On a recent morning, Karen Hickerson, the program director of Durango Nature Studies, looked on as about 40 children, bundled in down jackets, snowboots and scarves, waddled out of a yellow school bus at Haviland Lake, single-file, looking a bit like exotic penguins.
Thanks to Durango Nature Studies' Surviving and Thriving in Winter School Program, by the morning's end, these Farmington Country Club Elementary School students would move lynx-like through the snow, newly able to track local wildlife in winter.
That morning, children weren't the only students. Twelve volunteer naturalists had shown up as well, eager to learn how to lead science-based snowshoe hikes for kids in third to eighth grades.
The prospect of effectively conversing with children about snow science and the ways animals adapt in winter daunted Heidi Schmidgall.
“It's so powerful to teach kids about the environment they live in, and prepare them to be its caretakers in the future. But I work with kids in kindergarten through second grade,” said Schmidgall, uncertainly surveying the children around her. “With kids this age, in the fifth to seven grades, it's a whole different ballgame,” she said.
After dividing all the children into groups of 10, leaders walked the children through the basics of walking in snowshoes, tracking and keeping warm despite the frigid temperature, at which point Hickerson segued into a brief lesson about different kinds of heat.
“Radiation, convection, conduction – but if you get cold, just flap your arms,” said Hickerson.
With that, the expeditions began. With the unflappable address of a veteran schoolteacher, Gail Grossman, who has been involved with Durango Nature Studies for more than 12 years, lead a flock of children into the snow-choked mountains, pausing whenever a child's snowshoe fell off, and gamely discussing the changes that winter had wrought on the environs.
After twenty minutes of hiking, Grossman stopped, and gathered the children around a series of peripatetic streaks in the snow, just off the path.
“It's a track,” said Grossman, as the children stared intently. “What kind of animal left it?”
“A bird?” posited one child.
“It's a squirrel, it has a tail,” said another knowledgeably.
In the lively debate that ensued, Grossman intervened sparingly. But when Grossman finally began to interpret the marks aloud, a reverent hush fell over the children, who gazed up at Grossman as though she were an oracle revealing the hermetic secrets of tea-reading.
At no point on the hike was there any sign of the resistance to learning for which children are renowned. Grossman said that is why she “loves working with kids in the outdoors, where they're very motivated. When you explain things outside, it's not just being lectured all the time.”
Wilfred Duran, a parent chaperone, chuckled as his daughter Rachel – now versed in the different survival strategies of snow hares, eagles, coyotes, jack rabbits, bears and chickadees – plunged a thermometer into the snow, trying to discern the warmest place that an animal might take refuge in the winter landscape.
“This sure beats being cooped up inside,” Duran said, smiling.