A long line of fresh snowshoe tracks glistened in the sun high above the Elkhorns.
Accompanying the tracks was the rumble of the seventh- and eighth-grade students from Boulder Elementary, who shed the classroom Thursday to learn in a different environment.
The trek along a forest service trail near Elkhorn was part of an environmental education program the students begin in fifth grade, teacher Anika McCauley said. The classes had a field day in the Elkhorns earlier this year. Thursday, they were able to learn in the same landscape covered in snow.
“A lot of them have never been to the Elkhorns, and they live 10 or 12 miles from them,” McCauley said.
The students were led by Montana Discovery Foundation executive director Deb Anderson and Liz Burke of the Helena National Forest, who offered lessons on wildlife and snow science along the way.
The Montana Discovery Foundation purchased snowshoes several years ago through a grant from the Montana Wilderness Association, which the organization uses as part of its education programs.
Unfamiliar with the equipment required for the outdoor classroom, many of the students tottered, tripped, slipped or stumbled through the deep snow.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a romp without a few missteps, and McCauley said the snowshoes add another dimension to the science lessons.
“It’s a lifelong sport,” she said. “The more we can get them outside, the better it is.”
Students were tasked to locate traces of wildlife, but thick snowfall made finding tracks a tough going.
“Where do you think most of the animals who would make the tracks are right now?” Burke asked.
“Hiding” was the unanimous answer.
“You have to think like those animals,” Burke said, explaining how small mammals create tunnels beneath the snow.
“We call it subnivean because they’re living and transporting themselves under the snow,” she said.
Burke spotted other signs of life as they came upon a stand of aspen, the bark of which bore scrapes from deer or elk.
“There are a lot of other ways to tell if an animal has been in the area,” she said, “and I see one really good way right here.”
Soon someone saw a fresh scrape on a tree just below the trail. The group stomped down an embankment to take a closer look.
At the farthest point of the hike, they stopped to study the snow itself.
Burke told them about the work of Wilson Bentley, a 20th century scientist who took some of the earliest photographs of snow crystals.
“Do you think it’s going to be nice and toasty warm while you’re doing that work?” she asked.
Students pondered diagrams of snowflake structures — prisms, plates, dendrites and others — some while forming snowballs or sneaking a taste.
To help the science crystallize in the mind’s eye, classmates were split into human water molecules and then linked to form a snowflake.
The experience is about more than science, McCauley said. In the field, classroom subjects spill into each other. And students inevitably take the time outside back to the classroom.
“They’re doing poetry now in English. I’m willing to bet they’re going to incorporate some of this,” McCauley said.
“If they have this training, they know what to look for,” teacher McCauley said. “It helps them know how to respect the land and the people that are on it.
“That’s our primary reason for doing it,” she said.