Submitted by guest writer Chris Knight
“Guys, come here and check this out,” I said to my seven-year-old daughter Emily and nine-year-old son Ryan. “It’s like an army of little black specks.”
The kids crouched down on their skis along the side of the trail and looked closely.
“They’re moving,” Emily said excitedly. “There’s so many.”
“What are they?” Ryan asked.
“Snowfleas,” I explained. “They usually come out and jump around on the snow when we have a warm, sunny day.”
We were about half way through our cross-country ski on the Boreal Life Trail loop at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center.
Life at the VIC
Located off of state Route 30 just north of Paul Smiths, the VIC offers environmental education, naturalist-guided walks, art, music, recreation, and a 25-mile trail system. Paul Smiths is known locally as being in a “weather pocket” that always seems to get more snow than other places. That makes the VIC a great winter destination for both skiing and snowshoeing, even when conditions aren’t so good elsewhere.
We got a late start, arriving at the VIC around 3 p.m., so I had asked the volunteer at the front desk for a recommendation for a short, beginner ski with the kids. The Boreal Life Trail is designated as a snowshoe trail but it’s only a mile-long loop, with generally flat terrain and a few small hills, so he thought Emily, Ryan, and I could handle it.
On the trail
The temperature was in the mid to upper 30s and the sun was shining through the trees as we left the VIC building. We followed a mellow section of groomed trail until we reached a junction with the Logger’s Loop trail. Continuing straight, we could either go right or left onto the Boreal Life Trail loop. We went left, a route that soon brought us out of the woods and into an open fen, a bog-like habitat peppered with tamarack and black spruce. It offers great views of the surrounding hills, and a meandering ice-covered stream flows through the open tundra.
In the summer, this section of the trail is a long boardwalk with a series of benches and interpretive signs. Now, those same benches were buried in snow, and Emily and Ryan got a kick out of trying to sit in them. The kids took turns (read: argued over) who got to ski first as we shuffled along the trail. At some point, they both decided they didn’t want their poles anymore, leaving me carrying everyone’s poles like some kind of strange winter arachnid.
It was when the trail moved back into the woods that we first spotted the snowfleas, which aren't actually fleas at all, they're a soil dwelling insect called springtails and they emerge when daytime temperatures warm in spring. The snowfleas were everywhere along the sides of the trails, but the biggest congregations were in the holes left by other skiers’ poles. They were small enough not to give any of us the heebie-jeebies, and a nice distraction as we hit a few uphill sections of skiing that were short, but challenging for the kids. That was followed by a couple fun downhills that brought us back to our starting point.
With all the stops and all the exploring, it took about 90 minutes to complete the loop. That gave us a little time to explore some of the interpretive displays and activities inside the VIC before heading home.
The Boreal Life Trail is a small part of a greater network of trails the VIC maintains for cross-country skiers of all ability levels. You can spend an hour, if that’s all you have, or all day exploring the VIC’s 3,000 acres of mountains, marshes, forests, and streams. Visitors to the VIC’s trails are required to sign in at the main building. Trail fees are required in winter to help maintain good skiing conditions.
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