Ski With A Ranger program starts 6th season in Summit County
On a snowy Friday in December, a crowd formed at the top of the Timberline lift at Copper Mountain Resort as more than a dozen people gathered around two men wearing green forest ranger jackets.
The rangers, Daryl Roepke and Larry “Bear” Astor, are two of the most experienced guides with the Ski With A Ranger program, put on by volunteers through Friends of the Dillon Ranger District.
The nonprofit promotes environmental stewardship in Summit County through partnerships, volunteer service, education and support of the local White River National Forest district.
On skis, the duo led the group down a run, stopping five or six times to share a wealth of knowledge.
While Copper is in national forest, Roepke said, the land on the other side of Interstate 70 is protected even further as a designated wilderness area. That means no motorized vehicles are allowed, not even wheelbarrows.
Since volunteers helping the Forest Service can’t use chainsaws in wilderness areas, he asked the group what they use to cut down trees.
“Lots of beavers,” one participant said, laughing.
Friday, Dec. 19, marked the beginning of the Ski With A Ranger program’s sixth season, and Roepke and Astor have been giving the free hour-long tours since the start.
This year, the tours meet Fridays at 11 a.m. at Breckenridge Ski Resort (top of Independence Chair on Peak 7), Keystone Resort (top of the gondola) and Copper Mountain Resort (top of Timberline).
Due to high demand, Copper does a second tour every week on Saturdays at 11 a.m. The program has been growing each year, and more than 500 people participated in the 2012-13 season.
Participants must have lift passes, proper equipment and at least intermediate skiing or riding abilities. Most tours have five to 10 participants, though sometimes the groups swell to more than 30 people.
Roepke, 67, works in mountain safety at Copper and got involved with FDRD about seven years ago when he moved to Summit County.
He likes to ski the run a couple of times before each tour to look for animal tracks.
“Everybody was around last night,” he told the group Friday. He saw fox tracks, coyote prints and an ermine, a small white member of the weasel family.
The rangers brought the group to a set of snowshoe hare tracks and explained that the hare’s large hind legs land in front of its forelegs every time it hops. That pattern helps humans tell which way the animal was going.
Roepke passed around photos of lynx, bobcat, moose, elk, mountain lion and other animals as well as images of their tracks and scat.
“Every tour is a little different,” he said, as guides focus on what interests them, be it ecology, geology or the history of miners, Native Americans and early ski industry leaders.
“We like the forest and the animals,” Roepke said of his tours with Astor.
Even tours led by the same guides at the same resort are different, he added, as rangers adjust the information they give based on audience interest.
BEETLES, SNOWFLAKES AND TREE WELLS
The tour Friday touched on the recent pine beetle epidemic, caused by a beetle the size of a grain of rice, and local efforts to address the beetle’s impacts.
At another stop, Astor explained the finer points of snowflakes.
The largest snowflake ever recorded was 15 inches across, and their characteristic six sides come from the hexagonal shape of layers of water molecules. Snow in Colorado is such good quality, he said, because of a dominating type of snowflake called stellar dendrite.
Roepke also talked about how friendly snow can turn into an enemy because of sublimation, that is, when a solid skips the liquid stage and becomes a gas.
That happens around the warm trunks of trees creating tree wells, which can seem like bottomless pits.
“You could really nosedive down deeply, and it’s hard to get out,” he said, explaining how a friend fell in face first and was buried up to her skis.
Luckily, people nearby got her out quickly, and she was fine.
At the end of the tour, the rangers gave a quiz with candy prizes.
Roepke said after five years of tours he still enjoys seeing how much people appreciate learning about where they’re skiing.
“This is a whole different kind of adventure. For years, I skied through this forest and didn’t have a clue what I was looking at,” he said.
Roepke recalled a couple from Bosnia and Herzegovina who enjoyed the tour so much they did it three years in a row. He watched the couple’s daughter grow from 6 years old to 8 and said she would remind them to tell the group her favorite fun facts.
“Tell them about the pinecones,” Roepke said she would say.
People who take the tours are mostly vacationers from around the U.S. and abroad, though locals and other Coloradans regularly enjoy them as well.
On Friday, one man turned to Gail Shears, board president of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, after a stop and commented about how surprised he was by how much he was learning on the tour.
“I’ve skied here however many hundreds of times, and I’ve never done it,” he said.
Even though she had taken the tours before, Shears said, she always learns something new. “These guys know so much.”
For more information about the Ski With A Ranger tours and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, visit fdrd.org.
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