I love high speed lifts, high-angle grooming and all the snowmaking equipment that allows me to ski as much as possible, in a huge area. I like that I can ski all day, until my legs are noodles, and then ski into a lodge to listen to music and eat some great food. But with all of these wonderful modern conveniences, I sometimes forget one of the greater aspects: the amazing Lake Tahoe wilderness around us.
One of my favorite parts of a powder day, and a great reminder of our surroundings, are the little footprints meandering through the new snow. When I’m quietly working my way up a lift (especially Galaxy Chair) I like to follow the story those foot prints tell. I can see how the critter went from tree-to-tree, stopped to smell a ski track and finally disappeared into the snow.
Recently, it made me wonder, what animals are making those tracks and what animals make Heavenly their home?
Megan Dee, the Ski With a Ranger Coordinator for the US Forest Service, had some great information about animals at Heavenly.
Dee says that most tracks on the mountain are from the Douglas Squirrel, the Snowshoe Hare, and the Short-Tail and Long-Tail Weasels. These animals are “winter adapters,” which means they don’t hibernate.
These adapters have interesting tricks to help them through the cold months. Squirrels will bury pine nuts under trees and then visit these stashes, which may explain their zig-zag pattern in the snow. The Snowshoe Hare actually changes the color of its fur from gray to white to blend into the winter snow. Weasels, according to Dee, don’t always blend in and sometimes make an appearance around Tamarack Lodge.
Some animals that do hibernate in the Tahoe basin include the yellow-bellied marmot and the American black bear. The American black bear undergoes a milder form of hibernation, called torpor, because they tend to have their cubs in January to March.
There are a number of fun resources on the web to help you identify footprints in the snow, but I especially liked this guide from a US Search and Rescue Task Force. It had some great diagrams, like the one below, which explain how tracks are made:
And this one, that helped explain the difference between a “bounder” and a “galloper.”
If you get excited about footprints and tree identification too, you can check out our Ski With a Ranger program that starts this week. The program is a free one hour long tour, that meets at the top of the Gondola, on Mondays and Fridays at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. It is for intermediate or advanced skiers and snowboarders and reservations are not required.