The Snow Forest
March 15, 2010
Ok, ok, so we’re all a little tired of snow now. Like that eight inches of wet fluff that fell just last night. But while we are very much looking forward to springtime here in Santa Fe, far above us, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, some 2000 to 3000 feet higher up, the thick stands of Engelmann spruce which darken the peaks right to the timberline, are reveling in the snow.
Engelmann spruce and a similar tree, the subalpine fir, make up what Audrey DeLelly Benedict aptly calls, in her recent book, “The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies”, the Snow Forest. These trees form nearly pure stands above 9000 feet elevation up to timberline in the Southern Rocky Mountains, and they are happily adapted to their short, cool, rainy summers, and the two to five feet of snow that falls each long winter. In the mountains above Santa Fe I’ve only found the Englemann spruce in this zone, mixed with stands of aspen where fire has had its way; our neighbors in Colorado enjoy a mix of spruce and true fir.
Dense, dark, and a little mysterious on a summer hike – I always associate the mutter of thunder with a walk through these trees – the spruce forest takes on an entirely different quality in winter. Thick layers of white hide the tangle of downed trees on the forest floor and reflect light up into the somber thicket. Festoons of snow trapped in the branches brighten the entire woods:
Since winter shows no signs of letting go this year, a friend and I broke out the snowshoes yet again and made the half hour drive up to the parking lot at Ski Santa Fe (filled to the bursting point by happy spring-breakers) where we could have a walk down the Rio En Medio Trail, which meets the parking area on the western side of the lot. The elevation here is 10,300 feet, right in the middle of the subalpine zone, and the spruce trees crowd right up to the asphalt.
It’s amazing how deep the snow is this year. Here’s a picture of the little Rio En Medio, barely visible through a rift melted in the snowpack:
We couldn’t even see the picnic tables that usually guide us to the trail. And the tangle of downed aspen just below the parking lot, through which the trail winds? Completely submerged. Snowshoes were de rigueur today. The forest was in its element, literally:
This is a tree made for snow.
I can’t help but offer this long quotation from that delightful book “A Natural History of Western Trees”. Mr Peattie captures the enchantment of the snow forest in evocative words:
“The most dramatic tree of your first trip in the Rockies will almost certainly be the Engelmann Spruce. Your memories of it will be linked with the towering Grand Tetons, the long, forested valleys of the Yellowstone, the breath-taking beauty of Lake Louise, the park-like spaciousness, the exciting dry air, of Rocky Mountain National Park. And the meeting with a bear, glimpses of bounding deer, the insolence of crested jays, the racket of nutcrackers, the chill of high mountain lakes, the plop of a diving beaver, the delicious taste of camp food cooked in appetite-sauce, and mountain meadows glorious with larkspur, columbine, and lupine – all these are part of your composite recollections of the realms where this fine Spruce grows. But you would not recall it as distinct from other trees had it not an inherent personality of its own. Fifty and 100 feet and more tall, it is, in dense forests, slender as a church spire, and its numbers are legion. So it comes crowding down to the edge of the meadow where your tent is pitched, to the rocks surrounding the little lake that mirrors its lance-like forms upside down. And when the late mountain light begins to leave the summer sky, there is something spirit-like about the enveloping hosts of the Engelmanns. Always a dark tree, the Spruce’s outlines are now inky, and its night silence makes the sounds of an owl, or of an old moose plashing somewhere across the lake, mysterious and magnified in portent.”
And so it is. Come see us and find out for yourself.