Steamboat Springs As snowshoers and skiers play in the cool mountain air and powdery snow, they may not realize the bustle of activity beneath the snowpack, where rodents are busy feeding on insects and plants and are reproducing.
"It's fascinating once you really start learning about what goes on underneath there," said Karen Vail, education coordinator at Yampatika, a nonprofit organization that focuses on nature-oriented educational programs.
Life beneath the snowpack is one of the many topics residents and visitors learn about when they accompany Vail and other Yampatika naturalists on snowshoe and ski tours in and near Steamboat Springs.
Yampatika's winter programs, which are under way and will last until April 2, provide opportunities throughout the week to learn a wealth of information about trees, wildlife, geology and snow ecology while enjoying leisurely jaunts in the outdoors.
During a new Friday program, a naturalist will lead participants on the snowshoe course at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center. The tour lasts from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., and its $12 cost covers snowshoe rentals and the track fee. Also on Fridays, Yampatika partners with Vista Verde Guest Ranch to hold a snowshoe and ski tour at the private ranch on Seedhouse Road near Clark. The tour is from 2 to 4 p.m., and participants may arrange for a gourmet lunch at the ranch. Participants provide their own transportation to the ranch, where ski and snowshoe rentals are available. To register for the tour, call the ranch at 879-3858.
Alpine skiers looking for a different experience on Mount Werner might opt for an easy ski run with a naturalist, who will point out animal tracks, identify different trees and talk about snow ecology.
"It's amazing what you see up there," said Vail, adding that skiers might see porcupines, ermines, grouse, snowshoe hares, coyotes and squirrels while on the tour.
The ski area program is from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Skiers meet at the top of Why Not ski run at the Yampatika sign.
On Thursdays, naturalists also lead a tour up the old Uranium mine road near Fish Creek Falls. The tour is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and snowshoe rentals are available at Yampatika for $5.
"There, you'll see a lot more wildlife, and there's some great geology," Vail said. "It's more of a backcountry experience."
The tour can be moderately strenuous in some areas where the road is steep, but naturalists lead at a slow pace, Vail said.
Closer to town, snowshoers can take a ride up the ski lift to the top of Howelsen Hill, where they will accompany a naturalist on trails leading up Emerald Mountain.
"The views are spectacular, and there are amazing tracks," she said.
The tour is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. A $12 fee includes snowshoe rentals and a lift pass.
Children also can take part in Yampatika's program through Wee Naturalists, a program from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The program is for children ages 3 to 5, who can learn about a different topic -- such as snowmen, reindeer or elk -- during each session.
Naturalists throw a little science into the program, which also includes craft activities and time outside, Vail said.
The program is $10 for members and $12 for nonmembers.
Participants in most programs meet at the Yampatika office in the U.S. Forest Service Building on South U.S. Highway 40, across from the Holiday Inn.
For more information or to register for any program, call Yampatika 871-9151.
-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org