Fresh snow a cozy blanket for moose

Love it or hate it, snow is an inevitable feature of winter in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. As the Northern hemisphere leans away from the sun, moisture collects around microscopic bits of dust and salt, and congregates as clouds.

Love it or hate it, snow is an inevitable feature of winter in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. As the Northern hemisphere leans away from the sun, moisture collects around microscopic bits of dust and salt, and congregates as clouds. Depending on temperature, moisture and air movement, snow forms as hollow or solid needles, prism shapes or the familiar six-pointed stars. Blown together by wind, they accumulate as plates, bigger stars, or multiple needles. They may thaw and re-freeze in a great variety of formations, sticking together into complex stacks, irregular clumps, or even tiny “forests” attached perpendicularly to the familiar hexagon. With so many possibilities (one classification system identifies 80), no wonder we think each snowflake is unique. They aren’t, actually, but it’s still fun to examine them on a dark jacket sleeve. For more detail you can catch snowflakes on a piece of black paper (chilled inside a plastic bag to keep it dry) and examine them with a magnifier. The changes don’t stop when the crystals hit the ground. Even well below zero, water molecules move about, causing individual flakes to grow or break down, stick together and form layers. As the flakes accumulate, they pack together and the snowpack can flow like water in slow motion. The spaces created when snow slides off logs or rocks make travel easier for some small creatures.Any skier, snowplow operator or kid on a toboggan has words for the qualities that affect them:  freshies, sugar, bum-sliding, snowball-making, avalanche-prone. Indigenous peoples of the far north describe many variations in snow, whether it’s falling, crusty, smooth- or rough-surfaced, wind-eroded, deep enough to need snowshoes, drifted or fluffy.  What descriptive words can you invent for the changing conditions you notice?Animals have developed a wide range of adaptations to take advantage of snow’s properties. Moose fold themselves up small and tuck into protected beds, decreasing their surface area to minimize heat loss. Fresh snow contains up to 10 times as much air as water, so it holds the moose’s body heat in like a down blanket. It insulates so well that, even on extremely cold days, heat rising from the Earth keeps ground temperature near 0 Celsius.  Voles, shrews and mice find plenty of seeds and bark to feed on as they tunnel under the snow. Some predators like foxes, coyotes, and some owls can hear their tiny rustlings and plunge through to trap them. Some species, like the ruffed grouse, keep warm in igloo-like burrows they dig right in the snow. Lynx and rabbits can stay on top of the snow because their feet are big in relation to their weight. Deer’s narrow feet punch through snow readily, so they travel on networks of trails packed down by the herd. These “deer yards” often concentrate in wind-protected cedar swamps or groves of spruce, which hold up to one-third of the snowfall on their branches. We humans adapt by making our feet bigger with skis or snowshoes.  So it seems that loving snow or hating it is beside the point.  We can take a lesson from the living creatures who don’t label anything as good or bad, but find ways to make the most of what nature serves up.In all seasons, visitors to Scout Island Nature Centre discover surprising aspects of life. It’s fun trying to figure out what made those tracks, or what those birds are eating. Don’t let a few kisses from heaven keep you off the trails. (And aren’t you glad the Williams Lake Field Naturalist volunteers have created, maintained and improved those trails for over 30 years?)Scout Island’s Spring Break program will have kids aged 6-13 outdoors exploring nature and playing games from March 15-17,  9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day.   A new theme each day:  Owls and Songbirds, Skulls and Skeletons, and Signs of Spring.  Call 250-398-8532 soon to registers, as space is limited.Do you know a high school or university student who’s interested in learning about nature and working with kids?  Scout Island Nature Centre is hiring two to three summer staff for April through August.  Send resumés to  shemphill@wlake.com or mail to Scout Island Nature Centre, 1305A Borland Rd., Williams Lake, V2G 5K5.