by David A. Martin
As an Environmental Educator teaching the Earth Studies Program at the Mountain Park Environmental Center in the beautiful Pueblo Mountain Park located in the mountains and forests of Beulah, Colorado I have the privilege of introducing and guiding 5th Graders from the Pueblo School District on educational hikes through various ecosystems.
The other day I was able to give a particular class an extraordinary hike experience as it was a low-cloud day. The last day of their Earth Studies Program sessions includes a hike up the Mace Trail and then up Fire Tower Trail to the top of the hill where an old yet well maintained fire tower sits. On our way up out of the fragrant Ponderosa Pine Ecosystem I could see that we would be moving up into the clouds to arrive at the fire tower.
As we moved up through the Mountain Shrubland Ecosystem which faces South and is warmer and drier than the other ecosystems we could begin to see the flora and terrain ahead of us silhouetted against the swirling and moving of the lower portions of the cloud cover. Moving up through the Shrubland’s mix of prairie plants like Yucca and Prickly Pear and mountain shrubs like the Mountain Mahogany, Shrub Oaks and Pinon Pines, we could see that soon we would be moving into the clouds. The mist was very visible ahead of us sweeping with the wind over a saddle between two hills which our trail connected. The closer and closer we got to this area of moving mist the more excited the thirteen young hikers behind me got.
Soon we were moving through the thin misty fog of the clouds and the cries of elation and joy from the children made my heart sing. They were in the clouds now and had never been before. “Welcome to the Cloud Kingdom” I called back to them. As we traversed the ridge of the saddle portions of our landscape appeared and then vanished behind the mists as they coalesced thicker here and thinner there. Other areas suddenly emerged from the mist, making themselves known and the children pointed to them as they were revealed, like little islands of reality popping into existence and then fading away.
Ahead was a brief section of Douglas Fir Ecosystem where the trail hooked Eastward taking us along the north side of a shoulder of the fire tower hill we were slowly ascending. Up ahead we exited the moist cool shade of the Douglas Fir and White Fir back into the Mountain Shrubland to round the corner of the hills shoulder. Here the low shrubs and nearly treeless portion of the hill let us look outward quite a ways. On sunny days this would be a great vantage point to see the Beulah Valley below and see a large green expanse of a ranch nestled in the forest, but today was different. The children ooo’d and ahh’d one by one as the emerged from the nearly tunnel like portion of the trail through the Firs. Their eyes were met with only white. It seemed as though we were hiking along the edge of the world looking out into a mysterious illuminated white mist.
I was reminded of hiking in the Olympic National Forest with my Father and Brother and waking up high in the sub-alpine zones to a world covered in cloud below us. Only the tips of the mountain peaks and crags around us and in the distance poked up through the wet blanket of thick low-land cloud cover below us, appearing as islands. All the people down in the flatland’s and foothills and towns and cities of Washington State were having an overcast and most likely very rainy day, while we, at this elevation. were having a sunny day and looking out to the horizon in all directions at a planet of white clouds and small distant and near islands. We had awakened to a foreign world and it was beautiful. It was then that I learned or physically embedded notions and philosophies of Perception. I would never again face a gloomy day or a down period in my life without knowing for a fact that beyond the clouds and gloomy outlook, the sun was there, shining brightly in a blue sky beyond what I could see from my present perspective. I was hoping that some of these kids could take a bit of this with them and so I mentioned it and wove a “Ranger Dave Life Lesson” into the living metaphors surrounding us.