Colorado’s Rockies are home to our favorite winter getaway – Snow Mountain Ranch. Owned and operated by the YMCA of the Rockies, the retreat welcomes members and nonmembers alike. Among the too-numerous-to-list activities are snowshoe hikes, dog sled tours, and horse-drawn sleigh rides, but our 75 main reasons to visit are as many miles of fabulous Nordic ski trails that are carved into the snow during most “normal” winters, owing to the property’s elevation of 8,750 feet, or higher.
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Its 2,800 acres have been set aside from development thanks to a conservation easement, and provide a home to many non-human denizens. We regularly see birds, and sporadically squirrels, foxes, or even weasels. In an almost-total transformation, the latter replace their brown summer with a snow-colored winter coat, to blend in nearly seamlessly into the background, were it not for their black tail tips. Unfortunately, I have never been able to capture one on “film.” On occasion, we happen across big, boisterous ungulates. During a trip earlier this month, while huffing up the final hill to the Nordic Center, I notice three tall, dark shapes out of the corner of my eye. I dash to the car to grab my camera, but soon realize that my worry is superfluous, as the three male moose, recognizable by their antlers, are in no hurry. They are sparring – clanging their shovel-like head projections against one another – in what appears a playful manner, as it is not mating season, and there is no need to edge out competitors.
Often described as ungainly, I find moose handsome. Their physique is adapted to surviving in winter, as they have long, slender legs, and heavy, and heavily insulated, bodies. Once our trio’s scuffling ends, we watch those legs in action as they stalk through knee-deep snow. The animals’ destination is a cluster of willows, where they browse with their impressive muzzles. In summer their diet consists of willow buds and leaves, in addition to aquatic vegetation, but in winter they have to fill their tummies with woody twigs and conifer needles – a frugal, little nutritious fare that annually results in weight loss. The pendulous appendage dangling from the chin is known as bell, or dewlap, whose purpose remains unknown. Antlers, unlike the permanent horns of other animals, are temporary bony growths that sprout from the moose’s skulls in spring and summer, before they are shed during the winter. At least one of the bulls has already lost one antler, and the ones that remain are naked, their fuzzy covering, known as velvet, having long been sloughed off.
Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered in front of the Nordic Center, and everybody is clicking away with camera or cell phone. As it is late in the afternoon, and a cloud cover compounds the short winter day, we watch the three companions work their way toward a stand of trees, where they might bed down for the night, which will be cold, long, and foodless. My husband and I pack up our gear and drive to our lodge, where we will find warmth, light, and plenty of food to fill our tummies.