By Claire Withycombe

The Bulletin

“That whole ‘early bird catches the worm’ thing isn’t quite right,” said U.S. Forest Service volunteer Jim Elliott, standing at the base of Mount Bachelor. “This morning the worm was frozen.”

Elliott and his wife, Ginny Elliott, led about a dozen children and their parents on a snowshoe tour Sunday afternoon at the Mt. Bachelor ski area as part of the Junior Snow Ranger program. It was hosted by the Deschutes National Forest, Mt. Bachelor and Discover Your Forest, a nonprofit organization that performs educational outreach for and stewardship of the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests and the Crooked River National Grassland.

The day felt a bit brisk after several weeks of warm temperatures and rain, which in turn made for a crunchy layer of ice, rather than loose, deep powder. As a result, attendees wore composite snowshoes with crampons, and the introductory safety lecture was quicker than usual. When there’s powdery snow, snowshoers run the risk of marching too close to trees, where they might fall into tree wells surrounding the trunks, said Ginny Elliott.

“The hardest part of the day is getting the snowshoes on,” said Jim Elliott. After some scrambling with the straps — and help from parents — the Junior Snow Rangers ventured into the grove of trees.

The next challenge: What kinds of trees were these, exactly?

“Pine?” asked one Junior Snow Ranger. “Big?” asked another. “Skinny?” said a third.

The specimens on Mount Bachelor are mountain hemlocks — dense trees that sunk in the Deschutes River when aspiring loggers sought to mill them for lumber, Elliott explained.

After a brief orientation to forest flora, the kids were taught to slide like penguins, on bellies and on bottoms, a universally popular and less cerebral activity than contemplating the density of trees. Making “deer ears,” or cupping their hands around their ears, the Junior Snow Rangers chased Jim Elliott further into the woods.

Next, Jim Elliott led the crew in a rousing game of “camouflage.” The game is of a hide-and-seek ilk with the goal of hiding from the predator — Elliott — while keeping an eye on his whereabouts. The parents were not as skilled at this game as their children, who easily hid behind trees and burrowed into wells despite brightly hued snow pants and animal hats.

Last, the kids learned about subnivean (under snow) zones surrounding the trees. When snowpack is thick, animals burrow down, creating warm tunnels insulated from the cold. An expedition was led to an area thick with trees and their wells. When the snow is looser and powdery, exploring the wells can be dangerous, but in Sunday’s conditions, it was safe to take the plunge, Ginny Elliott said.

Derrick Langdon, 7, was one of the most vocal participants. Visiting from Boise, Idaho, he was particularly interested in exploring the subnivean zones. “I was in one that was like, 5 feet deep,” he said.

There were more opportunities to imitate forest fauna: the rustling of snow pants accompanied children hopping and strutting across the breezeway, like crows and ravens, respectively, in an exercise before the snowshoe outing.

The Junior Snow Rangers also had the chance to inspect fur pellets, play with porcupine quills and meet Banyan, a golden retriever who is training to become a ski patrol dog and assist in rescue missions at the mountain. His handler, Mt. Bachelor Ski Patroller Tyler Buwalda — whose Darth Vader-style boots held the fascination of several youngsters — answered all manner of inquiries.

“Would he eat a grape?” asked a little girl in a hat with a sizable white pom-pom.

“I’m sure he would eat a grape,” Buwalda said.

According to Karen Gentry, Discover Your Forest’s Director of Education and Volunteer Programs, this is the third year that the Junior Snow Ranger program has been conducted at Mt. Bachelor. While recent winters haven’t provided the ideal snowy environs, the show has mostly gone on. One Junior Snow Ranger outing scheduled for Feb. 15 at Skyliners Lodge was canceled due to the lack of snow.

The program is designed for fourth- and fifth-graders, but appropriate for kids 7 to 11 years old. The final Junior Snow Ranger event of the year at Mt. Bachelor is scheduled for March 15 from 1-3 p.m.

— Reporter: 541-383-0376,