Bear claws and marten squatters: Discover mountain wonders during Steamboat’s Ski with a Naturalist tours |

Bear claws and marten squatters: Discover mountain wonders during Steamboat’s Ski with a Naturalist tours

Yampatika naturalist Annie Padgitt leads a Ski with a Naturalist tour at Steamboat Resort during a sunny afternoon in February. The biweekly tours are meant to instill wonder in the natural world and to teach about local wildlife.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On an inconspicuous section of the long, meandering Why Not trail at Steamboat Resort, a group of skiers gathered around an aspen tree. 

The tree seemed to be no different than its neighbors, swaying in a soft breeze, its bark shining a waxy luminescence in the sunlight. That is, until naturalist Annie Padgitt pointed out five small, round markings on the trunk semi-circled around a larger marking the shape of Australia.

“Can anyone guess what made these markings?” Padgitt asked the group. 

After a few murmured guesses, she informed them that a bear’s claw had left the etchings, in the same way lovers carve their initials into tree bark. Padgitt surmised a mother bear was teaching her cub to climb, gesturing to a smaller paw print below the larger one.

“Aspens tell a history through their scars,” she said. 

The group was part of Yampatika’s Ski with a Naturalist biweekly mountain tours. Guides take people on hour-long excursions down the upper portion of Why Not, stopping along the way to discuss nature facts or investigate curios.   

“If you notice anything in particular, you want to stop and check out, just give a shout, and we can pull over,” Padgitt told the group. 

Every tour is different, depending on people’s interests and whatever creatures they may encounter. One woman gasped after a plume of snow suddenly fell from a nearby pine tree. She pointed to a pudgy squirrel scurrying along one of the branches.

If you go

What: Ski with a Naturalist tours
When: 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday
Where: Meet at the Why Not trail sign outside Thunderhead Lodge at Steamboat Resort

“Our main goal is to accomplish that sense of wonder when people get outside,” said Lexi Stine, Yampatika’s director of adult programs. “There are little things they never stopped to look and see.”

An aspen tree off of the Why Not trail shows scarring from a bear claw. Naturalist Annie Padgitt said people with a trained eye will see such markings on many aspens in Routt County forests.
Derek Maiolo

As Stine explained, winter is not the sleepy season many people expect when they think of bears hibernating in their dens. 

In the space between the ground and the bottom of the snowpack, called the subnivean zone, a zoo of creatures continues about their daily routines, insulated from the cold. Mice dig tunnel systems and build shelters, shrews search for unfrozen insects to eat, all the while evading hungry predators, such as the foxes that pounce through the snow in an effort to plunge their snouts to a meal.  

“There is a vast network of life occurring right under our feet,” Stine said.

While many animals get along just fine throughout the winter months in their burrowed homes beneath the snow, some have taken advantage of the manmade infrastructure at Steamboat Resort. 

A pine grosbeak swoops onto a bird feeder near Thunderhead Lodge at Steamboat Resort.
Derek Maiolo

Padgitt recounted one predicament that arose a few years ago when some pine martens, which resemble ferrets, infiltrated the Four Points Lodge. The animals found an easy supply of food there and considered it a cozy place to call home.

Resort staff became privy to the furry squatters when the martens triggered a security alarm. Steamboat Ski Patrol rounded up the animals, according to Padgitt, and wildlife officials relocated them 10 miles away. 

While tour groups tend to consist of mostly tourists, some curious residents partake to get answers to questions they have wondered for years, Stine said. 

The woman who gasped at the squirrel, Margaret Fauley, has a home in Steamboat but lives most of the year in Chicago. She was on her second Ski with a Naturalist tour, this time with her husband, Sean, and her adult son Taylor. 

“It’s a great way to appreciate all the mountain offers,” Fauley said. “When you really open your eyes, there’s just so much see.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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