Twenty youngsters and their parents gathered at the Boggy Draw trailhead Saturday to learn about nature and enjoy a mild winter day.
The "Sensing Winter" tour was led by Gabi Morey, an environmental educator with the San Juan Mountains Association, one of several educational programs put on by the organization.
"It is a light winter so far, so we won't be needing snowshoes this year," Morey said. "We're going to use all of our senses today to learn about the forest."
The silence of the forest is broken by the garrulous excitement of children moseying down the trail, some playing soccer with huge pine cones, others tripping and humorously sprawling unscathed onto the forest floor like kids do.
"Look at the tracks in the mud," Morey says. "If there are no claw marks, then it could be a bobcat. Large prints are people's dogs going for a hike. These others are from deer."
Moving on to a ponderosa pine, everyone takes turns smelling the sap.
"It smells like cinnamon," proclaims Emmie Beckler.
"It's nice to get outside," says her mom, Breezy. "We've been cooped up for too long, and these hikes wear off some of the crazies."
Investigating coyote scat gets the kids attention, and they all gather around a pile to the snickering of parents.
"Figures that would get their attention," observes one parent.
Gabi's husband, Paul Morey, a biologist with Mesa Verde National Park, gives the low-down on scat and the information it reveals on diet.
He once analyzed 1,429 coyote scat samples in Boulder to determine if they were dining on pet cats, but mostly they were not, he tells the kids.
Shane and Darci Hale's child is busy exploring with other kids, socializing, and gathering sticks to smash.
"It is very engaging and educational," Darci says of the tour. "It is nice to have the kids learn from somebody else, and I learn something too."
"These tours are very kid-friendly," adds parent Shaine Gans. "A lovely way to spend time outdoors with family and friends."
Gabi organizes the "Thicket Game," in which kids try to hide the way a prey animal would from a mountain lion, in thick cover but keeping the predator in view.
"Let's play again," says Fielder, after successfully hiding with his dad under oak brush, camouflaged by a pile of leaves.
Next its on to galls, those balls on bushes where an insect has taken refuge to mature. Seeds are analyzed, basic botany is explained and a search for bird's nests takes place.
"I saw one, but I'm not sure if it was a bird's nest or a squirrel's nest," says Zion Pena, age 8. "Being outside is the best part."
Suddenly two hours have passed, and the group is all accounted for to make the half-mile walk back to the parking lot.
Schedules are marked for the next hike and outdoor classroom experience.
Feb. 1 will be "Critter Curiosity" from 10 a.m.-noon at Chris Park north of Durango. Feb. 8 and 15 is the Winter Festival at Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde National Park. And "Becoming a Junior Snow Ranger" is scheduled for Feb. 22 from 10 a.m.-noon at the Chicken Creek cross-country ski area, north of Mancos. For more information, contact Gabi at 385-1256.