and they particularly like clover. So Whistler changed the seed mix it uses on its trails to one that's rich in clover. Huckleberries, relatives of the blueberry, provide a key food source for bears later in the season. And gladed ski trails, it turns out, provide the perfect combination of sun and shade to grow huckleberries. DeJong therefore instituted a policy that from now on, every other new trail that Whistler cuts will be a glade.

And these are not just any glades. Ordinarily when a ski area cuts a gladed trail, it hauls the logs out with skidders, which tears up the ground. When Whistler cuts glades, it now pulls trees out by helicopter, a more expensive approach that preserves the huckleberries, and thus helps the bears. "If we succeed at increasing the bear population," DeJong says, "it will show that we can be good stewards of our land."

And they're not the only ones trying to nurture nature. Aspen has improved the lives of its elk, trout and pine marten populations, for instance, by completely changing the way it cuts trails. Because ski trails tend to interrupt migration paths for animals and make life too easy for predators such as red-tail hawks, Aspen has vowed not to cut any more trails in the near future. When the resort does cut trails, it does it differently. In order to reduce erosion, which destroys fish habitat and leaves the trails denuded of food for wildlife, it works lots of S-curves into its trails. Aspen also leaves islands of trees in the middle, and encourages tall plants and shrubs to grow along the sides of trails, thus providing more forage and protection for animals.

When Lawson finally leads his tour back to the Mad River base area, his audience gives him a big round of applause. He beams. "I love opening people's eyes to this whole world that they've never really noticed," he says. But he also thinks that this awakening is good for skiing in general. "Connecting with mountains and nature is why people started skiing in the first place," Lawson says. "Mad River's founder, Roland Palmedo, wanted to make a ski area that wouldn't just be a mountain amusement park, but would be a community of people dedicated to the enjoyment of a natural setting. Skiing isn't just about equipment, lifts or sliding downhill. What makes skiing special is the mountains, forests and wildlife."

Mad River Glen's two-hour Environmental Programs cost $20 for adults and $50 for families. the resort's four-hour programs cost $30 for adults and $70 for families. You can rent snowshoes at the mountain. For a complete schedule, call 802-496-3551, or go to www.madriverglen.com.

Whistler/Blackcomb offers guided bear-watching tours in the summer. For more information call 800-766-0449.here," he says, "will ski within 200 meters of a bear den."

DeJong and his bear expert, Mike Allen, are trying to help the bear population at Whistler by improving the food supply. In the early summer, bears eat the plants that grow on the open trails, and they particularly like clover. So Whistler changed the seed mix it uses on its trails to one that's rich in clover. Huckleberries, relatives of the blueberry, provide a key food source for bears later in the season. And gladed ski trails, it turns out, provide the perfect combination of sun and shade to grow huckleberries. DeJong therefore instituted a policy that from now on, every other new trail that Whistler cuts will be a glade.

And these are not just any glades. Ordinarily when a ski area cuts a gladed trail, it hauls the logs out with skidders, which tears up the ground. When Whistler cuts glades, it now pulls trees out by helicopter, a more expensive approach that preserves the huckleberries, and thus helps the bears. "If we succeed at increasing the bear population," DeJong says, "it will show that we can be good stewards of our land."

And they're not the only ones trying to nurture nature. Aspen has improved the lives of its elk, trout and pine marten populations, for instance, by completely changing the way it cuts trails. Because ski trails tend to interrupt migration paths for animals and make life too easy for predators such as red-tail hawks, Aspen has vowed not to cut any more trails in the near future. When the resort does cut trails, it does it differently. In order to reduce erosion, which destroys fish habitat and leaves the trails denuded of food for wildlife, it works lots of S-curves into its trails. Aspen also leaves islands of trees in the middle, and encourages tall plants and shrubs to grow along the sides of trails, thus providing more forage and protection for animals.

When Lawson finally leads his tour back to the Mad River base area, his audience gives him a big round of applause. He beams. "I love opening people's eyes to this whole world that they've never really noticed," he says. But he also thinks that this awakening is good for skiing in general. "Connecting with mountains and nature is why people started skiing in the first place," Lawson says. "Mad River's founder, Roland Palmedo, wanted to make a ski area that wouldn't just be a mountain amusement park, but would be a community of people dedicated to the enjoyment of a natural setting. Skiing isn't just about equipment, lifts or sliding downhill. What makes skiing special is the mountains, forests and wildlife."

Mad River Glen's two-hour Environmental Programs cost $20 for adults and $50 for families. the resort's four-hour programs cost $30 for adults and $70 for families. You can rent snowshoes at the mountain. For a complete schedule, call 802-496-3551, or go to www.madriverglen.com.

Whistler/Blackcomb offers guided bear-watching tours in the summer. For more information call 800-766-0449.

Related