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Crater Lake snowshoe hikes reveal hidden life

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Question: If snowmen could walk, what would they wear?

Answer: Snowshoes.

There isn't enough snow in the mountains to build snowmen, but there's enough at Crater Lake National Park for visitors to join free ranger-led snowshoe walks.

The two-hour walks, usually held in the Rim Village area, are again being offered Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. through April 29, with trips also available during the Christmas holiday season through Jan. 1, except Christmas day. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 541-594-3100. The park provides free snowshoes.

Karen Withrow, a retired science teacher who's serving as a volunteer park ranger, wasn't telling snowshoe jokes while leading a recent tour. But she did provide an avalanche of scintillating tidbits about the park's winter ecology, including information about distinct sets of tracks left by snowshoe hares.

Withrow also provided information about other winter critters, including pine martens, voles, Clark's nutcrackers and pikas. During one of the frequent breaks, she also explained the importance of the park's snowpack, park geology and, her favorite topic, various tree species.

As is traditional, our blue-sky hike meandered through forested areas before ending at a lake overlook near the Crater Lake Lodge. Because of the elevation, about 7,100 feet at Rim Village, and because the walks are geared for people with no experience wearing and walking in snowshoes, there are frequent breaks.

Different rangers offer different interpretive programs, and Withrow's talk focused on trees. Her talk included information about mountain hemlocks and Shasta red fir, and she said Crater Lake's keystone species is the whitebark pine. Whitebarks shares a symbiotic relationship with Clark's nutcrackers, which collect and crack open the seeds, which don't open on their own. It's estimated each Nutcracker carries up to 100,000 seeds a season to caches, often several miles away from where they're collected. During the flights to their caches — carrying up to 150 at a time — some of the peanut-sized seeds are dropped, while others aren't retrieved and grow into new trees.

Whitebark populations, Withrow explained, are expected to decline by 95 percent in future years because of blister rust and mountain pine beetles, which infect and kill whitebarks. To offset the decline, she said, seeds from the nonafflicted pines are being germinated and planted.

At a stop with expansive views of Garfield Peak, a popular hiking destination, Withrow discussed pikas, sometimes called rock rabbits, which are found in higher elevations of the park. Although global warming is threatening pikas — they die if temperatures remain at or above 78 degrees for several consecutive days — she said studies indicates the park's population is stable. More curiously, she noted, researchers have discovered pikas previously lived on Wizard Island "and no one knows how they got there."

No pika tracks were found, but there were prints from voles and pine marten. Withrow explained that voles survive winters by nesting in snowy sub-surface tunnels and surviving on roots and other vegetation, including tree bark. Martens, she said, search for breathing holes and dig into their snowy labyrinths to catch and eat the rodents.

"There's a lot of life down there," Withrow said.

There's a lot to talk about, and lots to see, during Crater Lake snowshoe walks.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

At the end of a snowshoe tour, participants take advantage of sunny skies for photos of Crater Lake. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Crater Lake ranger Karen Withrow discusses threats to whitebark pine during a break on a guided snowshoe walk. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]