Winter Break Camp: Day Two

Today we continued to have fun in the snow, carving out new trails in our snowshoes. Many campers brought sleds and we headed down the snowy roads and into the wooded hillsides to some awesome sledding areas! We found a decent run someone else had made, but soon found a great place to create our very own sled run! Once we had it carved out and smoothed pretty good with a few practice runs we were able to get some speed. Lots of laughing echoing through the stillness of the snowy woods as some campers caught some serious air time on small bumps in the runs.

After lunch we continued work on our snow tunnels and were able to actually connect several of the tunnels together right at the end of the day!

Winter Break Camp: Day One!

Winter Break Camp started out great with many veteran campers from previous camps this year and even some kids who have been coming for years!

Right away we geared up for cold, snowy fun as we have gotten a ton of snow at the Mountain Park this year. A quick snowshoe demo and we were off on a snowshoeing adventure in search of a great sledding hill.

Along the way we tossed a few snowballs and had a lot of laughs and even a few snowshoe humorous complications as it was some of these kids first time in, as one camper put it, "these fascinating contraptions."

We made our way to the meadow and made a huge maze of tracks to play tag and had snowball fights and built snow-crust castles that resembled Stonehenge.

Later we began a task that will take us all week to complete doing a little each day . . . carving out ice tunnels in the big mounds of hardened frozen snow piled up by the snowplows in the park over the last few weeks. We hope to connect all the tunnels and be able to slide down through them!


Winter has arrived!

October brought with it a few inches of snow (7.6" to be exact)...that was ok. Then November left another 15.8" -- that was better and it seemed as if winter was off to a pretty good start. We're only a few days into December, and we've already had 30.3" of cold powdery snow (plus some chilly temps) this month. That totals 53.7" of snow (which contained 3.67" of moisture). The last four seasons have been really dry, so I am thrilled to see winter 2012 off to a snowy start. For comparison, all of last winter saw only 74.3", and the historic dry winter of 2002 brought only 48" total of snow. So, we are indeed off to a good start (the average annual snowfall for the past couple of decades is about 115"). Incidentally, the snow shoeing and cross country skiing in the park are excellent...the unplowed upper road is where I'll be heading later on today. Here are a couple of photos I took a few minutes ago...it's a winter wonderland out there, with the sun working its way through.


Winter Wonderland Classroom

The Mountain Park has been receiving a lot of snow lately and the kids absolutely love it. Although there are a few days where the schools will opt out of participating in the days session due to weather conditions, most schools and classes do not stop when we get a good snow.

If the snow is deep enough the students don snow-boots and it's class as usual . . . although it's quite a different day from one spent indoors sitting at a desk. These students hike through out the snowy forests and get all of their days worth of educational standards by using the various aspects of nature as teaching opportunities.

One of the focuses for this month is the biology and identification of the trees in the Mountain Park. There are six prominent types of coniferous trees in the park, two Junipers, two Pines and two Fir. Although there are many differences between the different trees, the students are taught to focus on a few easy to discern traits such as the type of leaf (needles or scales) and their arrangement.

For example, the Douglas Fir [left] has very green needles that grow from the branch in all directions (like the spokes on Douglas' bicycle wheel!) . .

while the White Fir [right] has slightly bluish-green needles which are almost twice as long and typically grow from the sides of the branch and curve upwards.

It's also a great opportunity to begin to prepare them for next sessions focus which is on Mammals and Tracking by pointing out the occasional signs and quite frequent tracks of the various animals which make the Mountain Park their habitat.

Often we find the tracks of mule deer and fox and at times we have even come across tracks of wild cats such as the bobcat that we saw and got photographs and even a little video of last year. Of course various animal scat, especially from the many deer that visit the park, is quite prevalent and provides not only some frequent laughter from the students but also a lot of opportunities to segue into many on-topic conversations.

We also find signs of squirrel activity; the ponderosa branch tips on the ground around the drip-line of the trees, some of which have been stripped of their needles and bark due to the squirrels eating the sugary inner bark.

~Ranger David "Pine" Martin
Environmental Educator
Mountain Park Environmental Center


A warm Day of Rocks and Soils and Mysterious Tracks!

The rescheduled school for yesterdays Earth Studies session was very lucky. An unseasonably warm day greeted us on our arrival to the park and we spent the day learning about Geology and Soil. The recent snow and subsequent melting combined perfectly with this days warm weather allowed us to get a really good sample of the soils in each ecosystem while enjoying the sunshine. It also made for a trail full of animal tracks in the now mostly dried mud of the trails. Stories played out in footprints abounded as the kids deciphered the mysterious language of the trail before them.

The hike into Devil's Canyon was magnificent and the water flowing under the ice was moving in dark and mysterious blob-like forms which completely captured the kids attention and brought up conversation about how it was like the blood stream of our bodies. Their personification of it was a great segue to speak to the importance of water on the planet as well as in such a dry state as Colorado. It was a great day out and the kids had a blast!


Dichotomous Keys & Trying Not To Freeze

It was a pretty cold week for Earth Studies students, but we managed to find some sunny places to sit and learn about Trees and Wildland Fires. In the tree portion of the day these kids learn how trees grow and the different parts of the trees anatomy as well as learning to identify the various trees in the Mountain Park. They also learn how to age the Ponderosa Pines of the park (without cutting them down and counting the rings).

In the fire portion of the day these students are taught about the Mason Gulch fire which came within 4 -1/2 miles of the Mountain Park. Most students found forest fires to be much larger and more destructive than they had previously imagined them to be.

One thing I noticed this week was that as the children did the Tree I.D. exercise they no longer seemed to notice the cold.

Tree I.D.
combines a scavenger hunt element with the mystery of figuring out which of the six coniferous trees in the park is which. Students use a dichotomous key designed for the trees found in the Mountain Park; by examining the trees closely to answer the series of questions on the key they eventually arrive at the answer.

After doing about nine trees these kids could identify some trees just by looking at them at a relative distance.

This session goes a long way toward educating these kids about how nature works and how to better steward their park and other wild areas of Colorado. Their minds are opened up to new possibilities such as the idea that wildland fires are not good or bad, but just a natural and necessary part of the health of the ecosystems they have been studying.


Society Is The Soil From Which Our Children Grow

~by Ranger David "Pine" Martin

“A child said What is the grass?
fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child?”
~Walt Whitman.

I was reminded of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem Leaves of Grass yesterday when a student asked me a question during our Earth Studies session.

We were sitting in a circle amongst the Ponerosa Pines examining the soil created by that ecosystem; discussing the minerals, water, air and organic matter to be found in the samples each child had taken. We discussed the ways in which the forest of the past contributed a great deal to the rich, nutritive biotic content of the soil from which the forest of the present receives it's nutrients and water from.

A child held up something he had found in his small sample of soil. “What is this?” he asked. It was one of the small, orange, male pine cones.

I explained what it was, but this answer only served to generate more questions. One was, why are the female cones so much bigger than the male cones?” I explained that the female cone is an ovulate cone and has a big job; it must build a home for, create the seeds which carry all the genetic coding for the Pine tree to reproduce, and must house those seeds until they are dispersed which may take several years.

Often I am asked questions by students during Earth Studies programs to which I would love to answer in great depth and illuminate them at length to the amazing and elegant complexity of the living systems of the world around them. I would have loved to go into how wind tunnel analyses of the female cones have shown that the geometry of the cone’s structure itself aerodynamically enhances the probability of pollen entrapment.

A part of me, akin to Whitman, would love to ruminate on each question, take them deep, ponder and mull over the nuances and connections and through this generate a greater sense of meaning within myself and these children, imbue their worldview with a deep beauty. With the day’s time constraints and the short attention span of the Fifth Graders however, it is best to keep the answers brief and as “on-topic” or applicable to the session’s lesson as possible. Bring it back around. Show interconnectedness.

I woke up this morning with some deeper thoughts on this subject. What we do as Environmental Educators is a lot of seed planting; we know that not all seeds will take root, so we plant a lot. It occurred to me however, that not only are we planting seeds, but we are enriching the soil those seeds are planted in and that this, like the relationship between the soil and the trees in this ecosystem, will perpetuate itself. Environmental Educators not only teach the elements of the session at hand, but as adult members of their community and education system, we teach many other things by example. We show them our love of Nature and how to responsibly interact with our environment and each other. Earth Studies Co-Program Director John Duston once told me "We teach values." and I would have to agree with him wholeheartedly. Much of what we teach is through exhibiting our values by our behavior. We teach them that we value nature and value learning by fostering an outdoor classroom culture of cooperation, mutual respect, patience and enthusiasm. As we educate these young people our hopes are that it elevates the level of education, the sense of place and the values of our community and society at large as it grows and matures. Our intention is that each of these kids grows up strong, healthy, intelligent and happy.

Society is the soil from which our children grow; our children will become the society of the future and they will in turn become the soil from which their children grow.


A flashback from the trail!

This keeps happening...I can be anywhere, doing anything, and suddenly a snapshot, a moment of being on the trail pops into my head. There doesn't seem to be any common instigator of it happening - it just happens. Here's one that popped up a couple of days ago, while walking home from the park: I am resting under a large tree, probably an Engelmann spruce, amongst a forest of lots of trees, after scooting rather quickly through an open area. It was an on again/off again rainy afternoon, and I was dealing with thunderstorms and the threat of lightning since late morning. I came to the edge of a forested area - I believe I was in Section 27 - and was concerned about moving out into a more open area with several smaller trees but also lots of exposure. There was a storm that seemed to be staying ahead of me, so I figured I was OK and set out. Around halfway across (it was about a half mile across), it began to rain hard and the storm's energy (and lightning) seemed way too close. So I moved as quickly as I could and made it safely into the next forested area. The rain was coming down, I had been hiking since around 6am and it was around 3:30pm, so I decided to find a protected spot to wait out the storm. I found a few large trees, took off my pack and leaned it against one of them, and sat down leaning against the pack. My poncho covered both me and the pack, so I was warm and dry, and so was my gear. I pulled out a snack - a Kind bar with lots of nuts - and sat there, resting, enjoying the snack (really enjoying it, as I recall, because I was hungry), and singing I Will by Paul McCartney while the rain continued. The rain did finally slow down and so I was soon back on the trail, looking to get a few more miles in before finding a decent place to camp (the rest of that day had several more "moments" that I'll write about one day). That was a pleasant break in a long, soggy day on the trail!


A Taste of Winter Arrives!

The warm and gentle days that we've been enjoying this October have today been replaced by a generous blast of snow and cold. I am watching the snow come down steadily outside my window as I pause from typing these words. A few minutes ago, I stepped outside to capture a few scenes around the Horseshoe Lodge -- here's a couple of them. This is the first of hopefully many snows of the 2011/2012 snow season. And I'll be out there measuring. This morning at 8am, I measured 0.17" of moisture. Much of that fell overnight in the form of light rain, but it became snow towards dawn -- 1.7" of snow was on the ground then, and a few more have fallen since.


Autumn colors and still-hot days!

The calendar says it is late September and early fall, and the emerging yellows, reds and oranges in many plants match the calendar. But the daytime thermometer still reads like it is a month earlier. We are getting much cooler evenings...we had a light frost a few days ago. So, summer and autumn seem to struggling as to who is in charge. In spite of the struggle, it is quite lovely out there...I took this photo a few minutes ago just outside the Horseshoe Lodge...the bright color up on the higher distant ridge is a patch of aspen in its glorious autumn garb.
Speaking of the Lodge...the east wing is having recycled cellulose insulation pumped in as I type these words. Sheet rock follows, so we are steadily moving along!
Meanwhile, the west wing is nearly full this week with a Seasons of Change women's retreat taking place. My office is right above the kitchen with the wonderful aroma of dinner-in-the- works wafting through my open window.


Lots going on at MPEC!

As we are around the mid-point of the summer, there is no lack of activity in Pueblo Mountain Park. Along with summer flowers like goldenrod, Kansas gayfeather, and golden aster blooming (thanks to some badly needed rain the last part of July and the first week of August) and the end of our busy summer camps last week (we served around 200 campers, ranging from kindergartners through high schoolers), we are now gearing up for the start of our Earth Studies program in a couple of weeks (all 1200+ 5th graders from Pueblo City Schools will come to the park 6 full days over the school year for outdoor-based education). And while several bears continue to be spotted in and around the park, construction on the East Wing of the Horseshoe Lodge is moving along right on schedule. Here are a couple of photos of the dormitories and restrooms, all framed with plumbing going in as I write. I project the East Wing (and the entire Horseshoe Lodge Renovation Project) will be complete around mid-fall!


Monsoons making things somewhat less dry!

The inch plus of rain that the park has received the last week is making a difference. And it is raining lightly right outside my open window as I type these words. The drought and fire danger are still pretty extreme, but the arrival of the monsoon season, with higher humidities, afternoon clouds, and rain (and the threat of rain) is a very welcome development. I am even seeing some sprigs of green popping up from open areas that were pretty solid shades of yellow and brown a couple of weeks ago.


June Wonders of Nature Campers Participate in Peace Pole Dedication

The second day of this year’s June Wonders of Nature Camp was a special day as the campers had the opportunity to participate in the Peace Pole dedication ceremony!

The Peace Pole is a pole carved with the word Peace on all sides in different languages (even animal tracks!) and was placed near the lodge. Dave Van Manen played “I’ve got Peace Like a River” on his guitar and many joined in to sing along. Helene Van Manen brought out the drums and led the group in a drumming and singing celebration.

A time capsule was placed underneath it and the campers all had an opportunity to place an object or a wish or a picture having to do with peace inside the time capsule along with items and sentiments from other staff members and members of the local community.

As several campers reported that they had been pretty tired from the hike the day before and so we focused mainly on games, hiking from one area a short ways to the next game spot and then again to another and so on. The games were great ways for the kids to be physically active, have fun, get to know each other better as well as stimulating the mind with a bit of mystery and guessing.

This was a great second day which kept the hiking to short stints between gaming areas and resulted in a much closer bond between the campers as they had more relaxed fun together laughing and playing together. There were a few bumps and scrapes now and then, but it was taken in stride as part of the fun outdoors.


June Wonders of Nature Camp

Wonders of Nature Camp got off to a great start this year as we clearly defined the group goals and group ethics and expectations we would be looking to fulfill and create together. Many of the children had great input about their expectations of the fun and discovery they wanted to experience. Some wanted to make new friends, some were all about the games and others were very interested in exploring the natural world of the Pueblo Mountain Park. Although the week went fast, we ended up doing all these things!

Monday began with a hike up to Lookout Point to see the view of the foothills to the South West as well as to experience the depths of Devils Canyon from above. This was a pretty challenging first hike for some of the little campers, but they did well. This hike up Mace Trail passes through some pretty hot and dry Mountain Shrub Land Ecosystems and so hydration was important and we all encouraged one another to drink plenty of good, clean water. We also kept an eye on each other for signs of heat exhaustion as well as reminding the group to reapply sunscreen. We saw some Claret Cup cactus blooming as well as many other wildflowers along the way, and as usual the bugs and butterflies and hummingbirds were very busy.

Wednesday we focused on the Devils Canyon trail making our way through the shady Douglas Fir Ecosystems. We contrasted this ecosystem with the one we experienced the day before and discussed the differences in the flora and fauna of each.

We took our time to take in the details and this led to many interesting discoveries. Right off the bat we began to notice different vegetation and spotted some large fungi growing on old dead logs. The treasure here was the friendly blue and purple (with black-polka-dots!) Pleasing Fungus Beetles.

These beetles can often be found on the large fungus, slowly burrowing into them as they slowly devour these tough mushrooms over several years.

They also fly around a lot and have a proclivity for landing on our shirts and hats and crawling around peacefully. Some of the kids did not relish this experience, while others fell in love with these amiable beetles immediately. These beetles were an introduction to the insect world of the Mountain Park and several of the boys took to searching out different kinds of insects with gusto for the rest of the week.

There are so many different kinds of insects in various stages of development at this time of year that there was no end to the entomological discoveries.

It was a delight to see the kids take an interest in the tiny folk of the forest for in my opinion they are often overlooked and underrated, not only in their amazing diversity or elegant beauty, but in the work they do in the natural community.

One boy in particular seemed as though he had found his purpose in life by discovering the amazing diversity of insects this Summer and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this young man grow up to be an amazing naturalist and entomologist with a great knowledge of local insects. I encouraged them during our journaling time to write or make illustrations about these discoveries. There was a lot of interesting science to talk about such as the insects’ different adaptations, metamorphosis and the unique ways some of them camouflage themselves to blend in with their habitat.


MPEC shifting into summer mode!

We completed our final Earth Studies session of the 2010/2011 school year a week and a half ago, when the 5th graders from Bessemer Academy hiked to the Fire Tower, learned of the fascinating history of Pueblo Mountain Park, and got up close and personal with some flowering plants. This culminated a school year of 1200+ 5th graders from Pueblo City Schools coming to MPEC six full days over the year for eye-opening outdoor-based education (not to mention programs for the Beulah School of Natural Science, PSAS, and several other schools). And now we are about ready to begin our summer camp season, when our first Wonders of Nature Camp for 3rd and 4th graders, and our Greenhorn Wilderness Backpack for 6th - 9th graders kick off a busy summer. Not to give the impression that we only have programs for youngsters, we have a great line-up of summer Nature programs for adults: digital photography workshop, summer solstice drum circle, full moon music hikes, a Women's Walking retreat...check out our website at www.hikeandlearn.org for all the details.
Speaking of Nature, the cool winds of spring seem to be morphing into the toasty winds of summer. We had a bit of moisture in April and May, but the winds, recent hot temps, and a winter of well below average snowfall have the landscape in the grips of a drought that has taken hold of much of the southwest U.S. I just read that this past winter's snowfall overall in the state of Colorado was 249% of average...for the high country. The front range mountains and eastern plains have been dry! In spite of all the dry, there are still some flowers blooming in the park. I've been thoroughly enjoying the low penstemon and golden banner that brighten up my walks back and forth to the office each day, and there's several others blooming out there as well.
Yes, it's dry...but, dryness seems to be a part of the new norm. Dry or wet, there's still much beauty to be found! And lots going on at MPEC this summer!


May begins in a wintry fashion!

I woke to a wintry landscape yesterday morning, May 1, as around 4" of snow fell overnight. Adding in this morning's 0.3", the seasons' snow total is at 74.3". This is 65% of the average 115" of snow that the park has received each snow sesaon over the past decade or so, so we are going into the spring/summer seasons pretty dry. That being said, the park has received exactly an inch of moisture spread over the past nine days, so the wildflowers are receiving some water as spring kicks in. I hope to get out on the trails to take a look, but I expect the recent moisture may have the flowers looking a bit better that I originally thought they'd be this spring, considering the stingy snowfall. Kinnikinnick, larkspur, toadflax, spring beauty, bladderpod, dwarf daisy, chiming bells, mahonia (holly grape), wild onion, sugarbowl, low penstemon...these are a few of what may be adding color to the landscape as May takes hold. I took these photos last evening from my deck across from the park as a snow squall was moving in...as we say, spring snows bring spring flowers in Pueblo Mountain Park.


It's not 36", but it's a good start to April!

I just measured 9.6" of new snow, with a moisture content of 0.89". This already surpasses March's snowfall amount, and is just a bit less than March's 1.00" of moisture. It's a lovely spring snow morning in the park, with bright sunshine already bringing avalanches of snow sliding off the ponderosa branches.


An April snow is just beginning this evening!

The hopes for a wet March never materialized; wind seemed to be the best word to describe what statistically is the park's snowiest month. But it just started snowing a little while ago...if it would snow all night, this one storm could better the pitiful 7.8" of snow that March brought. The season's total so far is around 60" (115" is an average winter), so I'm dreaming of a white April. I recall spring storms that brought feet of snow...when my kids were little, I remember 12" on my daughter's birthday (April 30), 12" the next day on May 1, and another 12" on May 2 (May 3, my son's birthday, began a rather muddy stretch). So I am hoping for 36" out of this storm. Dreaming? Well, I said I was dreaming of a white April, and April is statistically our second snowiest month, so why not! Oh the weather outside is frightful (not really), and the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW...
Dreaming and singing of snow, Ranger Dave


Spring Break Camp

Spring Break Camp was a wonderful experience this year with mostly sunny and warm weather blessing the Mountain Park and making for an excellent environment for hiking and games.

Campers were introduced to several new games, some of them seasonal in nature to welcome Spring and the birds returning from their Winter migration.
We built large pine-needle nests, played many games and variations of Hide-and-Seek, saw Flickers and Woodpeckers and Nuthatches and even a Coopers Hawk!

The creek was calling and several of the campers decided to don rubber boots or change into flip-flops and actually got their feet wet.

The forest echoed with laughter and howls of delight at the icy water.

A hike up to the Fire Tower was a high point providing the campers with the opportunity to climb up into the sturdy historic Fire Tower.

This tower was once used to keep an eye on the surrounding forests during fire season.

Climbing up the tower gives one a view of the entire Beulah Valley . . . and beyond!

A longer hike on Thursday up to Lookout Point and North Ridge Trail was a good challenge.
Campers expressed feelings of accomplishment at the trek they had completed through some of the Mountain Parks most beautiful and wild areas.

If this is any indication of the fun and adventure in store for camps this year then I am REALLY looking forward to the Summer Camps!


Winter is sliding by...

...after February brought over 25"" of snow, and even some "unusual for February" rain that helped an otherwise very dry winter. Hopefully, March will bring some decent snows. Snowfall for the season so far is 52", and an average full winter's snow is 115". So, we have a ways to go, but a few Albuquerque lows that can upslope copious amounts of wet snow on our area could make a huge difference. Time will tell!


Pictures of the Bobcat

Bobcat Sighting in Pueblo Mountain Park

This video of a bobcat was taken in Pueblo Mountain Park near a deer carcass. We've been observing tracks of several animals going to and leaving the deer this week. Today, when Ranger John and Ranger Greg arrived at the deer carcass, this is what happened.


"Cold, and it's getting colder...

...grey and white, and winter all around." John Denver's lyrics speak well to this late afternoon at Pueblo Mountain Park. About 9" of snow was a very welcome sight to wake to this morning. I just stepped out and took this photo of the winter wonderland I'll be walking through since my day's work is about done and I'll soon be walking home. The thermometer reads 8F, so it'll be a brisk walk.


Supporting Our Community's Children

Hellbeck Elementary School recently held its first science fair in several years. In selecting the judges the administration chose many professionals from the local community, ranging in scope from State Honor Roll members and science teachers of other elementary schools in Pueblo to U.S. Army Engineers, technology experts and scientists involved in space programs.

MPEC’s own Co-Program Director, John Oates had the honor of being one of those invited. Apparently many of the Fifth Graders who have had Ranger John as their Environmental Educator in the Earth Studies program suggested that Hellbeck invite him to be a judge at the event. He accepted the invitation with pride.

Ranger John Oates asked me if I would accompany him to this event merely for the company, however, when we finished the meet and greet with the faculty and other judges, it became evident that they were short one judge and I was invited to be a stand-in judge.

We were greeted with smiling salutations; the students were happy to see their Rangers from MPEC at their school for an event some of them had worked on diligently. For the Rangers, it is always a joy to meet the Earth Studies students out and about in public settings, but this was a bit more special because it was an event many of them were proud of.

Being a science fair, the range of experiments and displays was quite varied. Many were in the category of biology, chemistry and physics. One part of Hellbeck Elementary Schools’ science fair that I liked was the inclusion of an Application section for each project. This enabled the students to consider and explain how they felt the findings of their experiment could be applied to society; they were expected to imagine and express how their findings can help us. One student, whose experiment dealt with the purification of discolored salt water through the process of evaporation and collection, noted when I spoke with him about helping the world have more clean drinking water. Another student did an experiment which combined water and oil and a fizzy antacid tablet; when I inquired about her inspiration for this experiment she commented that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico weighed heavy in her mind this year and she wanted to do some experiments with oil and water in hopes of learning more about them with hopes of a clean-up solution in mind. It was great to see these students breaking out of the clich├ęd ideas for science fair experiments (I did not see one volcano) and actually doing experiments pertaining to current events and challenges of the contemporary world.

It was also a great opportunity to engage with Fourth Graders who will be involved in MPEC’s Earth Studies Program next year, answering their questions about the program and getting them excited about it. It was also a great honor to be involved in the science fair and to engage with these students in another aspect of their lives, their education and their scientific eagerness and creativity. We are very grateful to Hellbeck Elementary School for this opportunity by inviting MPEC to be a further part of these children’s development; after all, it takes a village, right?

~David A. Martin