For many kids who participate in SnowSchool, it's the first time they've been to Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.
"They may only live 20 miles away and they can see it, but there's this huge disconnect," said Ilyse Sakamoto, outdoor education director at Bogus Basin. "I went out to Nampa in the fall to talk to some teachers about the program, and a little boy asked me if Bogus Basin is in another state."
SnowSchool takes nearly every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader in the Treasure Valley on a one-day journey around the mountain on snowshoes. Sakamoto and her volunteers teach kids about winter ecology and snow science while letting them experience snowshoeing for the first time.
She tries to target Title I schools first, giving kids who haven't otherwise had the opportunity a chance to experience Bogus Basin. The field trip costs $5 per kid, but it's free if the family can't afford it.
Sakamoto and a handful of volunteers recently led Mrs. Rebecca Taylor's fifth-grade class from Whitney Elementary on a day-long adventure devoted to snow. The kids divided up in groups of six, with each group assigned a SnowSchool leader. They strapped on MSR snowshoes—with a lot of help—and set off at an awkward gait through clear, cold sunshine on Bogus Basin's snowshoe trails.
SnowSchool started in 2005 as a recreation-based program, getting kids playing in the snow and trying out snowshoes. In recent years, however, it has aligned itself with classroom curriculum. Sakamoto pointed out animal tracks and talked about winter ecology.
She stopped to talk about the trees of the Boise National Forest, plucking needles off a Douglas fir and encouraging the kids to taste them.
"What do they taste like to you?" she asked. "Does the taste remind you of a particular memory? How about the trees you bring into your house for Christmas? Those are usually Douglas firs."
The kids laughed and grimaced at the bitter taste of pine needles, then moved on to an upward trek to Bogus Basin's SNOTEL site. There, Sakamoto talked about the weather station and how to calculate snow-water equivalent measurements. She scooped a pile of snow into a Nalgene bottle that she planned to microwave later. They all made their best guesses of how much water would remain.
Sometimes the kids' guesses were a little off kilter. When they tried to guess how deep the snowpack was, they came up with "six feet," "seven inches" and "one giraffe neck."
Sakomoto handed them shovels and instructed them to dig snow pits all the way to the ground. Turns out, the snow was 45 inches deep in that spot. To be fair, that's a little less than three-quarters the length of the average giraffe neck.
The snowfall at Bogus has been the best the mountain has seen in years. More than 130 inches have fallen there since November, and SnowSchool has experienced the effects.
"Last year, it was so hard because there was no snow," Sakamoto said. "We had to turn our lessons into ecology and survival classes. Digging snow pits was hard because there were only a few patches of undisturbed snow. This year, we're having the opposite problem. It's taking the kids way longer to dig their snow pits, which means we have to hurry through other lessons.
Sakamoto said it's a good problem to have, but the challenge was clear when 10-year-old Iyari Ayala and her friend, Cinaya Gilbert, also 10, struggled to stay above the powder. At one point, Ayala's snowshoe post-holed deep into the snow. It took several minutes of scrambling, pushing and shoving to get her out.
Disaster averted, the kids packed into an igloo built into the mountainside. It was a tight fit with six students and Sakamoto, but they nestled close together on the snow bench and looked up at the uneven blocks of snow holding the shelter together. While it was 30 degrees outside, the igloo stayed a toasty 45 degrees.
While the kids had the chance to conduct experiments in the snowy landscape, Bogus Basin's SnowSchool is itself an experiment. Run in partnership with the Winter Wildlands Alliance in Boise, the national organization has expanded the SnowSchool program across the country. Bogus has become the testing ground for new activities, experiments and lesson plans.
Taylor's fifth-graders laughed and spread ash on their faces from a nearby burnt tree and held clumsy races on their snowshoes. Their favorite part came at the end, when they got to slide on their stomachs down some packed-out slopes.
"It was way more fun than I thought," Gilbert said at the end of the day. "I thought it would be about science and we would sit in a classroom, but really we got to have fun while doing science."
By the time spring break rolls around, as many as 2,200 kids will have gone through SnowSchool at Bogus this season.
"We get some kids up here that hate it. Their hands are freezing, they keep taking their gloves off, they're just having a miserable time," Sakamoto said. "My goal is always to help each child, support them in a way that they can find something they enjoy, something that makes them want to explore more."