For many children, winter is a time for playing freely in the snow.
But second-graders from Kalispell, Mont., are taking that tradition a step further: They are snapping on snowshoes for a closer look at wildlife in nearby Glacier National Park.
The snowy field trip is part of the US Park Service's public education program, "Winter Signs." It's one of several courses aimed at teaching students from Montana to New Hampshire that there's more to winter than birds flying south. The programs take children into the wilds to learn how plants and animals adapt when the mercury drops -and how people can, too.
"A trend is developing with public/private partnerships to answer the need in outdoor education," says Becky Smith-Powell, a US Forest Service recreation forester in Whitefish, Mont.
Glacier's program, one of the oldest in the country, was developed a decade ago. The park gets outside assistance from Little Bear Snowshoes and others who help equip and staff the program. Interest has snowballed since its first winter, when 300 students signed up. Today about 2,000 youngsters click into snowshoes and follow a ranger through the cedars and pines each year.
"Creating a winter ecology program seemed obvious," says Joe Decker, Glacier's district naturalist and the program's founder. "We have a long winter here. It's nice to be able to introduce local kids to what it's like in Glacier in winter.
"I was a biology major in college but my professors never discussed winter ecology," he explains. " I talked to teachers here, and they didn't know a lot about how plants and animals adapt."
Kalispell teacher Diane Denning says she's brought her students to Glacier for "a half-dozen years." "We tie the information into our unit on mammals and mammals in our backyard."
Many times the children come with a command of wildlife already. During an introduction at the visitor center, the students identify every portrait on the walls: wolf, bald eagle, pine martin, even the solitary wolverine.
"Wolverines eat dead stuff," says one girl. "They have really bad breath so they don't have any friends."
"Wolverines are scavengers," says Ranger Brian McKeon, laughing. "Wolverines are generally not very happy, always in a bad mood. A wolverine will eat a rotting deer carcass. When the wolverine is full, it doesn't want to share. It has a gland by its tail like a skunk's gland, and it sprays the carcass. The wolverine will return later to eat more."
As the group heads out, students scramble behind the ranger, jockeying for position on his fresh-cut trail.
"Today," he continues, deftly changing the subject, "we will learn three important words: adaptation, migration, and hibernation."
Students learn similar lessons in programs inWashington's Cascade Mountains, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks, Jackson, Wy., Aspen, Colo., and Lincoln, N.H.
"In partnership with The Big Mountain Ski Resort, we take kids out on snowshoes. They study snow crystals, wildlife, winter survival or avalanche science," says Ms. Smith-Powell, who developed another Montana course near Whitefish.
Last month she attended the Celebrating Partnerships conference in Las Vegas, which highlighted successful collaborations between private industry and the US Forest Service.
"Private foundations feel like their grant money is well spent on school programs," she says. "That's how I started my winter-education program seven years ago with a grant to purchase snowshoes. The impetus was to give kids the opportunity to learn about natural-resource conservation while experiencing winter."
Nonprofit organizations offer similar field trips. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) initiated a winter sciences course 23 years ago. A 12-year partnership with Colorado's Aspen Ski Corporation allows children from 35 local schools and numerous youth groups to ride a ski lift to the snowy classroom. The ACES philosophy promotes fun: Nothing substitutes for firsthand learning in nature. Youngsters learn winter survival skills, build snow shelters called quin-zhees, and track animals.
"Our Environmental Education Program opens a different avenue for exploring winter," says Dale Abrams, education director. "We focus on identifying animal tracks and the clues that the animals leave behind to find out who shares the forest with us."
At Glacier, tag takes on new meaning during "Predators and Prey," a game where students learn how the hare adapts to deep snow. Some kids pose as prey. Those who are predators - coyotes - go without snowshoes and wallow hip-deep in snow.
"Like the snowshoe hare's wide foot, snowshoes spread our weight out over a large area so we don't sink," explains Ranger McKeon.
The group takes a break on the banks of Lower McDonald Creek. "There's something swimming under the ice!" notices one student.
"If we all stay quiet," says McKeon, "maybe it'll come out again."
Two muskrats appear under the ice and surface on an island. It's a cue for the ranger to explain that even though most park roads close for winter, Glacier is open and awake.
Older students tackle more technical winter habitat lessons. They study the subnivean, the "under the snow," environment, and changes influenced by the cold that trigger some animals' fur to turn from brown to white.
"We talked about avalanches and how animals deal with winter and their adaptations," says Mac Bones, a Bigfork (Mont.) High School biology student. "It's a great way to spend the day."
Glacier National Park's 'Winter Signs' education guide can be found on the Internet at www.snowschool.com
*For information on the Environmental Education Center's field ecology program on The Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort, Montana, call (406) 863-5400.
*The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies can be found on the Web at Aspen.com/aces/
*For information on the Lincoln, N.H., program, 'The Woods in Winter,' call the White Mountain National Forest at (603) 447-5448.
*In the Cascade Mountains in Washington, interpretive snowshoe walks begin at the Snoqualmie Pass Visitor Center, (425) 434-6111.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society