It’s cold outside and the perfect weather to discover the thrill of the chill!  Each year, more than 600 children (ages 9-12) from western Colorado venture onto the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests on skis to explore some very COOL aspects of the Forest in winter.

 Frozen bubbles, snow science, animal tracking, scavenger hunts and creating a “demo” avalanche- are just a few of the winter activities in the Junior Snow Ranger Activity Guide. A completed guide awards the student with a Forest Service Junior Snow Ranger patch, bandana and certificate!

During the “kick-off” of Skier Safety Week at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Forest Service snow ranger Tambi Gustafson and wildlife biologist Matt Vasquez– guide young downhill skiers and snow-boarders on an excursion scouting for animal tracks in the forest adjacent to the ski runs. During the ski season, as part of the weekly “learn to ski” program, students take a break from ski lessons  and visit the Forest Service volunteer interpreter for a “Snow Ranger” talk on topics ranging from winter safety, snow crystals, forest health and winter survival adaptations of local wildlife species.

The Grand Mesa is another Junior Snow Ranger launch site on the Forest, where about 300 sixth graders practice “gliding” on nordic skis while learning about winter ecology. Through a partnership with the Grand Mesa Nordic Council (GMNC), the Forest Service was awarded a “More children in the Woods” grant to equip 70-80 children a day with nordic ski gear. “Getting groups of 35-40 children ‘geared up’  with the right size boots, skis and poles can be  pretty chaotic, but once they are on the ski trails, they get the hang of the gliding pretty quickly,” says  Anita Evans, the GMNC “Skis for children” coordinator.

The students ski to a snow pit to observe the changes in snow temperatures and resulting crystal formations at various depths. Students learn how these differences can lead to unstable snow conditions and avalanches!  Next, students can crawl into a snow cave to experience the insulation properties of snow; that leads them into a survival challenge where they need to figure out how to keep their “test tube” critters cozy and warm using feathers, fur, grass and snow. Some of the winter activities, materials and instruction guidance were provided through a partnership with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife featuring their “Teaching Environments Naturally” series.

Wet, a little chilly but mostly still smiling, the students warm up with a cup of hot chocolate before the bus ride home. “This is the first time many of these children have been in the forest in winter- and we want it to be fun and memorable. We hope they will come back with their families!” says Anne Janik, GMUG National Forest Service “More children in the Woods” grant coordinator.