Fifth-graders throughout the region will get the chance to snowshoe back in time during the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit's 2013 Winter Trek Express program that runs from January through March.
The environmental education program takes children up Heavenly Mountain Resort's gondola to learn about the geography of the basin, what a healthy forest looks like, and how the area's wildlife adapt in the winter.
And the majority of the three-hour class takes place on old-school bear paw and beaver tail snowshoes made from wood and sinew.
"It brings a completely different element because some of these kids have knowledge of modern snowshoes as opposed to the older models that trappers and Native Americans used. They get to experience the old ways," LTBMU Interpretive Service Specialist Jean Norman said.
Native American tribes throughout North America developed different types of snowshoes for specific environments, according to Norman. The round bear paws worked most efficiently in the plains, while the narrower, tennis-racket shaped beaver tails were used to navigate lightly forested areas. The Washoe used a completely circular snowshoe to travel the wide open spaces of the Carson Valley where they would migrate during the winter months, Norman said.
Learning to explore the forest with antique equipment that ranges from about 1 1/2 to 2 feet long can be a challenging experience for children used to lightweight modern snowshoes with metal teeth that grip the snow.
"They have to learn to work with those snowshoes - turning and walking around. It's complete excitement and chaos. Even if they've been on snowshoes before, it's fun to be on this style," LTBMU Interpretive Service Specialist Tami Africa said.
Winter Trek Express started almost three decades ago near the Camp Richardson Resort and Vahalla. Norman, who ran the program previously, said she's seen the educational component accelerate as the forest service receives more teacher input. Interest from students has skyrocketed since the Winter Trek Express participants started going up the gondola for the classes nine years ago, Norman said.
Tahoe Valley Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Irene Kaelin plans to be one of the first teachers to sign her class up for the program when registration opens on Monday, Dec. 17.
"It's great for the kids when you can take science outside and it combines with physical education. When these businesses come together for the kids, why wouldn't you take advantage of it? When we walk along the mid-station, the kids are in awe," Kaelin said.
Forest service rangers lead the classes through the woods in search of winter-adapting animals, or at least their tracks. The children also stop halfway up the gondola for a lesson on watersheds and geology. It gives them a good perspective of the area's natural history, Africa said.
"It's getting the kids outside, communing with nature and learning about their surroundings. It's getting them in nature, and excited about it. And they learn so much," she said.