In the landscape of contrasts at Craters of the Moon, Ranger Doug Owen fits right in. Winter at the national monument and preserve in central Idaho reveals black volcanic formations arising from the deep white snow pack. Sporting big black sunglasses above a white beard, Ranger Doug looks like he belongs therebut maybe that's the result of working in the park for 10 years and knowing the place like the back of his hand.
On winter Saturdays, Ranger Doug teaches about Craters' natural features during free winter ecology workshops. I had hoped to attend one of the workshops, but was only available to visit the park one particular Friday. I called the visitor's center the day prior and asked Ranger Doug if he would lend me a pair of workshop snowshoes so I could explore on my own. He explained that letting me romp about the 750,000-acre park by myself in a pair of government snowshoes would be a liability.
"But I used to be a ranger, too," I said. "You can tell your boss that it's an inter-governmental loan, and I promise not to hurt myself."
"Really, I can't," he said.
"Now Dougfellow rangerI know how this works. No one needs to know." He wasn't buying it. I've heard that park rangers are honest people, so I worked a new angle. "How about you snowshoe with me? You can call it an interpretive tour, and then I won't be a liability."
He hesitated a moment, then said, "Be here tomorrow at 11:30."
The morning was sunny and clear and the park was still. Ranger Doug and I strapped on our snowshoes at the start of the seven-mile loop road in the park, which is groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter. His wooden snowshoes were what modern gear junkies would call "old-school." But they seemed to fit better with the timeless landscape than the newer metal contraptions I wore over my boots.
Although it's recommended that snowshoers stick to the road since deep snow can hide dangerous cracks and rifts in the volcanic landscape, we ventured onto a lava field. Ranger Doug knew the area well enough to determine where was safe to travel. As we walked through the park, he pointed out the different brush types and identified wildlife tracks in the snow. Doug is not only a wealth of information about Craters, he also has a sense for what will fascinate an audience. As he pointed to some snowshoe hare tracks, he briefed me on the animal's winter survival methods. "When food is scarce, hares expel two types of pellets. The first type is full of waste, and they get rid of it. But the second still has some stuff they can use, so they re-ingest it."
I paused a moment. "You mean after they ... expel ... their waste, they eat it again? You would think they'd just work harder to get it right the first time."
He shook his head and peered across the cold, bitter landscape. "Winter's hard here. The hares need a second chance at any bit of nutrition they can get."
I could see why Ranger Doug's winter ecology workshops are such a hit. The average winter visitor to the park would see only rocks and snow, but he delves into the life behind the landscape. Although the national park is 60 miles from the closest city with a real grocery store, his workshops fill up every weekend, and there's often a long waiting list.
Although my somewhat illegitimate tour with Doug lasted only a fraction of time a workshop would, he explained many of the same concepts that he teaches those audiences. He pointed out that Craters is still considered to be an active volcanic environment. The last eruption was over 2,000 years ago, and the area's geological clock is ticking. "It's time. We could have more volcanic activity here very soon."
Plants and animals have to be well-adapted to survive in this environment. "Everything happens for a reason out here," he pointed out. Temperatures range from negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. "This is a land of extremes, and life has to be prepared for the challenges presented by that."
Visitors should be adaptive, too, he says, and while Craters draws more crowds during the warmer months, he recommends checking out the park in the winter. The nearest hotel is 25 miles away, but winter campers will often have the place to themselves. Experienced recreationists can travel miles through the park, through the Craters of the Moon Wilderness, or pitch a tent under one of the cinder cone volcanoes. Camping is free at select locations, and the undulating landscape is a great place to backcountry ski or explore on snowshoes. Even if you don't get a personal interpretive tour of the park, the volcanic formations and the view of the Lost River Range in the distance make it a great destination for a weekend trip.
If you don't make it to one of Ranger Doug's winter ecology workshops, he recommends visiting the park Web site or getting a book on the subject to learn more about the park before a visit. "Everything's active around here," he noted. "It's a dynamic system, both geologically and biologically. It may appear to be relatively static and relatively barren, but there's a lot more out here than people realize."
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