Tracks and trails: Skis can take you into new territory

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— On a sunny afternoon, the cotton white snow perfectly molds to the contours of the earth, lies under spruce and aspen tree stands, grips the tops of ridges and hugs gullies.

Looking closely, when the light catches the frozen water crystals, a rainbow forms in the snow. It's called a "snowbow." Then the snow is purple and green and yellow and all the colors of the spectrum.

Atop the frozen surface the erratic tracks of a weasel decorate the snow.

The weasel, as Yampatika's cross-country ski guide Karen Vail explained, coils like a caterpillar when it moves. The back legs of the carnivore hop up to the front legs and the body springs forward, leaving an impression of the animal's chest in the snow with every step it takes.

Vail describes the actions of the weasel, while she points her ski pole at the zig-zagged trail where the animal climbed the side of a gently sloping ridge.

Vail leads a ski group of three up the backcountry trail, on the northwest side of Rabbit Ears Pass.To the south, the table-like Flat Tops rise above the blue spruce trees. To the west, the Yampa Valley lies face up. To the north, the weasel's tracks follow the ski trail to a small pine tree, Vail suspects to search for a rodent dinner.

But what eats the weasel?

"One thing that does, is that right there," Vail said as she pointed to the large paw prints of a coyote that joined the weasel's trail in the snow around the tree. She added that a weasel's musk doesn't make it such a delectable treat for coyotes, but the larger animal will sometimes eat one if it is hungry.

The tracks, one shadowed by the other, turn east, out of sight, and the scenario of the animals' encounter plays in the imagination, in the thick trees, in the wilderness.

As the three glide along on their skinny touring skis, the trail slopes, eventually to about a 100-yard decline of untracked powder.

"Yee-haw!" breaks the silence of the alpine surroundings and echoes. The slope flattens, the last leg of the four-mile, loop trail is ahead.

In the winter, cross country skiing can be one of the best ways to explore the backcountry. It's faster than snowshoeing, but not so fast that one won't miss seeing the subtleties of nature like a snowbow or animal tracks. Better yet, cross-country skiing can take you into untamed rocky mountains, which is the reason most people live or visit Routt County.

Most importantly, cross-country skiing is easy you can probably pick it up in a day. Plus, Routt County has a plethora of marked trails for all interests. No matter what your ability is, all of the trails will lead away from the pavement and away from the tourist-packed city, and into the snowy beauty of the forest.

A couple of good spots to hit are Rabbit Ears Pass, which has a number of trails on the west side that are exclusive for cross country skiing and Steamboat Lake has a couple of groomed trails on the northwest skid of the lake. Maps are available at the U.S. Forest Service building in Steamboat. To avoid crowds, Dunckley Pass, near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in south Routt, also has a six-trail system that doesn't see much traffic. The Forest Service building in Yampa has a rough trail map available.

Don't want to go out alone? Yampatika does weekly cross country ski tours on Rabbit Ears Pass that are advertised in Steamboat Today. Plus, there are many private-land trails and local guides listed in the phonebook.

Don't want to go out alone? Yampatika offers weekly cross-country ski tours on Rabbit Ears Pass. Call (970 871-9151. Plus, there are many private-land trails and local guides listed in the Steamboat Springs phonebook.

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