Tales from Sacramento Creek Ranch

A Blog by Conservation Legacy Fellow Jeff Jordan

May 2, 2024 | Spring Creek Thaw

March 28, 2024 | Snow School

Despite the recent heavy snowstorms and wind, Sacramento Creek RanchElementary child eating snow and sitting on bench with snowshoes. (SCR) has been the site of plenty of activity and events over the past few weeks. Local students and teachers from Park County School District have made several weekday visits for “Snow School” field trips to study and explore the snowy landscape at the property.

Snow School is a partnership between MALT, Mosquito Range Heritage Initiative (MRHI), and Park County School District to introduce local elementary aged students to the magic of winter in their own community. Volunteer adult instructors from MRHI lead students across the property on snowshoes and teach lessons on a range of subjects from temperature to moisture content to wildlife behavior.  A recent first grade trip included an introduction to using snowshoes (with plenty of stumbles, faceplants, and laughter) and a short hike along the creek observing the natural world along the way. Students looked for animal tracks, studied the way wind and temperature shaped the snow, then listened to a short read aloud while resting near the footbridge. After heading back to the trailhead there was a chance for hot cocoa and a warmup in the greenhouse before piling back onto the bus.

Group of elementary students putting snowshoes on.At the end of the afternoon, the consensus among the seven-year-olds was that being outside is fun and playing in the snow is a lot of fun. Many students enjoyed seeing bunny tracks along the trail and agreed that even though putting on snowshoes was tough, chasing their classmates through the snow was still a great time. For many kids it was their first time using snowshoes. The laughter and squeals of surprise when toppling over into the powder was enough to make anyone smile. Despite the challenges of moving through powder nearly up to their waistlines, the first graders adapted well to the conditions. Each student persevered and everyone figured out how to use the tools on their feet to stay on top of the snow. Credit must also be given to the teachers, volunteer leaders, and parent chaperones who helped strap dozens of snowshoes onto little feet, zip coats, and make the day memorable for some awesome, high-energy kids.

Bundling up and heading outdoors isn’t just a way for kids to blow off steam. The benefits of outdoor play and exploration are well documented. Studies abound about the positive effects of play on overall health, creativity, focus, emotional development, cognitive development, motor skills, and independence. Exploring and observing the natural world is a great way to connect to learning in the classroom too. MRHI adult volunteers bring thermometers and scientific instruments out onto the trails to help students measure and collect snow for closer study. Using scientific tools to expand their observations helps students learn about the natural systems that govern their world. It prompts questions that lead to more curiosity, knowledge, and learning as they get older.

Learning and exploration aren’t limited just to school-age kids. In early March, MALT hosted an outdoor adventure for adults that got some first-time snowshoers out on the snowy SCR trails. We met on a sunny and slightly windy Saturday morning and had a great time navigating through the forests, meadows, and creek valley. Many of the same questions about the natural world, challenges of navigation, and reactions to the conditions, beauty, and scale of the location were shared by kid and adult participants alike. It was a great reminder that spending time outdoors, being curious, and finding fun are important to the well-being of any person, no matter age, background, or ability. Of course, as both students and adults agreed, having good snacks is super important too!

SCR has almost three miles of trails that make for a great introduction toStudents snowshoeing at Sacramento Creek Ranch. Colorado’s incredible mountain scenery and environment. MALT is extremely proud that the property is open and accessible to the public for non-motorized recreation and exploration. We are happy to see more locals in Alma, Fairplay, and the surrounding area as well as visitors from across the state coming out to visit our conserved property.  No matter your background or experience level in the outdoors, a trip to the property provides a fantastic opportunity to discover an amazing corner of Park County.

Throughout the rest of the school year and into the summer, MALT will be hosting numerous events for students, adults, and the public at SCR and other public access properties across the six-county service area. Stay tuned to MALT’s newsletter and social media channels for more opportunities to join MALT staff for events, hikes, and conversations with experts across a variety of fields.

March 1, 2024 | Wildlife Sightings

February at Sacramento Creek Ranch has been the month of the moose.Moose wondering in forest Most mornings as I head west along the creek, Lula and I will begin to spot fresh tracks and sign that moose have been active in the early hours of the morning. The moose on the property stand around six feet high at the shoulder and their tracks are easy to spot in the deep snow in the bottom of the creek drainage. Their gangly legs and long strides allow them to move through the deep drifts to reach the bare twigs and bark of the willow and aspen saplings.

The moose aren’t interested in munching on the conifer bark or needles of the lodgepole pine and other conifers in the forest but will take advantage of the protection they offer from the storms and wind that blow from the west over the Mosquito Range. Many mornings, we’ll stop to examine the bathtub size imprints and scat left behind by the two families that are most frequent in the valley.

We’ll make our way slowly along the creek, and I’ll watch the dog’s ears andDog looking at moose walking in distance body language to tell if we have any company around corners or nestled down behind the willow stands. She is always very curious to observe the moose from a distance and we’ll often climb up to the road or the top of the ridge to put some more distance between us and to safely watch the moose feed. In the wild, wolves are a natural predator of moose, so dogs are seen by moose as a threat or something to avoid. I keep Lula on a tight leash along the creek and am always prepared to turn back and take a different trail if we find our path blocked. Usually, the moose will hear or smell us before we see them and will warily move off to a safe distance to watch us as well.

It’s rare for a day to pass without seeing one of the two moose families that have been frequenting Sacramento Creek Ranch this winter. Most recently, a cow and yearling calf have been wandering up and down the creek providing me with lots of great photo opportunities. Cow moose give birth in the spring, usually May or June, and will stay with their calves for the first year of life. The young moose that has been hanging around the beaver ponds on either side of the road is probably about 9 or 10 months old and already towers above me. One recent afternoon it was standing up to its belly in snow, hidden behind the stream embankment near the driveway. I was hanging up new trail signage at the entrance to SCR and walked within 20 yards of the moose without realizing it was watching me. It only stood up and wandered away when it heard the buzzing of the cordless drill I was using to secure the signs. There is nothing quite like seeing a moose emerge from chest-deep snow. Their gangly legs and knobby knees are equally awkward and graceful at the same time. It’s not uncommon for several cars to stop for photographs on the road when the moose are active nearby.

The reliability of seeing moose at Sacramento Creek Ranch is a testament toMoose eating bark on tree the amazing habitat provided by the parcels of land all around the property. To the west, a huge tract of public National Forest land connects miles of riparian and forest habitat to the ranch. To the east, many private landowners have chosen to conserve their property to protect the land, water, wildlife, and scenic views. These important conservation properties provide space and habitat for large mammals like moose as well as numerous species like birds, fish, beaver, bear, snowshoe hare, elk, and fox. Together, the interconnected mosaic of public and private land has meant a huge portion of the Sacramento Creek ecosystem remains intact; allowing for the uninhibited movement of species like the moose and providing amazing opportunity for the public to observe wildlife in natural habitat that will be protected in perpetuity.

January 29, 2024 | First Month

Enroute to Sacramento Creek Ranch on a recent evening, I make a quick stopSacramento Creek covered in snow. at the grocery store for a bag of dogfood, coffee, and groceries before heading out through the swirling wind and empty darkness of Highway 285 over Kenosha Pass toward Fairplay. As I approach Como, 200 pairs of illuminated eyeballs beyond the fence on the periphery of my headlights remind me that South Park is a crucial migration and wintering ground for elk herds. I tense my grip on the wheel for a moment before realizing that the elk are not trying to cross the highway, but simply huddling for cover on the leeward side of a small rise.

It must be my night, because as I accelerate past the lights of Fairplay, I catch a glimpse of a coyote trotting parallel to the highway. It’s heading uphill along Highway 9, moving with a confident, measured purpose.

Photo of windmill and Sacramento Creek Ranch house.Pulling into the gate of Sacramento Creek Ranch a few miles later, I notice a solitary line of tracks heading dead west along the driveway and into the forest. It’s late and half an inch of snow has fallen earlier in the day. Despite a slight wind, the tracks appear fresh and show four nail marks above four soft pads. Could they belong to the same coyote? Probably not, the tracks are heading in the opposite direction; perhaps created within the past few hours. They are narrower than Lula’s, who wants to tug me down the trail into the dark to see where they lead.

The air is crisp and cold, but the wind has stopped, and the stars are overwhelming in their brightness. The creak of leaning lodgepoles and the occasional snap of a branch in the darkness keep my senses occupied. I’m aware there may be some nocturnal activity in the trees beyond the driveway where my vision is of little use at this hour. The dog and I strain to see into the forest, our breath rising in the starlight. Her sense of smell tells her more than I can see about what is happening across the creek, but I’m holding the leash, and my ears are hyper-focused on the sounds of my growling stomach.

Edward Abbey had a line that has resonated with me lately: “Simply breathing, in a place like this, arouses the appetite”. Standing out amongst the trees and stars has done it for me, and I want to fix some dinner, so I tell Lula we’ll hit the trail in the morning, after breakfast, of course. I’ve got an armful of groceries, popcorn, and hot chocolate on the brain and I’m ready to settle in. We ponder the sky and tree line for a few more moments and then head inside, where the dog is suddenly much more interested in the warmth of the blanket on the couch and the contents of her own food dish.

In the morning, it’s clear and the wind is light. The temperature won’t get above 18 degrees today, but we’ve got work to do outside. Stepping out, I immediately see that while we were sleeping, there was plenty of activity out on the trails and in the forest. Within a few feet of the front door, we spot rabbit tracks leading off into a stand of young aspen trees.

As Lula leads me across the creek and up the two-track of the Hershey Trail, the array of footprints in yesterday’s snow is incredible: squirrel, bobcat, deer, fox, snowshoe hare, moose, field mice, and coyote prints scatter through the forest ahead of us.Bobcat at Sacramento Creek Ranch.

As we walk, I keep an eye out for other signs of wildlife. Winter is generally a time for hibernation in the high-country and many species migrate to warmer areas or lower elevations. However, to say that winter is lifeless here would simply be incorrect. There is plenty happening each day, especially early in the morning. The day-old snow provides a perfect medium to showcase the wildlife activity that is abundant at 10,200 feet if you know how to read the signs.

Streaks of blood in snow from a recent wildlife kill or injury.This morning is a good one for wildlife. We come across a pile of gray-brown fur and bright red blood spattered at the base of a conifer. A midden, which is a pile of pinecone scraps used by squirrels to store food in the winter, surrounds the base of the tree. It appears an unlucky squirrel met its end and some sort of small mammal, a marten, bobcat, maybe lynx, found a meal.

As we reach the top of the property where a small bench looks westward toward Mt. Sherman and the Mosquito Range, Lula tenses and her ears perk up. I can’t immediately see what she already knows is there, but I don’t have to wait long. Within a few seconds, I hear something large moving through the brush and willows below us. We crunch through the calf-deep snow to the edge of the trail to look down on the creek floodplain below.  Moving at a trot along the frozen channel is a large cow moose who has heard us approaching and prefers not to be disturbed. The moose moves quickly up the opposite hillside, crosses Sacramento Creek Road and heads north into the forest glancing back once to make sure we’re not following.

Catching a glimpse of a moose is always exciting due to their size and status asNight vision photo of moose eating. Colorado’ largest animal. They have been active around the property lately and their tracks are easy to recognize due to the huge imprint of their hooves and the trails they plough through deep snow. We stop for a few more minutes to admire the view before heading off on our ultimate objective: finding a place to set up MALT’s wildlife camera.

Some species are harder than others to spot. Today Lula and I are searching for a location where our camera will help capture images of the critters wandering through the forest when we’re not around. My plan is to find a place in the willow and alders along Sacramento Creek where signs of activity are abundant. The riparian vegetation offers good cover from the elements and a food source for ungulates like deer and moose. We travel along the frozen surface of the creek where the snow is only a few inches deep and a fox has clearly traveled within the last 12 hours. Moose trails meander through the willows and tiny field mouse prints leave feather soft paths between tufts of grass poking through the snow.

Night photo of deer.As we approach the main beaver pond, I spot a burrow hole the size of a volleyball at the base of a large cluster of willows. There are some snowshoe hare tracks leading past the entrance and the creek bed is only about 20 feet away. Lula seems interested in the burrow, which tells me it’s being used by some sort of critter. I position the camera facing the burrow through an opening in the vegetation and check its settings. The slope of the land and the coverage from the trees mean the snow drifts aren’t too deep in the area. My hope is that the mammals traveling through appreciate it for similar reasons. I won’t know for at least a day, when I return to swap out the memory card and download the images, whether the camera location has been a success.

Part of the beauty of winter at Sacramento Creek Ranch is that things can unfold slowly. The payoff of observing winter wildlife isn’t always immediate; sometimes a pattern of tracks over the course of several days is required to catch a glimpse of something special. Luckily, the combination of habitat and trail access at Sacramento Creek Ranch means that a little patience and quiet walking can be rewarded.