In search of winter wildlife

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Snowshoeing offers a great change of pace from downhill skiing, and for some lucky souls, it's a chance to spot wildlife in the winter environment.

A large bull moose was spotted along Walton Creek on the valley floor this week. And a black bear with two cubs in tow made a brief appearance on Mount Werner before the weather returned to a winter pattern.

Visitors to Steamboat have several options for a walk in the woods that all begin with renting snowshoes. They can be rented for as little as $5 for 24 hours at Backdoor Sports on Yampa Street. From the outdoors shop, it's a quick walk over the Seventh Street footbridge to Howelsen Hill and an extensive network of trails that are free to the public.

Snowshoers should keep far to the side of dual-purpose trails that are also used by cross-country skiers.

One of the most interesting animals in the valley sometimes can be spotted near buildings at the base of the Howelsen as well as on the trails above the chairlift.

The ermine is a tiny predator that wears a coat of white except for the black tip on its tail all winter long. The coat of the ermine, or long-nosed weasel, is chocolate brown in summer, but the aggressive predator adapts to a winter coat of white to make it easier to sneak up on its favorite prey -- mice and voles.

The ermine, just 10 inches long and weighing 7 ounces, are preyed upon by owls and pine martens.

Snowshoers who would like to hike along secluded Fish Creek, where every rock in the stream resembles a big, snowy pillow, can visit the Steamboat Ski Touring Center (most condominium shuttle vans will take you there, or call 879-8180).

Pine martens are seldom-

scene visitors to the Fish Creek Trail, which ascends through dense timber at the touring center.

Snowshoers are more likely to glimpse cow elk on their beds high on the south facing ridge that dominates views at the touring center.

A daily pass at the touring center is $14 or $12 after 1 p.m. Snowshoe rentals are $13 daily or $11 after 1 p.m. Or, wait until Friday for a $12 tour that includes snowshoe rental and a naturalist guide.

Another option for snowshoers is to sign up with one of the naturalist-led tours offered by Yampatika, a nonprofit devoted to education about the natural environment in the Yampa Valley.

Yampatika hosts a snowshoe tour of the Uranium Mine Road above Fish Creek Falls from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday. The tour is free -- snowshoe rentals are $5.

For a Friday snowshoe tour of the upper Elk River Valley, call Vista Verde Guest Ranch at 879-3858. The tour runs from 2 to 4 p.m. Lunch and dinner are available at the guest ranch for an additional fee.

Friday snowshoe tours at the touring center are led by Yampatika naturalists. The fee of $12 includes snowshoes.

Emerald Mountain Snowshoe tours are offered from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for $12 -- the fee includes a single ride on the chairlift.

Call Yampatika at 871-9151 to register for the tours.

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