Paul Wade, Pacific Southwest Regional Office
February 18, 2023
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller.
Anyone in a Ferris Bueller state of mind is the perfect candidate to enjoy the USDA Forest Service’s Ski with a Ranger program. To happily squeeze in line with the thousands of skiers and snowboarders queued for Heavenly Mountain Resort’s gondola, clearly ditching work or school on a Friday morning. To marvel at the epic views of Lake Tahoe on the way up one of the mountains launching points, to almost 100 trails via 28 chairlifts.
But not one to follow the hurried crowds as they latch in and shuffle off to the slopes, the laidback Ferris Buellers of the world will notice the A-frame sign inviting visitors to join the Ski with a Ranger tour — every Friday, twice a day at 10 am and 1 pm. The tour is free, lasts between one and a half to two hours, and is offered on a first-come, first-served basis through March. Group size is limited to 10 for intermediate-level skiers and riders.
10 am Meet-and-Greet
For the morning tour, waiting in Forest Service apparel, is Tom Schaefer and Ren Chamarro. You’re in good hands with Tom or Ren.
“This will be my eleventh-year volunteering for this program here at Heavenly,” said Schaefer, a retired California Tahoe Conservancy employee. “I’ve been a ski instructor at Sierra-at-Tahoe and Heavenly. I’ve lived in the area since 1975. I love all the nature and science, and I try to cover a lot of information I think people would enjoy.”
A married couple, Debbie and Mark Jarman from Sydney, Australia, arrive to take the tour. “We have been in Tahoe skiing Heavenly for a few weeks now and met Tom earlier. He said we could learn more about the area and it sounded interesting,” said Debbie.
10:15 Lake Tahoe 101
The tour begins with a safety briefing and an explanation of the partnership between the ski resort and the national forest. Then off to the top of the California Trail at almost 10,000 feet. “Does anyone know the size and depth of Lake Tahoe?” asks Tom as he stands in front of a picturesque vista of the lake and surrounding snow-covered mountain ranges.
Tom expertly rambles off the lake’s vitals, then discusses the eras in history that impacted the area. From the Native Americans using the land… to the gold and silver pioneer migrations that saw clear-cutting of the lake’s forested areas in the 1850s… to the modern era with a massive rise in communities being built, booming tourism, and a worldwide recognition of its natural beauty with renowned summer and winter recreation.
Debbie asks about the Indian tribes in the area. “The Washoe tribes continue to call this area their home, and the name of the lake, Lake Tahoe, came from their word, Dáʔaw, meaning ‘The Lake’ or ‘High Lake,’” answers Schaefer.
The group follows Tom to the next stop, merging in with the fast-moving snow enthusiasts carving their marks on the groomed trails.
“Let’s talk glaciers, volcanism and plate tectonics,” Schaefer says as we move further down the California Trail. Not sure Ferris would have appreciated the geology science class on his day off, but he would have come away with a better understanding of how the Tahoe Basin was shaped.
As riders zoom by, Tom points out mountain peaks like 10,785-foot Mount Rose on the Nevada side of the lake and the 10,891-foot Freel Peak, both part of the Carson Range. He motions with his hand where the extinct Mount Pluto erupted two million years ago. That eruption helped create the Granite Chief Range — home of Northstar California and Palisades Tahoe ski resorts — and dammed the lake.
Tom finishes excavating our minds with some soil and rock knowledge, showcases a few favorite tourist spots, then blows our minds.
“So, the lake has been lower than it is today and there are underground forests…”
“And that is how Lake Tahoe was formed. Any questions about geology?” asks Schaefer before wrapping up and urging us on to the next stop.
For the next lesson, Tom digs into his backpack for photos of the local wildlife — including the not-so-shy black bear. “Here is one of my favorites. Here is a black bear crossing a ski slope while riders give it plenty of room,” explains Schaefer. He continues to explain Tahoe’s bear activity and how their campaign continually strives to separate the human and animal interaction. He explains their survival strategies — hibernation, adaptation, and migration.
He ends by assuring us “the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest [federal agencies managing the area] work with the ski resorts on the possible negative impacts on the ecosystem from having large ski areas.”
“Don’t forget about the Mountain Chickadee,” says Chamarro. Ren is also a Forest Service volunteer, part of the California Conservation Corps, and hopeful to land a job in the natural resource field. She’s been shadowing Tom for the day, practicing the guided script off to the side, so she can run a tour on her own. “You know them by their song. It sounds like they are saying, ‘Cheeeese Burger,’” sings Chamarro. Now we’re all thinking of lunch.
Our next spot, towards the end of the California Trail, has us huddled under a canopy of trees. “We are standing in a mixed conifer belt,” begins Schaefer. “We have a large variety of trees in the basin that fit within the pine, fir and hemlock families… and they can be identified by their cones, bark and needle count.” The botany portion of the tour continues after a ride up the Canyon Express chairlift to the top of Ridge Run. Once again, the view is stunning as the group comes to rest next to some gnarled, wind-battered trees.
“These are some small whitebark pine. They are high-elevation trees that have adapted to the harsh climate. You can see more of them towards the summit of Heavenly,” says Schaaefer as he points them out. “They have a twisted look with most of the branches pointing in what we call a flag effect. These trees have a special relationship with a bird called the Clark’s nutcracker.” He explains the incredible symbiont connection with this bird that disperses its seeds in widely scattered caches and how recently the tree has been placed on threatened species list.
11:15 Wildfire and Drought
The final two stops cover topics critical to residents living in heavily forested areas in California: fire and water. “The impact from the mining of gold and silver in the area resulted in massive clear cutting. In time the forests grew back but were too dense and unhealthy with crowded trees competing for water,” says Schaefer. He offers a mixture of matter of fact, easily digestible, and personal experience to all of us — guests ranging from kids to seniors, locals to visiting foreigners. Our lesson covers wildfire prevention, drought, fire on the landscape, and the important efforts to remove as much of the fuel from the forest floor as possible using low intensity prescribed burns.
Pointing out a noticeable burn scar on a distant ridge, “…that was the Angora Fire. There have been four wildfires in Tahoe in the last 25 years and each one was human caused. My home has been threatened twice with us having to evacuate,” shares Schaefer.
11:35 Tahoe Blue
“One of the things that makes Lake Tahoe so special is its beautiful clear water,” Schaefer continues, touching on the Basin’s watershed. “We want to keep Tahoe blue and to do that…” He explains some of the best management practices agreed upon — by the City of South Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada state entities, federal agencies, and a patchwork of private landowners surrounding the largest alpine lake in North America. From clarity measuring to fish (native and nonnative), invasive species, zooplankton, and troublesome shrimp, Tom covers it all.
“And that is all I have for you. Any questions?” finishes Schaefer. He offers help finding a way back to the Gondola before he skis to grab lunch and prep for the 1 p.m. tour.
“This was fantastic,” remarked Debbie. “You wouldn’t learn any of that from any other source. You get all these details in one succinct tour. History, geology, geography, culture, wildlife, trees, everything.”
Enjoy the rest of your Day Off
Rinse and Repeat
For the 1 p.m. tour, first-year volunteer Stephen Loane takes the reins. Passionate conservationists, this time Madison Goodman and Savannah Tabor, both resource assistants in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit engineering department, shadow the tour.
On his tour, Loane, a retiree from the technology industry, former adventure guide, and board member with the Sugar Pine Foundation, plucks needles from various trees. He has us stopping to smell the roses — I mean pine. We even count and guess tree species. He goes further into detail about the disease white pine blister rust and slips in his own unique experiences. Goodman and Tabor inject their knowledge and produce a plush chickadee doll that sings and now has tour guest Ed Forman from Columbus, Ohio, thinking about cheeseburgers.
“This is great. I hope I can memorize all of it to share with my wife and kids,” says Forman.
What’s wonderful about 2023, and hopefully beyond, is three different mountain resorts — Sierra-at-Tahoe, Kirkwood (both Eldorado National Forest), and Heavenly (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit) — will host Ski with a Ranger programs. The Forest Service runs Ski/Snowshoe with a Ranger programs or variations in other regions, national forests, and ski resorts across the country.
Forest Service Community Outreach Specialist Adilene Negrete, also in charge of conservation education, is excited to be offering something so special to the community. Plus, everyone walks away learning about the important partnership between Heavenly and the Forest Service.
“I feel like a lot of folks that go up there don’t know that it’s national forest,” said Negrete. “Being able to be up on that mountain, having that view, definitely helps provide better visitor understanding of why we want to keep the forest healthy and our lake blue.”
Everyone involved with the Ski with a Ranger program is super grateful for all the volunteers who are passionate about helping connect others with the forest, nature and the outdoors.
“[The program] is just a fun way to learn about the natural environment where we like to recreate,” said Eldorado National Forest Conservation Education Resource Assistant, Reanna Suela. “It’s also an opportunity for folks to slow down a little bit and think about the natural environment around them and remember that these are special places that we should take care of.”
Ferris would agree.
Ski with a Ranger Information: