Steamboat Springs On a hike, a snowmobile ride, a ski or a snowshoe through the vast stretches of land in Routt County, there always will come a time when something appears and it's hard to tell what it is or why it happened.
Maybe it's a tree that grew in an odd way, a rock that looks out of place or a funny indention in the ground. Keen eyes can spot them, but only the imagination can help answer the question, unless you ask.
Fortunately in Routt County, there are people to ask. We are blessed with naturalists, biologists and various other knowledgeable people who are happy to help solve these mysteries.
Here are four things that could pop up on trip in the woods that might cause you to scratch your head.
A large rock or field of rocks that doesn't look like it belongs is probably an erratic.
An erratic is a rock that is not indigenous to the area in which it sits. Most of the time they are deposits from an ancient glacier, local geologist Tom Delancey said.
In the Steamboat Springs area, there are evidences of four different periods of time when glaciers descended down from the Fish Creek and Buffalo Pass areas, Delancey said. The last glacier melted about 40,000 years ago and the oldest probably formed 3 million years ago, he said.
The most obvious evidence of a local glacier is the field of erratic rocks that are in the meadow across from City Market. Those rocks, which probably are from the Fish Creek Falls area, were carried down by the glacier and deposited in the field. Other evidence of a glacier is the big hill that the Steamboat Grand hotel sits on.
"That's a real large deposit of Loess," Delancey said.
Loess is a dust-like material that blows off a glacier. In this case, the wind picked it up and accumulated it on the hillside where the Grand sits.
As far as erratics go, another good spot to see them is in the meadow where the Mad Creek barn is, about one mile up the Mad Creek trailhead. Those rocks came from the valley above the area, which was carved out by a small glacier.
(not sea shells)
Little white shells that look like they belong near an ocean, not in the woods of Colorado, are all over the place.
No, they aren't ancient fossils from the time this area was covered with water, they are snail shells and they do belong here. The snails attach themselves to leaves and eat microorganisms on the forest floor, Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Jim Hicks said.
"They are just about everywhere," he said.
The snails are good food for grazing animals and their shells often are found in deer, elk and sheep droppings.
Interestingly enough, local snails carry a parasite that causes lung-worm disease in big horn sheep, which can result in a lethal case of pneumonia, Hicks said.
The parasite's larva leaves feces pellets on the ground, which is absorbed through the snails' feet. If the sheep eats a large quantity of snails, they could get the disease. However, it mainly shows up when sheep populations are too high, Hicks said.
on the ground
It seems nearly every trail into the Routt National Forest is laced with skinny dirt mounds that cover the ground like veins. These mounds are called eskers and they are the winter handy work of the pocket gopher, naturalist Karen Vail said.
The pocket gopher, which lives most of its life underground, is named for its internally fur-lined cheek pouches that open on each side of its mouth. The native animal burrows through the ground and uses the cheek pockets to carry the dirt to the surface.
"He just turns his pockets inside out," Vail said.
In the winter, the snowpack covering the ground makes it difficult for the pocket gopher to deposit the dirt. To solve the problem, it burrows small tunnels at the bottom of the snowpack and then deposits the soil in them.
When the snow melts, the deposited dirt appears as vein-like soil mounds on the ground.
This aspen tree is on Rabbit Ears Pass, near the Hogan Park Trail. In this case, forest technician Ryan Miller said the tree was probably damaged when it was young.
"It could have been damaged by an elk, a deer, person, snowmobile, a horse, or a bear could have climbed on it," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said. "Then it was a little bit broken. A couple years later it recovered and it began growing up again."
There also is a chance that another tree fell against it and broke the tree, naturalist Karen Vail said.