A Snow Day with Kino School

On April 12th, 2019, 10 students from Kino School left for an adventure into the Santa Catalina Mountains. On previous expeditions this group had explored the lower canyons, gaining key insight into the effects large mountains have on the low Sonoran Desert areas. Now, we were heading to the top in order to observe and explore the mixed coniferous forests that stand alone like an island in the sky. April is a wonderful month to explore the upper reaches of the mountain. The cool rainy winters have let up to allow the sun to shine its warmth upon the mountain tops. The chilly weather aids to the character of the woods, offering us desert people the feeling of being in the greater forests of in the north. Our goal for this expedition was to learn about sky island geology and ecology, and to observe its importance as habitat and watershed for the entire Tucson valley below.

The air is thin at 8000’ and our breathing quickly becomes labored moving up the soft earthy trail. We are fortunate to have Marshal Gulch apart of The Arizona Trail. Its trail follows a spring-fed creek, providing a lush and diverse riparian area that is breathtaking. Tucson youth can’t help but smile and be joyful when in a place like this. The sounds of trickling water, the heavy smell of pine trees and bark, the soft soils. Even the air is written with odd and different notes played by odd and different birds. It truly is a bit of a wonderland. ‘How did all of these trees get up here? Why is there  forest at the top of this mountain?’ I asked the students. They were quietly thinking before one student suggests this forest was started by the dispersal of seeds by birds. I love this suggestion because it is totally true, but only a distant piece to the puzzle. I explained what North America was largely covered by a massive sheet of glacial ice, with its southern latitudes dominated by cold coniferous forests. The high peaks of Mt.Lemmon are the remnants of that cold icy era. 

The forests and creeks provide important habitat for all types of wildlife. From hummingbird to the jaguar, migrating animals rely on the cool, crowded, and wet environments that these high elevations provide. There are plenty of animals that rely on these habitats who do not migrate and are limited to the high elevations almost exclusively. These same places could be called sky schools for they provide completely secluded learning environments. We discussed the different types of fauna that are unique to the local mountains, and students seemed surprised to learn of the black bears and coatimundi that roam the terrain. ‘Why is all of this important to us down below?’ The retreat from the heat, the opportunity to come here and feel relaxed, to see wildlife, these were all answeres proposed by the students. All of them true but none leading to the point I wanted to make. These mountains act as barriers for wet clouds that roam over our city. People live here because they capture so much water, which soaks into the mountain like a sponge, filling aquifers, rivers, and streams below. In the winter they fill with snow, acting as a savings account for slow melting water and in the summers they are nets that catch and squeeze every drop from monsoon storms.

People have been farming the rivers that are fed by these mountains and using them for timber, wild foods, and heat retreats. As a group, we followed the gulch back toward the vehicle. This time being careful as we hopped from rock to rock. The cool April day suddenly turned gloomy, cloudy, then windy. Before we had time to recognize what was happening, a fury of snow began to fall. It came thick and quick, and visibility suddenly became limited. It was incredible, each student freaking out over the change in the weather. White powder falling from the sky is nearly a myth to desert people, yet here it was. We moved along the creek, looking at the rocks, trees, and landscape through the moving cracks left between pieces of quick falling snow. There isn’t a smile or an expression that could possibly express what we were feeling. It was a complete wonderland. This storm provided us with the experience to understand all that we had talked about and learned today. It’s the magic of the mountains and the awesomeness of the Sonoran Desert.