Fresh Tracks in the Wilderness

The day before our second After School on the AZT outing, we were finally graced with some snow. Up until this last snowstorm, it had been a really dry winter in Flagstaff; the precipitation was worth celebrating.

On January 20, our small group met up at the Kachina Trailhead for a hike on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Our goal for the outing was to continue getting to know each other and to learn more about why snow is ecologically important.

Leaving the parking lot, we were quickly enveloped by douglas firs, white pines, and aspen. The sound of traffic dissipated as we entered an area where nature was free to exist on its own accord, relatively free of human disturbances: the Kachina Peaks Wilderness.

It’s easy to pass a wilderness sign without really thinking twice about what “wilderness” means. So we stopped for a moment of recognition, to chat about why this place is worth protecting as a designated wilderness area. We acknowledged how the Kachina Peaks, sacred to 13 Indigenous groups, are culturally significant, support large old growth trees, and harbor unique habitat for many animals. Then we discussed legal protections wilderness areas have, such as banning mechanized travel and machinery, new mining, and logging.

As the first visitors to hike beyond the wilderness sign since the storm, we carved fresh footprints and enjoyed a quiet landscape forested blanketed in glistening snow. Eventually our path met up with another mammal’s tracks. We hiked alongside the prints, pausing intermittently to study some of the most defined ones and hypothesize what species left them. A coyote? A bobcat? A fox? We didn’t come to a final conclusion, but we now have a new tool that’ll help us next time. We learned that if we inspect the animal’s “trail,” the footprint pattern which tells us about its speed and style of movement, we’ll have a better shot at identifying the species.

Nestled in an aspen-lined meadow, we learned about animal adaptations through an activity called Jello Frogs. The group explored the questions, How do frogs survive the winter? Where do they go? Everyone was given a frog, represented by a container filled with liquid jello, and was tasked with finding an appropriate place for their frog to brumate (cold-blooded animals’ form of hibernation.) Beneath layers of grass and snow, under logs, and in constructed snow caves, frogs were carefully placed in their brumating spots. 

We played a game for twenty minutes, while our frogs were put to the test–would they survive the winter? After twenty minutes, if the jello was solidified, their frog did not survive; if it was still liquid, then it was alive. Post-game, we unearthed the frogs to find that most of them were jiggly jello, signifying that they perished during the winter. We discovered that an essential thing the frogs were missing was snowpack. Snowpack is important for shelter, not just for frogs but other animals too, because it provides insulation. We saw for ourselves how without insulation, our frogs would freeze.

We slurped up our jello frogs and followed our footprints back to the parking lot. En route, we chatted, admired large trees, and snacked, concluding a lovely afternoon in the woods.